There’s more to life

There’s a poster up in Tube stations at the moment that shows a pair of legs poking out of a tent in a field. “The way I get rich,” goes the copy, “is by adding DOING NOTHING to my to-do list.”

It’s an advert for the wellbeing benefits of camping, but the message — that people can be “richer” once they stop defining wealth and success by the size of their bank account — chimes impeccably with our times.

Last week, the phenomenally successful singer Adele (her last album has spent 16 weeks at the top of the UK album charts and she made this year’s Sunday Times Rich List with a personal fortune of £6m) admitted that she had turned down a summer of mega-bucks arena gigs and festival appearances in favour of “sitting in Brockwell Park with my friends, drinking cider”. Staying connected with her friends is more important than “getting another million in the bank”, because “what if I come out the other end and I don’t know who I am? That’d be horrible”.

The girl has got her priorities right, you’re probably thinking. Well, quite. But it seems only recently that we started thinking this way. A glut of self-help and pop-philosophical books on what really makes us happy, not to mention David Cameron’s “happiness index” and big society idealising, reflect a reassessment of the things that truly constitute a life well lived. A redefinition of success.

For many of us, this has meant, and will continue to mean, a gradual reshuffling of our priorities. But that isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the choice is even ours — especially when we need to pay the mortgage and our BlackBerry is liable to drag us back to work at any moment.

Then there are the naysayers. Look at the outrage that greeted reports that Kate Middleton plans to be a stay-at-home wife. Granted, only the privileged can afford to give up work altogether, but shouldn’t she be free to make that choice without being labelled lazy or worthless?

Matthew Crawford used to run a think-tank in Washington, largely funded by oil companies. “I landed the job because I had a prestigious education in the liberal arts,” he said recently, “yet the job itself felt illiberal, and the tie I wore started to feel like the mark of a slave.” In his spare time, Crawford set up an improvised space to repair his motorbike, a 1975 Honda CB360. Soon he was also fixing other people’s bikes. His new life as a mechanic had begun.

A few years ago, convinced, like Crawford, that we could all gain from spending less time chasing “success” and more time exploring what really feels fulfilling, I started to combine journalism with growing my own food and making my own clothes. Why? I just felt like it. I had some setbacks, but overall the experience has been enormously rewarding. After writing a book about it, I was invited to teach classes on “how to realise your potential” at Alain de Botton’s School of Life, in London. Many classes later, I’m still amazed at the number of people with good jobs and comfortable lives looking for more. Some want to see the world. Others want to write, or take photography more seriously. Others still may want to prioritise their relationships.

David Brooks hints at this variety in his book The Social Animal, which David Cameron has advised his cabinet members to read. Human “flourishing” (his definition of achievement), Brooks says, involves “putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks”. Martin Seligman, another of Cameron’s happiness gurus, argues a similar case in his new book, Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing — and How to Achieve Them. He identifies five strands of human wellbeing: engagement, positive emotion, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. But with the endless choices of modern society splayed out in front of us, how are we to identify what will really fulfil us, make us feel rich? One way might be to draw up a list of things you always dreamt of doing before a careers adviser, or similar well-meaning busybody, told you to forget it.

Additionally, you could list, say, seven things in the past that made you feel particularly alive. In each case, consider carefully why: for instance, if you list “golf”, is that because you are competitive and sporty, because you like walking in fresh air, or because of the pretext for long conversations with friends? When you’ve identified the underlying reason for your enjoyment, in each case think of other activities in which you might achieve the same particular satisfaction. Richard Nelson Bolles, in his classic book What Color Is Your Parachute?, recommends taking 10 sheets of paper and writing 10 different (short) answers to the question “Who am I?” Afterwards, compare them and write down what you particularly like about each answer. Then put the sheets in order of preference: it will soon become obvious where your route to fulfilment lies.

Once you’ve identified it, you can start to pursue it. And unlike Kate Middleton, particularly if your definition of success still includes a healthy bank account (and there’s nothing wrong with that), you needn’t necessarily give up the day job. Wallace Stevens, for instance, was an accomplished poet with a job in insurance. Richard Reynolds, who worked in advertising when he first took it upon himself to tidy the fag-end infested municipal planters outside his flat in south London, is now leader of the fast-growing global movement of guerrilla gardeners.

Many people resist the idea that a life of fulfilment is possible. It’s easier to pretend the matter is out of their hands rather than to acknowledge their own responsibility. But as Tom Hodgkinson, the hard-working editor of The Idler, puts it: “If we say we don’t have enough time to do something, what we really mean is that we don’t want to do it, and have allocated our time to different things instead.” If every instant had monetary value, how could we justify watching or staring out of the window — or even going to bed — instead of doing paid work? There is value in all the things we choose to do, the trick is working out which are valuable to you.

1071 words. First published 14 June 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.