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Why "fine" is good but not good enough

May 26, 2021 - 5 min read

As a parent, I’ve lost track of the number of times over the years when a well-meaning family member or friend has said something along the lines of: “We took this or that path, and our kids turned out fine!” 

Every time that has happened I have asked myself why “fine” would ever be the threshold for how my kids turn out? 

I am not striving to raise kids that are fine; I am striving to raise kids that thrive. 

“Fine” is the noncommittal answer of the disengaged. It is the answer of the languishing. “Fine” is both a privilege and uninspiring — should we be anything else?

It begs the question: What is society's bar for an acceptable condition of life? Are we evolving to higher standards from the past? And should the very goal of each generation be to actually nudge that bar upward for the next?

What the data say

BetterUp Labs recently explored the trend line over the past year and a half for well-being. At first glance, one might conclude we have generally recovered from the massive hit to well-being we saw during 2020. It might be tempting even to rejoice that we are “back” and feeling much better than the average well-being level in 2020. 

Yes, undoubtedly, the trend line we see is good news. 

But is our goal to simply return to what can fairly be described as the over-stressed, burned out, generally languishing states of the past? Or seize this opportunity to make real change for the better? 

Yes, people are feeling better compared to the Spring and Summer of 2020. But humans are meant for bigger and greater things than the conditions of a languishing and exhausted workforce we once accepted as the norm. It might all feel like a hazy dream now, but the workforce largely wasn’t thriving pre-pandemic. 

What’s more, if we accept “just ok” versus thriving as the standard, it prevents us from living an optimal life. The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have innate motivation to climb toward the highest levels of self-actualization. In order to get there, we first have to be well physically and mentally. If we never punch out of our chronic states of languishing, peak life experience, creativity, and full realization of our potential won’t be within our reach.  

Why it matters

When I think about the macroenvironment right now, we are at a critical decision point: do we use the lessons from the pandemic to actually improve humanity or, in our relief, do we rush forward to uncritically reclaim what we remember, grateful for any vestige of normality? 

So many people have reevaluated their values, goals, and priorities in the face of the trauma and disruption from the pandemic. In addition, the last two years have brought to light many ugly truths: systemic racism, social injustice, issues in our health and education systems, environmental challenges, gender inequity, and needs in mental health. Will we use this opportunity to rebuild our lives and communities for the better? To address our gaps? To hold ourselves to higher standards as individuals and as a society as we move forward?

This is our moment to redefine the standard of acceptable mental health access, care, and whether or not having most of our population living life in various states of suffering and languishing is fine. We have a chance now to reject the bell curve of mental health and insist on using this catastrophic event in history, to shift that entire population to higher levels of well-being. 

At times like this it’s useful to remember: Change is inevitable, but progress isn’t.

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Published May 26, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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