For the last decades, growth had been presented as the solution to all our worries. Infinite material and economic growth on a finite planet, for (near-)exponentially rising numbers of people, is not likely to be a great long-term solution, however. And: this is not the kind of growth that is good for happiness (beyond the provision of good-enough lifestyles), anyways.
The growth that actually makes lives better is that of how we do not only like to get things done, we also feel happier when we see signs of progress in our lives.Another year’s passing is a perfect example, for it is disconcerting when it is just another year that you got older. The realization that it is an(other) year in which you accomplished something, learnt more and gained more experience, however, is a fount of good feelings and the motivation to go on.
As usual, there are some ways in which the desire for growth can get sidetracked.
Seeing incomes and possessions grow can also give a positive feeling of growth. Even the acquisition of greater skill at video (or other) games, especially as it is easily measured by levels achieved and status gained, can do that. The feeling of accomplishment, even in rather useless things, can make for happiness, and so can successfully keeping up with the Joneses.
The desire for convenience and stability should not be denigrated. There is something to be said for the kind of growth that is simply watching the kids literally grow, or planting and harvesting, living with the cycle of seasons and not always looking for better and greater…
The personal growth and lifehacking freaks can just as well find themselves with a perverted sense of growth: If you start to just learn and do more and grander things in order to impress others, sensible “hacking” of skills to acquire them with gusto can become merely a different kind of rat race (of the “wish your actual life were as exciting as your facebook status updates”-variety), taking shortcuts to supposedly impressive experiences without much of any deeper gain.
More often, however, the problem is a different one.
In the rut of daily lives, interests beyond making a living and sometimes rewarding oneself with a little luxury shopping or a vacation often fall by the wayside. Simple, quick pleasures are all there seems to be the energy for – and even if it doesn’t make happier, better-off, or better, such a life has quite a bit of support. Isn’t it how everyone lives, what’s normal?
Any way, however, the risk-avoider who prefers the simple and quiet life over the excitement of new experiences, the lifehacker looking to more quickly gain a sense of betterment, or the career-oriented person comparing him-/herself to the Joneses – they all will probably be happier with personal growth: trying out some (if maybe small) new things, getting better at – and having, first of all – some interests and skills and developing them further.
The greatest satisfaction (if that word should even be used for a source of motivation and driver of a good life that is more about going on than ever contentedly stopping), however, takes a consideration of the things being “grown” in their relationships to other things. (This is the ecology of happiness, after all):
There is considerable diversity in what different people take as important and worthwhile, of course.
Some will want to just learn the most important 20% of a language that helps them be competent enough for 80% of everyday conversation, others will scoff at them for merely faking language skill, others again will not see the point of any foreign language study.
Some will just try to make their home cooking skills better, others try and learn exotic cuisine, others not care about cooking at all.
What we’ll see as important runs parallel to the different kinds of happiness, though.
The pleasure that is felt and that puts a smile on a person’s face is easily recognized and does not require lengthy discussions considering morality or social and cultural contexts. Similarly, mastery of any skill may make happy, growing competence in any field may feel good, any sense of accomplishment is better than none.
We are always drawn to thinking along socio-culturally influenced lines, though, and thus would consider some kinds of happiness more worthy of pursuing than others. There will always be a trade-off, and some consideration of morality will come into it. After all, social comparisons hold their sway over us, and we do live as a part of societies and cultures…
Even if we are just looking at our own lives, it is clear enough that we will consider things differently at different stages of them, and experience what we do and what happens to us differently while it happens than when we remember it later (see this TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman).
In just the same way, we may hate working on a skill while it’s hard going, but enjoy it once we are better at it (and be happy we were pushed or pushed ourselves to it); and we will want to learn, and be pushed to consider different skills as worth learning, depending on our circumstances.
Any work towards competence and mastery in something will be good, but indeed, some such “growth” is better than another, also in other ways:
The amassment of money and stuff, or a skill that is overspecialized and not added on top of a general, deep foundation of education is probably going to be less helpful a growth to continue, less worthy a competence to achieve.
The building of good habits of continual learning and improvement, with focus, the better maintaining of your household (and care for your body) even, and in general – not to exaggerate, but neither be too bashful – the exploration of the ecology of happiness in your own life, will be the better skills to work on.
Whatever works in tandem with other things that make happy and towards eco-logically, really, better lives will probably (and certainly should) have greater value for the overall flourishing of (a) life.