It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.Epictetus
I’m a huge fan of the author Ryan Holiday. No matter what he writes (or recommends), I buy without hesitation, knowing I won’t be disappointed. In case you aren’t familiar with his work, I’ll link below to some of my favorites.
In one of Ryan’s most recent books, “Stillness is the Key,” he tells a brief story about a conversation between Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller at a New York City party. 1
“Standing in the palatial second home of some boring billionaire, Vonnegut began to needle his friend. “Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”
“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.
“And what on earth could that be?” Vonnegut asked.
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
I’ve read and reread that passage, and it never ceases to resonate with me. What tremendous “peace” and “stillness” must come to the fortunate few who discover what enough truly means.
The drive to find enough is most often an innate desire grounded in our human nature to constantly seek and hopefully achieve happiness. In a lifelong “quest for happiness,” it’s only when we discover what enough truly means to us that we can ever hope to achieve it. And yet, what if happiness isn’t really a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but rather a state of mind, an acceptance and satisfaction with what we already have? Is it even possible to reach a state of enough? In its essence, the word enough implies finality, a sense of totality. The truth is, most people compelled by the desire to discover what enough means to them will sadly never obtain it. With each milestone achieved, each “box checked,” the next shiny object lies just out of reach. The hard truth few realize and even fewer want to acknowledge is that the more we want, the less satisfied we are with what we have; as striving for more reinforces the fact that we lack it in the first place.
It is not the man who has too little, but he who craves more, who is poor.Seneca
We live in and are surrounded by a culture of “more.” We are led to believe that the key to a better life is a bigger house, fancier car, nicer clothes or higher paying job. The world is constantly telling us that the path to a better life is accumulation – more friends, more money, more material possessions, more “likes” or followers on our social media accounts – more, more, more. It’s a crisis in every sense of the word. “Like a cancer it spreads slowly through society. It is quiet and insidious. Imperceptibly it erodes our most cherished values. It is a crisis of rampant consumerism.” 2
But what is consumerism? “In a practical sense, consumerism is a belief system and culture that promotes consuming as the path to self- and social improvement,” Stephanie Kaza, University of Vermont Environment Professor and Buddhism practitioner, wrote in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. “As a dominant cultural force, consumerism offers products to address every dissatisfaction.”
One recent study found that by age 16, the average American will have seen almost six million ads. This translates into more than one ad per waking minute.3 It goes without saying, that this relentless commercial barrage is fueling the consumerism pandemic we are living in today.
To some extent, we are all involved in some level of consumerism and the desire for material possessions.
“Anytime the urge strikes, we now have the capability to act on it impulsively, and that creates a much greater challenge for us than was ever the case before,” says psychologist Stuart Vyse, PhD, author of Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money.4
This crisis seemed to come about in 1976 with the creation of L.L. Bean’s mail-order catalog that enabled consumers to call in and place their orders. This would soon be followed by the rage of the TV’s home shopping networks. In the mid 80’s, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 infomercials aired per week. Now an average of 250,000 infomercials can be seen every week.5 Today, infomercials and home shopping networks together constitute a $94 billion annual industry in the United States. By contrast, in 1999, the total amount spent on medical research in the United States was about $42 billion.6 The fact that consumer advertising was twice that of our medical research is downright terrifying, wouldn’t you agree?
When we compare Americans today with those from the 1950’s, we (on average) own twice as many cars per person, eat out twice as much, and have endless commodities that were previously unavailable – big screen TVs, handheld devices, microwave ovens, to name a few. Despite the fact that we are living in an age of excess and convenience, research indicates that Americans’ well-being has declined. With the invention of the Internet (thanks, Al Gore) people have unbridled access to just about anything we
need want – making it frighteningly easy to spend next week’s paycheck whether you’re at home or on the road. The boundaries are limitless, and this is both disheartening and sad.
Americans today average six hours per week shopping, compared to only forty minutes playing with their children.7 Let that sink in. We have more shopping malls than high schools. The compulsion to buy has turned in to a widespread pandemic and is festering at the deepest core of our nation’s soul. So often the urge to buy has nothing to do with a directly related need of a particular item, but is rather an attempt at filling a void in one’s life. With each purchase comes a temporary reprieve from an otherwise unfulfilling life. The simple act of buying takes precedence over that which is bought.
I don’t want to dive much deeper down the “consumerism rabbit hole” but it seems far too relevant and directly related a topic to not give it its due attention.
While the Beatles may have coined the all-too-familiar phrase “Money Can’t Buy Me Love,” we’d be wise to remember that money can’t buy happiness, either. Research has shown that there is no direct correlation between income and happiness. Once our basic needs are met, wealth makes very little difference to one’s overall well-being and happiness.8 In fact, extremely wealthy people actually suffer from higher rates of depression.9
The problem isn’t so much in having more, or working to accumulate “nicer” things, it’s rather that in striving for more, it’s nearly impossible to not fall victim to becoming overly attached to the superficial while simultaneously chasing the illusion of happiness. “The failure of additional wealth and consumption to help people have satisfying lives may be the most eloquent argument for reevaluating our current approach to consumption,” the authors of Worldwatch Institute’s 2011 State of Consumption report wrote.10
Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology,” notes Hope College psychologist David G. Myers, PhD, author of the article, which appeared in the American Psychologist (Vol. 55, No. 1). “Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being.
On a positive note (about time, right?), there does appear to be a “light at the end of the tunnel” for our society’s obsession with “things.” In a study conducted by American Express in 2013, only about one in four Americans believes that wealth determines success. Continued research indicates that finding satisfaction (or enough) in life comes in minimizing materialistic possessions.
“Americans ranked their top five contributors to success, with 85 percent saying that good health is essential. Other contributors to success included finding time for the “important things in life” (83 percent), having a good marriage or relationship (81 percent), good management of personal finances (81 percent), having a good work-life balance (79 percent), and having a job or career you love (75 percent). But keeping an open and flexible mindset was the most universal ingredient for success: The overwhelming majority of Americans (94 percent) agree that being open to change is essential to a successful life.”11
For Type A personalities (myself included), finding enough seems to be even more difficult. No only is it ingrained in our DNA to never settle, always strive for me, and to never be satisfied, but there’s research that links Type A personalities with a strong desire to define success by materialistic values and possessions. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology reiterated the finding that the desire to accumulate wealth and possessions is often directly related to Type-A qualities.
“The failure of additional wealth and consumption to help people have satisfying lives may be the most eloquent argument for reevaluating our current approach to consumption,” the authors of Worldwatch Institute’s 2011 State of Consumption report wrote.
I am certainly not immune to wants and often times “lose the battle,” just ask my wife. But I have learned to recognize a want from a need and examine the heart of the desire. A common mantra I tell myself is that I have everything and more than I possibly want or need. This helps me in my constant journey to achieve simplicity. When you have the urge to buy something, think about whether it’s a need or a want. If it’s a want, take a step back and consider why you want it. Are you not content with what you already have? A popular practice (for which I don’t take credit) is to put wants on a 30-day waitlist. Write the date next to the item you want, and in 30 days’ time, if you still want it, you can buy it.
When your choices turn you into someone who has to worry about money, then you are not rich…no matter how much you make.– Ryan Holiday
As I previously touched on earlier, finding “enough” often goes hand-in-hand with striving for simplicity. It’s about being content with less, with a simpler life, rather than always wanting more, always acquiring more, and still never being content. Simplicity means examining why you want more, and solving that issue at its core. At the root of wanting more is not being content with what you have. How little can you have and still feel that it’s enough? Challenge yourself to determine how simple you can make your life, how few things you can possess and still feel satisfied. Once you’ve learned to be content, you don’t need more. You can stop acquiring, and start enjoying.
A question I often ask myself is whether or not it’s wrong to want (and accumulate) “nice things.” Or is it only bad when a desire to obtain things is grounded in the misconception that achieving those things will give a feeling of contentment and in turn put us one step closer to finding enough? While I think the answer is somewhat subjective and individualized, I’m confident that for most of us, it’s nearly impossible to consistently acquire nice things and focus the energy associated with that effort, all while not becoming distracted from the things that truly add value to your life. I think the more poignant question to ask is this: if you feel you need to justify your desire for more, isn’t your mindset and focus already off-kilter? It’s my opinion that material things are neither good nor bad. But rather it is the role and priority they are assigned in one’s life that can be problematic. The key is to find balance: to appreciate what you have, but not at the expense of the things that really matter.
Many people are so obsessed with finding enough in their life that they never end up living it.– Me
The term enough gets a bad rap. When used in relation to “the having of” enough, it’s commonly associated with complacency or worse yet, laziness. When in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, it’s an obvious association – and yet, in essence, is somewhat of a paradox. After all, isn’t it the constant desire for excellence and improvement that enables us to achieve success and greatness in the first place? You see, no one ever achieves greatness by being satisfied with where they currently are in life. Whether it’s a dissatisfaction with their place on the corporate ladder, their health and well-being, the quality of their relationships, or even the number of zeros in the bank account. It’s in the self-awareness and acknowledgement that they in fact are not exceptional that drives them to strive and ultimately achieve greater things.
Unfortunately, it’s often in the drive to do more, be more, work harder, and achieve higher levels of success that ultimately prevents us from ever experiencing the feeling of enough. That burning need for progress is all but guaranteed to prevent us from enjoying the process. Most of us never learn that our accomplishments will never give us the fulfillment we think they will. Worse yet, we only come to this realization after the countless loss of time, money, relationships and inner peace have been, as Ryan Holiday so eloquently puts it, “sacrificed on the altar of achievement.” We finally cross the finish line and think: Wow, this is it?
If you live your life by the world’s metric of enough “buy a big house, drive a fancy car” and you spend your life working to achieve those things, once you succeed (and you likely will, congratulations), the metric has nothing left to give you. It’s the journey that gives us the peace and contentment of enough and the happiness that immediately follows, not some arbitrary achievements.
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.Lao Tzu
Are the goals, dreams, and aspirations you’re striving for things that YOU genuinely want for yourself, or rather things being imposed on you by your surrounding? Are they things you think you are expected to want?
We choose whether we are happy or unhappy.
There’s nothing wrong with working towards a greater level of accomplishment, so long as you recognize that achieving what you strive for will never bring you contentment. It will never be enough, you’ll never quite reach that goal and with every “mountain you summit,” there’s another off in the distance beckoning your name. Finding enough will finally allow you to live with the freedom that comes with no longer allowing yourself to be distracted by the unimportant and frivolous. Why would you ever stress about chasing more, more, more? External accomplishments will never bring fulfillment. Living with enough comes when we recognize that we’ve always had everything we think we ever wanted. We have enough. We are enough.
1 | For more on this, see: Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday. Joseph Heller most famously wrote the American Cult Classic, Catch-22 while Kurt Vonnegut’s most popular work was most likely Slaughterhouse Five.
2 | Harvard, Consumerism, Conformity, and Uncritical Thinking in America (Harvard 2000, 3rd Year Paper)
3 | NY Times, What’s In a Name: The Allure of Labels (NY Times Jan. 9, 2000)
4 | Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money
5 | Evelyn Theiss, Few Will Admit to TV Shopping, But the Sales are Skyrocketing, Grand Rapids Press, Feb. 3, 1999, at D5
6 | The $42 billion is broken down as follows: private industry spent about $24 billion (See E.M. Kolass, The Cost of Research, Generic Firms Get a Free Ride, Washington Times, Dec. 6, 1999, at A17); and the United States government spent about $18 billion (See Examining the Budget for 2001, Portland Oregonian, Feb. 8, 2000, at A6.)
7 | John De Graf, The Overspent American/ Luxury Fever, Amicus Journal, July 1, 1999 (book review)
8 | HuffPost, The Psychology of Materialism and Why It’s Making You Unhappy, Dec. 6, 2017.
9 | Steve Taylor, The Madness of Materialism, Mar. 10, 2012.
10 | Worldwatch Institute was a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington D.C. that closed its offices in 2017.
11 | HuffPost, Finding Happiness: Americans Care More About Pursuing Personal Passions Than Wealth, Survey Finds, May 15, 2015.