Betweening: how to find fulfilment

Often we feel like we are missing something. It’s common, if not ubiquitous, to have the sense that you are not ‘leaving anything behind’, or that you should and could be doing more to help fellow man. There’s a desire to be part of something beneficial for the world, to leave a legacy, to make a difference. In this way, we’re all searching to make our lives worthwhile somehow. That perhaps, if our odds hadn’t been the same, and we’d never existed, the world would be different.

These feelings are bigger than us, more powerful than many of our material pleasures and everyday fortuities. Sometimes it’s overwhelming how little we feel like we are doing – even if we seem to be achieving many great things, and living a rich and peaceful life. This feeling of worthlessness can easily spiral into depression, lack of motivation, or a daily malaise. Rather like air-con humming in the background – you may not notice it every moment, but it is subliminally distracting and tiresome – and when it’s turned off, there’s a sense of relief. But what if you can’t ‘turn off’ the feeling when you’ve had too much, like you can the air-con?

There’s an interesting theory by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which he explained in a fantastic episode of the podcast On Being:

“To live virtuously as individuals in societies we must learn how our minds are filled, we must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness, we must learn to respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own, we need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.

“People need to be related – we evolved as an ultra social species living intensely social lives, and in ‘the enlightenment’ (during the industrial revolution), we became more private, we lived more separately, we had so much more autonomy… and we missed something. There’s a lack. We’re missing something.

Happiness comes from between-ing. Getting the right kind of relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work (or a productive activity), and yourself and something larger than yourself. To really flourish, you need to feel that you are really part of something bigger, that will leave a mark, help somebody. Given our evolutionary history, and the weird, modern way we’re living, we can still have fantastically satisfying lives – we just have to work harder at it than people who lived a few generations ago.”

Grayson Perry: Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

From our ‘ultra-social’ state in history, many of us have become more distant from the tight and large social circle we would once have inhabited, contracting socially to a small group of friends and acquaintances that are firmly restricted by social and cultural barriers, and the time-constraints created by the typical 40-hour work week. Our ability to feel part of the world, to help and make a difference is reduced and we feel helpless in a large society that we are surprisingly disconnected to. To feel happy and fulfilled, we have to get better at ‘betweening’ – balancing the space between us and our society.

Another of the problems exacerbating the issue is our polarity. How can we be more engaged in our society if we only stand on one side? We polarise on social, cultural, and of course, political aspects – we form our tribes in this way, but we also lose our impact for change and our potential to ‘help’. Haidt suggests that we spend more time socialising with our opposites – learning to ‘respect and learn from those whose morality differs from our own’ – we reduce our attachment to our decisions, tribal nature and polarity, encouraging broader thinking, a more advanced society and a greater feeling of connectedness.

So next time you find yourself questioning how you can make a difference, try to become aware of your ‘betweening’ – are you placing yourself between enough? Are you balancing your relationships with work, play, social time, and something larger than yourself? As creatives, we often find our connection through our art work – so make time for it, take your muse from different places, find out if you can create by leading from the opposite angle, thinking from the alternative perspective.

Artwork by Grayson Perry: the artist who always seems to be able to immerse himself every side of every situation. Used under creative commons, with deep gratitude to the artist.

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