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25. How Comfortable is Your Life?

Advertising almost always aims at creating discomfort. After all, why would you buy something if you weren't in some way unhappy without it? So advertisements will evoke hitherto un-thought of concerns that your mobile phone or car is out of date. They will show you pictures of very young and beautiful women worrying about their wrinkles. They will tell you that you are in danger without insurance, that you're an unattractive man unless you drink a certain brand of whiskey, that you will never be alluring unless you use a certain perfume. If they are successful in making you feel sufficiently out-moded, unattractive or unsafe, you will go out and buy their product. Because, as Freud theorised in his 'pleasure principle', we are all programmed to move towards comfort and away from discomfort. But what are the consequences of making ourselves 'safe' all the time? And what would happen if, instead of running away from discomfort or fear or sense of inadequacy, we lived with it? My last couple of emails have been very practical, this is more of a reflection. The goal to which the pleasure principle impels us - of becoming happy - is not attainable: yet we may not - nay cannot - give up the efforts to come nearer to realisation of it by some means or other. Sigmund Freud Last week I was lucky enough to see a performance of the Willie Russell play, Educating Rita, in the West End. For those who never saw the film with Julie Walters, it's about a young un-educated woman who enrols for an Open University degree in English. She is allocated a tutor in the form of the ageing, weary and alcoholic Frank and the play is essentially a latter-day Pygmalion story. Rita is 26, a hairdresser and a wife, and she can see her life disappearing down tracks that have been well-worn by her mother, her grandmother and just about every woman she knows. Her days at work are all the same, and increasingly tiresome, and her husband keeps asking her when they're going to have a baby. She wants more. The reason the play captures the audience, apart from being very funny, is that there can be barely one of us who hasn't at some point dreamt of a different life. We spend the first part of our adult lives desperately seeking all the things we think we need for a successful and comfortable life - career, financial security, partner, children, a house, car, electrical appliances, and yes, insurance for every conceivable eventuality - and the next part wondering if this is all there is. Frank sees, in Rita, someone who is fresh, exciting and untrammelled by middle class and academic convention, and it is very painful for him to help her out of the ditch which she had dug for herself, only to give her access to the one he has dug for himself. Adam Phillips, the well known writer and psychotherapist, wrote last weekend in the Guardian about the pursuit of happiness, and asks the question, does pursuing happiness actually make us unhappy? Or (my question), are we just not very good at knowing what makes us happy? I bumped into a friend a few weeks back. 'How are things with you?' I said. He looked animated and excited. 'Well, not too good really,' he replied. My son is getting married this weekend and my sister-in-law committed suicide three days ago'. So my friend is enlivened by a tragedy and the major challenge of going through with a wedding the following weekend, and Frank, who has achieved much in his career, has a partner, and is living a comfortable middle-class existence, is half dead. And yet, as human beings, we're constantly seeking comfort and either running away from trouble, or trying to resolve it as quickly as possible. How strange is that? Try this: 1. In what parts of your life are you comfortable? 2. In what parts of your life do you feel stagnant or stuck? 3. In what parts of your life are you living 'on the edge', where everything is new or difficult and you are regularly stretched and challenged? 4. What are the up and down sides of each part of your life? 5. What does each part of your life demand from you? 6. If you were going to move out of your comfort zone in one area of your life, which would it be and howwould you do it? Let me know how you get on, and have a good week!