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Sense and Sensibility: Finding Happiness in the Average

As we stand on the verge of a new year, it is traditional to prepare resolutions with which to energetically approach the next 365 days; and then, within a month, to hang our heads despondently when these goals fade into oblivion. This year, I would like to recommend we rather follow Jane Austen’s wisdom in Sense and Sensibility.

Though we equate Elinor Dashwood with sage common sense throughout the book, today we shall, instead, consider the insight of her sweetheart, Edward Ferrars.

During Edward’s visit to Elinor and her family at their little rented cottage, Mrs. Dashwood addresses him with the following comment: “You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.”

In our modern age, such a statement would likely sting. Ambition is seen as something we all should strive to employ. Without it, what is our motivation? What calls us to action? If we have no ambition, are we not lazy, insipid, unimpressive creatures? Such is the cold, hard expectation of a society focused on image and accolades.

Edward, however, replies with perfect ease that his wishes are “as moderate as those of the rest of the world.” He adds, “I wish as well as everybody else to be perfectly happy; but like everybody else it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.”

As a writer, one of my goals, certainly, is to write well. With time and experience, I wish to write better. I desire to be published. But what is my greater ambition? Is it to be famous, to make a living from the sale of my books? Is it to write a book every year? The answer to all of it is yes, and no. My desire to achieve success with my writing is matched with a willingness to work hard at it, to grow, to learn. As such, it is ambition, by definition. However, if I do not achieve publication or fame or wealth, I would not consider any of what I have done to be a failure. There is joy in the journey and satisfaction in the process. Every step forward is a mini-goal achieved. And so, the end goal is only the grandest of many. If the final goal is not attained, this does not undermine the achievement of the smaller ones. There can be happiness in the little moments of averageness.

Sadly, ambition has come to mean a sort of blind fury at tackling something, which, if then unattained, means failure. But Edward Ferrars reminds us that greatness is no guarantee of happiness. When we seek greatness, what we are actually seeking is approval. We are seeking broad recognition, often from complete strangers, or personal recognition from that one person who rarely gives it. We need to keep this truth in mind when we consider what our New Year’s resolutions will be.

Peg Streep writes in Psychology Today, “Most of our resolutions aren’t things we actually want to do deep down in our hearts but things we feel we ought to do. Intrinsic goals — ones that reflect our inner selves and our truest aspirations — tend to be those we actually set our minds to achieving; studies show that people display more resilience when they’re thwarted in their progress when a goal is intrinsic, in contrast to one which is extrinsic. Extrinsic goals are those we may go after but we are motivated to achieve them because they’re set by other people (our parents, spouses, or friends), the culture, or society as a whole.”

So, dear reader, when we ready ourselves mentally for the new year — even a new week — let us appreciate the fresh start it offers us, the opportunity to persist in our dreams. But let us not make a burden of our dreams. They should fly before us like will o’ the wisps, enticing us onward, to step nimbly over obstacles, but resting when we need to catch our breath.

May our one shared resolution be to be true to ourselves and kind to each other. May that be a true greatness we all strive for. And may your new year be blessed.

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