The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)


For the last decade I have been teaching happiness.

As is true for many people teaching at universities, what first began as a subject of great personal interest to me eventually became the subject of my academic research. I started thinking about happiness as a successful but unhappy student, following several years as a successful but unhappy professional athlete. My desire to understand the cause of my unhappiness led me into the then-emerging field of positive psychology. Unlike traditional psychology, which mostly focuses on neurosis, depression, and anxiety, positive psychology focuses on the conditions that lead people, organizations, and communities to flourish. Simply put, positive psychology is the science of happiness.

I benefited a great deal from my studies of positive psychology and wanted to share what I had learned with others. I always knew, of course, that people were interested in the subject of happiness, but I never expected interest on the scale that I encountered when I began to write and lecture on how to lead a more meaningful and pleasurable life.

In letters from readers, conversations with my undergraduate students, and discussions in my seminars—whether with entrepreneurs in Shanghai, political leaders in Canberra, at-risk teenagers in New York, journalists in Cape Town, or teachers in Paris—I saw how passionately committed people were to improving their own lives and increasing the well-being of their communities.

Over time, I began to see that all these diverse groups shared more than just an interest in leading happier lives—they also shared some of the major obstacles to becoming happier. One of those obstacles, arguably the number one obstacle, is the aspiration to a life that is not just happier but perfect.

This became apparent to me through two recurring, and somewhat surprising, reactions I encountered during conversations about happiness. First, people would often say that they weren’t happy; but as they described their lives and their feelings in greater detail, it became clear that what they really meant was that they weren’t happy all the time. Second, people would comment that I myself didn’t seem to be bursting with joy as, they thought, a “happiness expert” ought to be at every moment. And when I would talk about my failures or my fears, they would express surprise that I considered myself happy despite such undesirable experiences. Underlying both of these reactions is the assumption that truly happy people are somehow immune from feeling sadness, fear, and anxiety or from experiencing failures and setbacks in life. The pervasiveness of this assumption—across generations, continents, and cultures—made me realize something astounding: I was surrounded by Perfectionists.

I had for some time considered myself a recovering Perfectionist but had never before understood the phenomenon of perfectionism to be so pervasive. Many of the people I met and heard from, whom I recognized as fellow Perfectionists, may not have described themselves—or been seen by others—as such. Yet to greater or lesser degrees their assumptions, their ways of thinking and being, were precisely those that define Perfectionists. Moreover, they were all, in one way or another, suffering the harmful consequences of perfectionism.

This book is about what perfectionism really is and about how to overcome this obstacle to a happier life.

Like my previous book, Happier, this book too was written as a workbook. To benefit from it in a meaningful way, readers should not read straight through as if reading a novel. Instead, I suggest reading this book slowly, with stops and starts, taking time to apply the material and to reflect on it. To help you with this process of action and reflection, there are exercises at the end of each chapter. Throughout the book, there are also Time-Ins—questions or ideas to consider. They provide an occasion to pause and reflect—and therefore to better understand and assimilate the material. The exercises and Time-Ins can be done alone, in pairs, or in groups. The book can provide material for book clubs interested in personal development, as well as for couples wishing to cultivate greater intimacy.