Is restlessness a theme of our age?  From Sydney to Stockholm, Toronto to London:  it seems that there are a whole lot of us wondering if we’re doing the right thing, or if we really ought to be doing something else to be happy and living a good life.  I’ve heard this theme from friends and colleagues in dozens of permutations:  the big-city parents who ponder moving to a smaller town so they can live at a saner pace;  the mid-career academics who are contemplating moves to the private sector because they’re frustrated with today’s university system; people in great corporate careers who yearn to start their own business or work for an NGO so their work has more meaning;  and deeply rooted families who still have an eye to the big move to New York or London for that big career jump.  I’ve got friends who have fully checked out the schooling system in Singapore, just in case; friends who’s filled out immigration forms for countries they’re not even sure about moving to;  and friends whose conversations revolve around, “What if?”, “What next?”.  Few seem truly settled on what we’re doing, or where we’re living;  rather, we think that if we just made the right move, we could find a life that has more meaning, or more success, or more happiness.  The objects of our envy aren’t necessarily those who richer or more famous:  they’re those who appear to be totally sure that they’re doing the right thing and living in the right place.

Human restlessness isn’t anything new:  we’re relentless travelers and explorers and our deep history has been all about migration and adaptation.  We’ve moved from one thing or place to another because we’ve been forced to, because we’ve thought better opportunities lay elsewhere, because we’ve run from boredom, or because our spirit was simply called to it.  And restlessness, which one can think of as simply a nagging dissatisfaction with the status quo, is no doubt behind some of the great achievements in human history.  Asking ourselves, “What if?” can be the first step to experimentation and innovation.

But there’s another side to restlessness too, and I think this is what many of us live with today.  It seems best summed up as a lack of excitement and commitment to some of the key planks in our lives, like where we live and the work we do.  This is not to accuse us all of some feckless Generation X indifference:  quite the contrary, in fact.  I think that most of us passionately want to be gunning wholeheartedly for something, something that’s going to be good for us personally and good for the world.  But, and here’s the trouble, we’re beset with the nagging suspicion that we’re never really on it, that the road to personal and professional satisfaction lies in some choice that we’ve either overlooked or not yet found.

But is this a problem?  In our lives right here, right now, does restlessness get in the way of happiness and satisfaction, or is it the engine that drives us?

It’s probably both, and I’m learning to make peace with that.  I think about the times I don’t feel restless, when, in fact, I feel it’s opposite, contentment:  when I’m reading to my children, when I’m outside, stomping through fall leaves, when I’m deeply immersed work, when I’m engrossed in a conversation with friends or colleagues, when I’m cooking….   These moments make me feel alive and like each day counts, rather than just being a precursor for something else.  But I can live with the idea that I’ll also be restless…and that maybe we all need to be.  Not just because so many of us are spoiled for choice, but because it’s more important than ever to be asking ourselves, “What if?”

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