How Much Is Enough?
Many successful people suffer from a serious affliction related to their success, namely chronic dissatisfaction with what they’ve achieved or accumulated. Author Arthur C. Brooks calls it “The Satisfaction Trap.” In an article with that name in the March 2022 Atlantic, he wrote that “Everyone has dreams, and they beckon with promises of sweet, lasting satisfaction if you achieve them. But dreams are liars. When they come true, it’s fine for a while. And then a new dream appears…..no one has ever found that immediate bliss from a major accomplishment or victory will endure.”
This became vividly clear to me years ago when I moved from New York City to L.A. One of the first things I did after arriving was to acquire a brand new Jaguar convertible, fulfilling a dream I’d had ever since high school. But after a few weeks it became just a car. Later I set my sight on buying a home in the storied Hollywood Hills. So I did that, and before long it was just a house. A really nice one, granted, but it didn’t really impact my overall life satisfaction at all.
If you’ve ever written a “bucket list” you’ll discover, halving crossed off half of the list, that you’re no more fulfilled than you were at its start.
This phenomenon is called “the hedonic treadmill.” And it traces to two deeply engrained sources.
First, to Genetics: early humans who were more successful at acquiring goods in their environment of scarcity were more attractive mates, and so passed along those acquisitive genes. Those acquisitive tendencies persist among plenty and regularly exceed our needs*. And genetics in the form of old-fashioned Darwinism, survival of the fittest, has us competing to surpass our colleagues even when such competition has ceased to serve a truly necessary purpose.
Second, to Biology (our internal systems are governed by a process of homeostasis – the process of reestablishing equilibrium, so we are unable to maintain physical or emotional highs for very long).
And there are other major forces pushing us to acquire more than we need. Our entire economic system, Capitalism, pushes us in that direction. Trust me, having been an advertising executive for almost two decades I know! And for parents there’s of course the very real pressure to provide for the children (although that, too, can turn excessive – think elite private kindergartens).
So what’s the answer to finding longer-lasting fulfillment? If only there were one. Brooks describes the ascetic solutions of Buddha and Thomas Aquinas, but for we less saintly mortals he proposes that we consider what struck me as an ingenious equation:
SATISFACTION = WHAT WE HAVE ÷ WHAT WE WANT
So yes, increasing the numerator – what we have – can increase satisfaction temporarily, until the what we want catches up, which it will without focused attention. But this equation also shows that by lowering the denominator – reducing what we want – we can also increase satisfaction.
The best way I know to reduce what we want is to ensure that what we have is genuinely nourishing, thereby reducing the quest for the relatively empty calories of material goods.
So here are some alternatives for you to consider:
- Focusing on deepening caring relationships and building new ones
- Devoting more time and effort on helping others, typically through volunteering
- Creating the kinds of experience whose memory will last. Yes, money can help create those (it’s not cheap to visit the Taj Mahal or Antarctica, or rent a villa on the French Riviera and invite a dozen friends), but lots of wonderful experiences can be crafted for very little: cooking a special dinner, or arranging a surprise party, for example
- Cultivating your spiritual or religious side; fostering a deep sense of peace (another word to describe satisfaction)
- Enhancing your personal evolution: your self confidence, your emotional maturity, or your ability to cope with stress
To summarize, I urge you to reexamine the things for which you’re striving, and look at the achievement of satisfaction through a different lens, which I hope to have described at least briefly.
*Studies have shown that above a level necessary to meet basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and perhaps a little fun, increases in income have very little lasting impact on satisfaction.