Considering the time, effort and money involved in a 17th-century oil painting, it’s fair to wonder why Vermeer didn’t recreate a more compelling scene than that of an anonymous woman standing in a plain kitchen pouring milk.
Yet for this Dutch genre painting, and hundreds of others like it, the mundaneness is not a flaw but precisely the point.
An era that born from Netherland’s new Republic in the 1700s’, the Dutch Golden Age was a time of profound national change and prosperity marked by an overwhelming hunger for freedom. Spanish rule was overthrown for Dutch independence, Catholicism was demoted and Protestantism grew to fill its place.
This denominational shift marked a change in countless areas of life for the Dutch; an unexpected one being the art world. Unlike the Spanish Catholics who loved big bougie paintings of baby Jesus, Protestants were old-school minimalists who loved their church walls bare and denounced all religious imagery. As the primary commissioners of art, the Church’s desire for non-religious subjects meant European artists had to look elsewhere.
As it transpired, the Dutch didn’t look very far. Deities and epic scenes were replaced with civilians doing the 19th century equivalent of watching Netflix or sitting in traffic. Made about the masses for the masses, this new style of ‘genre paintings’ was an unabashed celebration of ordinary life, in all its boring glory.
Religion may no longer call the shots, but art (whether it’s a marble sculpture or a video billboard), continues to work symbiotically; both reflecting and determining the temperament of our times and the aspirations we hold.
Yes, we’ve come a long way since Vermeer’s simple milkmaid painting. Yet when one looks at today’s images of what ‘life’ looks like from social media or Hollywood screens, one must wonder whether we’ve moved in a direction that serves us.
Because the humble normalcy of the milkmaid hasn’t just disappeared from popular visual discourse but becomes a paragon of failure.
Coined some 60 years ago by British sociologist and politician Michael Young, ‘meritocracy’ presented a vision of a society where power and privilege were no longer transferred exclusively through bloodlines or social circles but could be earnt by individual merit.
This new hierarchy, according to Young was “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” For the majority of 20th-century society who were polishing silver spoons rather than eating off them simply because they had the misfortune of not being born elite, this hierarchal restructure was life-changing.
Today, we don’t just live in the full realisation of Young’s vision but one on more steroids than a hard-core gym bro, where meritocracy is not so much part of society as it is a fundamental principle, dominant and unchallenged.
From preschool classrooms and Hollywood films to sports fields and office buildings, the axiom of meritocratic mobility is taught and reinforced; anything can be achieved if you simply try hard enough.
But therein lies the flaw; if we believe those at the top got there through merit alone, the same logic means those at the bottom deserve their fate too. Individual agency has entirely absorbed the countless unseen factors that govern how we can play the hands we’re dealt.
Yet, considering the cold hard statistics, our chances of achieving the wealth and status of Elon Musk, Kim Kardashian or Steven Spielberg are no different to the chances of a chimney sweep working their way to the upper echelons of 17th-century aristocracy. The difference today? We’re told the elite are proof of what can be achieved with a little effort.
Media, as per usual, only compounds the issue, perpetuating what modern philosopher and author Alain de Botton calls the ‘everything-is-possible myth’. As an institution that earns its livelihood through click-baited attention, this makes sense. Like a postcard on your fridge, ordinary life is rendered invisible by familiarity; the antithesis of click-worthy. So, films and ads, magazines and social media churn out depictions of ‘the good life’ that grow increasingly divorced from our actual experiences.
Simple pleasures used to satisfy but now we need exotic travel and expensive cars, jobs we adore and trendy clothes; things we supposedly could have if we got off our asses and put in some effort. It’s no wonder our ordinary days seem a crushing failure in comparison.
The question is, when did the statistical probability of ordinary become such an unworthy and unsatisfying prospect? Given the fact that, on a material level, ordinary has never been so damn terrific.
Never has the average quality of life for western middle classes been so high, consumption of goods so accessible, work so safe or health so assured. One could easily reel off dozens of global studies that report quality of life (via factors like education, health, political freedom and physical safety) is on the rise in most countries.
Yet we have ruined this prosperity with a socialised and self-imposed sense that it’s not good enough if it’s not the best.
Make no mistake, this is not a war on ambition. A healthy dose of drive is what keeps us in pursuit of satisfyingly challenging things. But let’s be real, ambition needs little defense. We’re far more likely to be suffocated by a pressure to achieve than a lack of aspiration.
Embracing the ‘good enough-ness’ of our lives isn’t wearily settling for second-best because we don’t want to try. It’s allowing ourselves a chance at happiness and sanity by not hating ourselves for being ordinary.
It’s readjusting our expectations of what “the good life” is from making millions in bustling cities or travelling the world, to watching a great film with friends, catching the gold of a sunrise or making a top-notch dinner.
Mediocrity should by no means be pursued, but I do argue it should be accepted, or at the very least, allowed to show up without being labelled as a failure.
How instantly our life could change without changing at all if we were brave enough to abandon the conventional definition of ‘success’ and give our everyday experiences a Dutch kind of veneration.
Because, while our modest realities seem insufficient to achieve the media’s radical depictions of the good life, many claim we have all we need to feel joy right between our ears.
According to the late David Foster Wallace, with the right attitude, “it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
What Wallace is describing, and what sociological studies have lent endless empirical evidence to, is the exceptional truth that joy isn’t just relative but within our control.
We have, within us, the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, to redefine success and change the meanings we construct out of experiences.
The catch? It’s far from easy.
It is beyond tempting to conclude right here; end on a pile of platitudes about how we simply need to see things differently as if decades of social conditioning can be overcome by a revelation alone. As if the reason we feel crushed by comparison and unattainable depictions of happiness is simply because we didn’t realise we had the freedom to frame things differently.
The unfortunate truth is many of us do know, but awareness is only half of the solution.
Call them efficient or just damn lazy, but brains love the path of least resistance. They run the most familiar route of reason, so when observing your life, you’ll see it the way you’ve been taught. Or as the iconic ‘The Breakfast Club’ line goes; “You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions”.
For those raised on the American Dream (Meritocracy’s catchy nickname), the easiest path is the formula that ‘effort = financial and social success = happiness.’ In our minds, if the first two parts of the equation increase, so does happiness. More effort means more money, status and ergo, happiness.
Naturally then, when we consider those living in the smaller towns, working the simple jobs and otherwise daring to appear to enjoy little things, we conclude they can’t actually be happy. The man who prioritises children over promotions, the woman who leaves the big city to be closer to family or the person who refuses to monetise their passions have failed to achieve according to the meritocratic formula within our brain.
Sure, they may appear content, but their lives are un-extraordinary, insignificant and thus unfulfilling. They either don’t know what’s out there or worse, are just too lazy to pursue it.
Yet as I move through my life and intersect with others doing the same, I can’t help but notice a trend where those who live supposedly ‘simple’ lives are the ones who seem most content. The ones who work just as hard on gratitude for what they have today as they do on jobs or salaries or stuff.
It’s somewhat encouraging to know this pattern is one with at least 200 years of history. As Thomas Carlyle wrote about England in 1843, “with its plethoric wealth…which of us has it enriched?…We have sumptuous garnitures for our life, but have forgotten to live in the middle of them. Many men eat finer cookery, drink dearer liquors, but in the heart of them, what increase of blessedness is there? Are they better, beautifuller, stronger, braver? Are they even what they call “happier”?…Not so…We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings.”
However, the brain is a stubborn bastard and shifting our perspective to one that finds joy in what we already have or where we already are, is a challenge. Not only that but it’s a change that will never be encouraged by the world we live in, one that requires us to be perpetually striving for stuff and status.
When it comes to the discipline (and yes, it is a discipline) of reclaiming contentment, we are on our own. But within this is freedom, a regained ownership of how we experience our life, not according to other definitions but our own. As Foster-Wallace says, we get to choose to see our life, as it is now, as set alight with mysticism and meaning.
In all honesty, questioning meritocracy’s axioms feels akin to making a case against gravity, childish and so clearly pointless. Like the story of the fish who is asked ‘how’s the water?’ only to wonder what the hell water is, so we live according to stories we can’t help but experience as seamless reality.
Meritocracy, capitalism, individualism; these are the stories that can’t help but feel true in a way that I can’t ignore even in imagined hypotheticals.
‘What if I were to redefine my interpretation of ‘the good life’ and stop running towards someplace ‘they’ say it will be? What if I vowed to be content in this city, this community, this work or this life? Will it mean I’m enlightened, or at least a ton happier than most?’
‘Or’, some still small voice questions, ‘is it just quitting disguised as enlightenment? A way to excuse failure when you just couldn’t hack it?’ Put another way, does embracing ‘good enough’ lead to contentment or complacency?
Maybe this is the wrong approach altogether. Perhaps the cause for us to shift away from the meritocratic definition of success and happiness won’t be because a new way is evidentially better but because the current way is so tried, tested and obviously flawed. With our increased social mobility, material accumulation, striving and attaining, are we that much happier?
Or is it the people who are radically joyful amidst their ordinary lives who prove, like the Dutch, that maybe the mundane isn’t that mundane after all.