Recently, I read an important article in The Washington Post. The title reveals the content: Americans Use Far More Opioids Than Anyone Else in the World.
The title describes accurately the premise of the article but the specifics tell the deeper story. Not only do Americans use more opioids than anyone else in the world, we are prescribed about six times as many of the pain-relieving drugs per capita as the citizens of Portugal and France. And almost twice as many opioids as the second highest nation on the list.
Equally alarming, Americans consume more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of hydrocodone. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the United States last year—more than gun homicides by an almost 3 to 1 margin.
This is, indeed, a significant problem.
But what was even more fascinating to me was the author’s identification of the reasons why the statistics are the way they are.
Keith Humphreys, the author of the piece in The Washington Post, is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. As part of the story, he sought to understand why America would lead the world in this troubling category. It’s not, as he begins, because we are aging. Other nations have older populations than the US. There must be other economic, political, and cultural factors at play.
This is where it gets really interesting.
One significant reason he identifies for America’s addiction to pain-relieving medication is “relative to Europeans, Americans have more faith that life is perfectible (e.g., all pain can be avoided).” He explains:
Consider, for example, a 55-year-old who feels acute back and leg pain after doing the workout that was easy when he was 25. A European in this situation might reflect sadly that aging and physical decay must be accepted as part of life, but an achy American might demand that his doctor fix what he sees as an avoidable problem by prescribing him opioids.
In other words, our desire to eliminate all pain from life and experience perfection regardless of circumstance may be contributing to the level of opioid addiction and death in our nation. In this specific case, the need for perfection may be literally killing us. A sober thought.
Whether the doctor’s hypothesis is correct or not, the idea is important.
The constant need for perfection in life is a harmful way to live. (tweet)
Whether we are talking about the negative effects of pain-relieving medication or any number of other scenarios, the need for perfection often results in negative outcomes on our lives. Not only does it distract us from happiness, it routinely sends us down paths away from it.
The search for perfection in our work may send us jumping from one career to another constantly looking for that one job with no bad days. But that job does not exist—the most beautiful rose still has thorns.
The search for perfection in our relationships causes us to give up too quickly on other people. But there are no perfect people and relationships, at their core, require commitment. Without patience, grace, and faithfulness, there is no opportunity for love.
The search for perfection in our homes often results in the accumulation of unnecessary possessions. Marketers routinely promise comfort and better living in their newest offering. An unhealthy pursuit of perfection makes us more susceptible to their falsehoods. These excess possessions quickly begin to monopolize our time and energy and focus.
The search for perfection in our external image gives rise to unhealthy body image pursuits. Rather than seeing them as instruments through which we accomplish our life’s goals, we begin to see them as ornaments to impress others. Sometimes even, while we never experience perfection in our own minds, we seek to present that reality to the world around us.
The search for perfection in our actions often prevents us from trying new things or experimenting with new skills. By its very nature, the desire to commit no mistakes or ever having to admit failure keeps us from attempting new things in life. But every expert started as a beginner.
As noted in The Washington Post article above, the need for perfection may cause harmful addictions to take root in our life, resulting in ruined or destroyed lives.
But even before that most extreme consequence, the desire for perfection or the avoidance of pain can still be harmful. It causes us to lose opportunity to experience happiness in every circumstance.
Life is not perfect. It never has been and it never will be. But this can be good news. It means we can stop pursuing the mythical, perfect life. It means we can stop chasing perfect skin, the perfect job, the perfect house, or the perfect spouse. And it means we can find freedom to live victoriously even within our imperfections.