Every day, we’re faced with choices to which there are no perfect answers. As life is never clear-cut, our ability to make good decisions is often rooted in our ability comprehend the many interrelated factors in a given scenario. When struggling to make decisions, many of us will ask ourselves the question, “What are my priorities?”.
Sounds sensible, right?
Well, perhaps not. You see, we commonly talk about priorities as if we can have lots of them, but the word priority is inherently singular, meaning the thing of most importance or that must come first. You cannot have multiple things of most importance or multiple things first. Interestingly, it seems that “priorities” as a plural was almost non-existent as a word until the 1940’s.
And so the correct question that we should ask ourselves when making decisions in life is “What is my priority?”. Singular!
Stop and think about this for a moment. When we have a list of priorities, it’s fairly easy to put lots of things on their, even if they are in some rough order of importance. Ideas might pop into our heads like getting the next promotion, training for the London Marathon, buying a new car or taking the family on the perfect summer holiday.
But all such things are objects of desire that are limited in time and impact on our lives. Could any of them truly be the one and only priority in your life? When we narrow down priorities to a single priority, our thinking can be elevated to contemplate more fundamental things.
For most people, the true priority in life is likely to simply be “to live a happy life”. Similarly, the priority (and therefore secret) to a happy marriage or relationship must surely be “to live a happy life together“.
Having a single priority brings us simplicity and clarity of thought that can shape our lives in profound ways.
Let’s take a hypothetical, and somewhat trivial scenario. When arguing about why someone walked across the living room carpet with muddy shoes on, a couple might ask themselves how this argument aligns with their shared priority of living a happy life together. Yes, the incident of the muddy footprints may warrant discussion and some corrective action. But if it becomes an argument that erodes trust and happiness in their lives together, then arguing is surely not the appropriate action. To prioritise the cleanliness of the carpet would mean to treat happiness as secondary to it. That would surely make no sense.
Of course, some may argue that the muddy carpet makes them unhappy, but the mud is already on the carpet. We cannot change the past and undo it, so we most focus all of our decisions around our priority for our present and future. So we best put our focus on how to deal with the mud in a way that is best aligned with our priority, approaching the challenge constructively.
In another hypothetical scenario, perhaps we are agonising over a decision as to whether to pursue a promotion at work. There are many driving factors for such a decision, such as money, status, peer and family pressure. But should any of these be our priority? The promotion might be a fantastic opportunity, but it may also come with new pressures and compromises like less time with family. The decision must therefore be made through the lens of what will support your priority to live a happy life, and nothing else.
Making happiness our single priority does not automatically make us happy. However, it does help is to cut through the noise of feeling like we have multiple conflicting priorities. It helps shift our thinking to a space where we can see more clearly why we make certain decisions and which ones are likely to be better for us.
It helps us to avoid sacrificing our happiness for the things that should be secondary to it. There are a few things in life that are essential – food, water, shelter and security, for example. If we don’t have our basic needs met, then most likely our missing needs will be our priority. But once we have these essential needs met, most other things that we desire are simply nice to have.
Some of them may even make us feel happier, but we must never make the mistake of mixing things that make us feel happy with happiness itself. That is one of the most common mistakes of modern life and we end up sacrificing our own happiness in the pursuit of things that we think will make us happy. It is the mirage that we spend so much time chasing, when the greatest happiness is often right under our noses in the places we live, with the people around us and within ourselves.
It is hard to remember long list of things and that’s part of the reason why multiple priorities are ineffective. It’s also impossible to make effective decisions when multiple things are treated as equally important. A single priority on the other hand, is easy to hold in our minds and carry with us through our everyday lives. We can take it with us and use it as a lens through which to view situations and to question or challenge our own desires actions and decisions.
You may decide that happiness is not your priority. That’s your decision to make, but if you contemplate it deeply, I believe that eventually you will find your way back to prioritising happiness and gain a clearer view of what it really means to be happy.