Niamh O’Donoghue writes about swapping hustle, bustle and being close to burn-out for a balanced life in the Irish countryside…
There’s a wonderful Swedish idiom ‘lagom’ [LAH-gum], which means not too much, not too little. It’s a common turn-of-phrase that represents the art of living a balanced, slower, and more rooted life. Unlike ‘hygge’, which aims to capture a feeling, lagom is an ethos of moderation, a philosophy of a life that’s ‘just right’.
My life BC (Before Covid) was the polar opposite of a lagom lifestyle. I worked in a bustling city in a Big Adult Job that simultaneously satiated my career ambition and indulged my ego. I surrounded myself with peers who climbed the career ladder two rungs a go, the type of people who managed to excel in their 9-5 jobs but who also, at the same time, pursued personal passions with the same fervour – and then ran half-marathons on the weekend.
My life was very fun and very busy – just what I’d always wanted. I got a buzz from being away from home and experiencing my career from new, glossy, luxurious heights. I got a thrill from sharing my new and important life on social media, each post a signifier of my success and a reminder of how far I’d come. I enjoyed the perks of my Big Adult Job: beauty freebies and exotic flowers with personalised notes from important people and after work events in overly-priced cocktail lounges. “This is it”, I thought. “This is what I’ve been working for.” I didn’t win races on Sports Day, trophies from dance competitions or pretty rosettes from pony camp, but here I was on a seat at the table that few get to sit at, with industry tastemakers and game-changers, and it was validation that not only was I doing something right, but I was doing it very well.
From validation to burn-out
By proxy of the city I was in and the industry I worked in, my life also tread the borderline of self-destruction, and I soon found myself teetering on a tightrope between survival and burn-out. I didn’t drink too much alcohol or use drugs, but I devoted my life to my work (the internet heralds my best Cancerian tendencies as being “hardworking, diligent and a loyal employee”), and regularly pushed my body and mental health beyond its limits.
I got sucked into the cult of ‘busyness’. Every conversation revolved around how chock-a-block everyone’s schedule was and people would make excuses for allowing themselves to indulge in a full one-hour lunch break. I became a by-product of my hectic environment to the point that I didn’t sit still or daydream. Tardiness or negligence = precious time lost on KPIs or missed ROIs, and in a game where website traffic or social media hits are the equivalent of a modern day gold rush, every second counts. Weekends were also swallowed up by work or strict exercise regimes and every other aspect of my life began to suffer as a result. But that’s what happens when you start doing well at work (“Let me know when your entire life goes up in smoke, that means it’s time for a promotion,” says Stanley Tucci’s beloved character Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada).
I am a perfectionist (another wonderful Cancerian trait!), which I think probably makes life quite exhausting for myself and other people around me. I try to give 120% of me all the time, which was the case BC, but I soon wore myself thin in an attempt to reach peak achievement.
Obsessed with the exceptional
“We live in a society obsessed with being exceptional. Whether it is as workers, parents, students, lovers or cooks, we are expected to be outstanding,” writes André Spicer for The Guardian on embracing being ‘good enough’, noting that by adopting a ‘good-enough’ attitude and not overloading our expectations and achievements we can actually lead more extraordinary lives.
And then the world stopped and, in turn, my designer-wearing world shrank down to an 8ft x 10ft room in North London. I still worked as hard – if not harder now to prove my capabilities sans office – but without any of the additional perks or clout or Instagram moments a void began to appear, one that no fancy lunch or retail discount could fill. My Big Life was suddenly stripped away and all at once I felt like I was swimming against the tide of progression, of achievement.
Hours spent physically alone (Slack doesn’t count as a valid form of company) made a lasting dent on my self-worth and it forced me to come face-to-face with difficult decisions. Above all, the events that took place during 2020 hurtled me into an intense period of reflection: Is this what ‘achievement’ and ‘success’ is all about? Being in a constant state of ‘on’ or always in fight or flight mode? Of measuring one’s value based on social media hits or how popular an online article is? Of how many hours worked in a single day, week, month?
Leaving the race
And so I left the rat race. I came home to Ireland – partially to cocoon and shield away from the virus, but mostly to inhale fresh air and exhale a sigh of relief. No matter where you are from on this little island, whether a Small Town or a Big City, there’s a wonderful sense of connectedness and smallness. Where once I associated ‘smallness’ with lack of opportunity and closed-minded mentality, I now know the opposite to be true. I believed I needed to have a Big Life in order to have value and achieve my goals, and that in order to be seen as great at something or recognised in my field, I needed to be in the thick of the action (in this case, London).
In a 2019 essay for The New York Times, writer Avram Alpert argued that we should give up our obsession with greatness and instead try to build a ‘good enough’ life. Reflecting on great philosophers, scientists, thinkers, spiritual leaders and artists, Alpert outlines how living an average or ‘good enough’ life “is the birthright of not only all humans, but also all of nature as well,” affirming that if society as a whole strived not to make the “perfect human society” but rather a world of ‘enough’ (lagom), we would always have what we needed to “handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.”
I am in a precariously special situation in that my work still remains in the UK but I am fortunate enough to be able to work from home in Ireland. To add further resistance, I’ve recently decamped from Dublin city for a quiet, peaceful life out west (I believe this is what they call ‘having your cake and eating it’). Although I’m only here two weeks, I have known for that amount of time now to throw the term “back to” away when discussing the topic of “normal.” There will be no going back. Only toward, forward, to something… New? Different? I’m not really sure. At times, I am overcome with rolling waves of regret, fear and anxiety that my achievements and success have peaked too soon. Or that I made the wrong decision altogether in leaving my Big – albeit lonely, stressful and costly – Life in London.
What I am learning, though, is that all of my pre-programmed reflexes pertaining to moderation seemed to circle back to my relationship with work and achievement. I need to adjust my high standard-o-meter, which I plan on working on in the amicable surroundings of the sea and the mountains. I sometimes find myself fighting the urge to create something new to announce on social media to prove and validate that the decision I made is the ‘right’ one. And during this period of stagnancy and sameness, I have found myself grieving my ‘other’ (more hectic) Big Life. I’m sad because I know it won’t be the same. It can’t be.
The millennial condition
“Millennials are often described as having “multi-hyphen careers” — many fingers in many industry pies, a sideline job as well as a daytime job,” writes author and podcast host (and “multi-hyphenate”) Dolly Alderton on busyness, burnout and setting boundaries. Much like my millennial peers, I was hard-wired from an early age to meet a specific set of life criteria: get an education, make friends, be a good friend to others, find a hobby and excel at it, get a great job(s), earn money. The constant demand to perform, to outshine, to achieve, to rise, to climb, to rank inevitably leads to burnout, what writer Anne Helen Petersen (whose Buzzfeed article on burnout has been read more than 7 million times) calls “the millennial condition.”
One conclusion Petersen draws about why she can no longer get “mundane stuff done” or why she’s burned out is radically simple: Because we – the millennial generation – have internalised the idea that we should be working all of the time. Burnout has become our “base temperature, our background music,” Petersen writes. Psychotherapist DW Winnicott’s work provides some answers as to why this is the case. Through his work, Winnicott pegged symptoms of burnout to parents who strived to be the ‘perfect’ mother or father. He identified that well-adjusted children often had parents who were “good enough”. They weren’t so neglectful that their child was harmed. Nor were they so amazing that the child felt they couldn’t escape the overwhelming shadow of their parents.
In her new book on the subject, Can’t Even, Anne Helen Petersen calls this phenomenon ‘concerted cultivation’ parenting: where well-meaning parents, often first-generation middle class, send children off to extracurricular activities for “enrichment”, which would hopefully leverage them into prestigious schools, which would later land them white-collar work, then success, stability and happiness.
But the pandemic has prompted a shift in our behaviour: we are savouring slowness like the first sip of sweet elixir after a drought. Reassuringly, more people (millennials) are reevaluating their ambitions and joining what writer Lotte Jeffs calls “an ever-growing army of Average And Proud,” in that we are focusing our energy less on achievement status and more on the mundanity of everyday life.
I don’t know if it’s reductive to time this turning tide to my physical move to the countryside, but being exposed to nothing but raw nature and the energy of the sea and the stars makes me feel more alive than during my high-octane time in London. Yes, my life is void of fancy lunch outings, chance encounters and Instagrammable clothes, but I’ve cranked up my outdoor exposure ten-fold and enjoy the humble moments of stillness and calmness in ample supply. I don’t know if this is a ‘forever’ decision or what the implications will mean for my career as a journalist and writer. Maybe when Covid is a distant memory I will once more endeavour to live a Big Life, but for now, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut, “simple pleasures trump complicated thoughts.”