I read a fascinating and insightful article recently, which sought to explore why so many people in the liberated western world might be feeling so unfulfilled in their lives, when we actually live in an age where there is so much opportunity open to us, far more than was open to generations who came before us.
While most of us have to do some form of work, to some extent we are free to follow our own career path, we're no longer expected to have the same job our parents may have had, for instance or conform to societal norms - men can be primary school teachers and nurses, women can have a full career in the military, or on the sports field, or in the boardroom. Opportunities are still not entirely fair, but the situation has moved on unrecognisably from what people put up with thirty or forty years ago.
Most of us, are sexually more liberated than our parents and grandparents were. With less anxiety over unwanted pregnancy and less stigma regarding abortion and single motherhood, women and men can choose to have or not have children, to suit their life circumstances.
Thirty years ago, if you believed gay people, bisexual and transgender people should have the right to marry and raise a family together, your views were unlikely to have been shared by most people in your community, but these days, thanks to a lot of tireless campaigning to make society a more tolerant and emotionally richer place to exist, most of the people we live among, do agree with the Equal Marriage bill.
There's less racism, less misogyny less religious oppression, we're free to travel all over the globe and we can go to college to study pretty much any subject that takes our fancy. We can communicate instantly with friends and loved ones anywhere in the world, we can even see their faces as we have conversations with them, we have relatively open access to sports stars, people from the world of music, the arts and politicians alike.
We have access to more information than we could ever need or devour on any issue we're interested in and we can connect with that information at the click of a button, or increasingly, the tap of a screen, day or night and usually for free.
So why do people report lower levels of satisfaction and contentment now, then studies before have revealed?
One suggestion, is that people are trying to meet internal needs by fulfilling external goals. If I have a newer car, another pair of shoes, the latest iPhone, a prettier girlfriend, a richer husband, a better paid job, a nicer apartment, a thinner waist, a fuller bust, I will accept myself more, I will admire myself more, I will be happier. Well that is the belief.
But our deeper needs, as human beings, are emotional, not material. Self-acceptance and respect can really only come from within, who you are and how you feel about yourself, not how you feel about a new BMW. You can't relate to a motor car, only do something with it or to it. A slimmer body or a new nose will not necessarily make you more desirable to the opposite sex, or the kinds of people you wish to be attractive to. Anxiety about needing to look a certain way might even change your natural personality and actually make you less desirable to some people. Promotion at work and a higher salary can bring added stress, longer hours and so on. If the money was the main attraction, which it often is when it comes to work, you might come to realise time with your family or friends was actually more valuable to you and start to resent the new job and bigger pay check.
It is hard, if not impossible to achieve those deeper levels of satisfaction and fulfilment which give life meaning to you, from external factors, whatever the advertisers may tell us. But it is possible to look at the things you are focussing on, the physical goals and desires, and you can look at what emotion within yourself, you are hoping the object or new situation will evoke within you, and find different, deeper, more meaningful ways to achieve that need.
A need to leave a relationship, might be more about a sense of internal entrapment. In what ways are you stopping yourself from feeling free, for someone else cannot enslave us, we carve our own prison bars.
We can travel the world or study the universe and yet never understand ourselves, as if we are always searching for an answer out there, but the question is deep inside, so we're constantly trying to solve the wrong equation.
Some people are so busy making plans, ticking off lists, too busy to stop and experience life in the present because everything is about achieving something in the future. The problem with searching for satisfaction in the future tense is, the future only exists as a concept, you cannot live in the future or love in the future. As soon as your perfect future has arrived, it's the present momentarily and then it is the past. As soon as the goal is reached, if often becomes meaningless.
And others seem driven to try to find a state of being which is only ever happy with no darker emotions like disappointment and anger and irritation or guilt. But real lives are interactive and constantly changing from one second to the next. We cannot possibly control all those variables out there, which some endeavour to try to, we can only learn to accept the negative with the good stuff and to not mind that we had a row with the boyfriend when we were both tired or we arrived at work five minutes late because the bus broke down or our child was sick this morning.
We have to learn to live with and love our bodies, the chances are, if we are a relaxed happy person our lover will adore our bodies and be too busy enjoying time with us to think for one moment about whether our breasts are exactly symmetrical or whether the woman next door is two dress sizes smaller. If he is so shallow he is more turned on by the label in your dress than the curves that hug that dress, perhaps he should start chatting up the women next door, he doesn't deserve you! You need to be with a man who loves you, the real you, that might mean your curves. For all the studies show most men don't actually fancy skinny women.