Happiness or success: Can we really have it all?

Emma Leaning
If you had to choose between a happy home life and a mediocre career, or a successful career and mediocre home life, which would it be? Know it or not, you've likely picked.
Emma Leaning

If you had to choose between a happy home life and a mediocre career, or a successful career and mediocre home life, which would you choose?

This might seem like a philosophical question, but I think it’s one we all face. And whether you know it or not, you’ve likely picked.

Some people seem to juggle life effortlessly. They have a great job, the perfect family, and still find time for jogging. Luckily, I think they are few and far between. Most humans make a choice. After all, there are only so many hours in a day and only so many things we can care about.

Happiness or success: Can we really have it all?
Hu Jun / SHINE

I care about my job; in fact, I love it, and being your columnist is an honor. But would you ask or expect that I spend less energy at home to please you? What effort percentage is acceptable? These questions got me thinking about my choices and how they came to be. Moreover, am I comfortable with them? Are you with yours? Because whatever we focus on means leaving something else behind.

I’m not alone in my anxiety to work a bit harder or love a bit better. We all want more out of life. We get one shot on this Earth, but nobody can claim to live each day like it’s their last. We pick. OK, not everything; I don’t believe people choose to get cancer or decide to live with a mental health issue. And of course, you could argue not everyone has the luxury of choice due to personal circumstances. But for the most part, we actively, or perhaps passively, allocate ourselves and our time. If you knew yours was running out — which by the way, it is — where would you spend it?

To find answers to my questions, I did what I always do and turned to you. On WeChat and X, I asked what people would choose, a successful career or a happy home life. Here’s what they said:

“Home. Home. Home.” (Flora)

“It depends on how important a career is to you. If you value a successful career (whatever that means) and feel yours is just mediocre, I imagine disappointment would affect your home life as well.” (Megan)

“Mediocre career hands down, if we’re using the social standard of ‘mediocre’ and ‘successful.’ My idea of success is peace and fulfillment.” (Stephanie)

“Too hard!” (Elena)

Then came Sam. He replied: “We just need to get used to mediocracy and realize we are already better off than a huge number of humans out there. And maybe our perception of mediocracy is wrong, and we’re actually already living exceptional home lives and have relatively good careers.”

Accept mediocracy? The idea stumped me, and I toyed with it like a kitten with a ball of yarn for days. Same with perception. What ideals are we holding ourselves to, and who dictated what they were? It’s funny how you can ask one question and end up with many more.

We talk a lot about work-life balance. But balance isn’t my answer because balance implies not committing ourselves fully to anything. I don’t want to be half-arsed about my job or my relationship, and achieving the perfect balance is arguably unfeasible.

Many writers, philosophers and thinkers have written about this. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche criticized the idea of a work-life balance, arguing that work should be central to our identity and purpose. On the flip side, British writer and social critic Bertrand Russell advocated for reducing work hours and increasing downtime, saying it would lead to a more fulfilling and productive society. I guess these polar opposite opinions bring us back to perception. Whatever constitutes as the right choice is a personal one.

If perception is key, then maybe I’m looking at things the wrong way. Perhaps what I have is plenty. Yet I compare myself and my life to the people around me. I should know better. I’ve written to you about comparison before. It’s the antithesis of joy, but nearly impossible not to do. The fact is we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, nor do we know the sacrifices others have made in choosing how to live. The person who just got promoted might be perpetually single or lonely in a relationship because they’re married to their work. The loved-up couple might never own a house because money isn’t their priority.

I think it’s easier to say we’d choose a happy home life over a successful career because it’s socially acceptable. But we all want to be good at what we do. Life isn’t simple, but if someone put a gun to your head it would be. And sometimes we need to get really real with ourselves. If I had to choose between a happy home life and a mediocre career, or a successful career and a mediocre home life, I know what I’d pick. Do you?

For now, I think perception is helpful. Seeing our lives as “good enough” is perhaps the trick to living successfully. In which sense, we can have it all. I might not be the best columnist or the most attentive wife, but I’m doing what I can in the moment, and that’s all anyone can really ask.

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