Can We Ever Really Have Enough?
January 2004. I’d been in the financial business for five years. Having spent the first four on the institutional side, I was a newly minted financial advisor, building a business from scratch without a salary or stipend. And then came our first child and the decision to eliminate our only predictable income stream.
I remember seeing the checking account dip down into double digits and comparing a looming stack of bills with a spotty pipeline of new business—unwilling to voice aloud a recurring daydream:
If I only had a guaranteed salary of $X with an annual cost of living adjustment, I’d be fine with that for the rest of my career.
Hah! Looking back, I’m glad the genie didn’t emerge from the bottle. But that didn’t stop me from returning to a new-and-improved version of the daydream in January of 2009.
Business had been good, and income was stable, but now with two kiddos, a puppy, and a very recent housing upgrade to accommodate our growth as a family, I was comparing our household budget to the daily headlines announcing a financial crisis that was starting to rival an event that shall not be named from the late twenties with the initials G. D. As the stock market was crashing, uncertainty was peaking.
If only I had a guaranteed salary of $Y with a bank account of $Z, that would be enough.
Have you ever had these kinds of conversations with yourself? And have you ever not expanded your definition of enough in the future?
If so, you’re not broken.
Why is enough never enough?
Apparently, we’re wired for dissatisfaction. Social scientist and Harvard Business School professor, Arthur Brooks, explains that “satisfaction—the joy from fulfillment of our wishes or expectations—is evanescent.”
Evanescent. Wait—isn’t that a band name? (Close.) Brooks explains further that satisfaction “is the greatest paradox of human life. We crave it, we believe we can get it, we glimpse it and maybe even experience it for a brief moment, and then it vanishes. But we never give up on our quest to get and hold on to it.”
This is partly explained by a term most of us learned in high school: homeostasis. Our body is always seeking equilibrium so as we experience highs or lows, something is trying to bring us back to normal.
A biological example is evident in the consumption of alcohol or other recreational drugs. The experience was never more vivid than the first time, thanks to the dopamine rush in the brain’s pleasure center. Thereafter, it requires more and more of the drug to achieve the same result because our bodies are creating less dopamine naturally to balance out the external influx. Our bodies effectively create a new normal.
It works the same way for our emotions, Brooks instructs. “When you get an emotional shock—good or bad—your brain wants to re-equilibrate, making it hard to stay on the high or low for very long.” Especially in the case of positive emotions, he writes. “It’s why, when you achieve conventional, acquisitive success,” like the pursuits of money, power, and prestige, “you can never get enough.”
What can we do?
So, is lasting contentment—enough—just elusive, or is it impossible? While we might be fighting an uphill biological battle, thankfully, there are steps we can take to find genuine satisfaction. Let’s consider a trio of possibilities that you can apply as soon as, well, now:
1) Work with the science. If we’re wired for achievement, let’s just give ourselves more opportunities for that endorphin rush. One way we can achieve more is to do less, what productivity guru, Cal Newport, calls “The Einstein Principle.”
Another way is to break larger goals into bite-sized chunks. Each member of my company’s senior leadership team has a few stated goals for the year. But then we each establish a single, quarterly “rock” (thanks, Stephen Covey) that is comprised of three 30-day milestones (thanks, Gino Wickman), and we meet weekly to discuss our progress (or lack thereof) on meeting those goals.
Then, we can derive even more satisfaction from our daily pursuits, as Daniel Pink reminds us, through the identification and pursuit of our MIT—Most Important Task—every day.
2) Want less. Because the achievement and accumulation of more can never satisfy, “the secret is to manage our wants,” says Arthur Brooks. “By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.”
One of the best want-less strategies I can recommend is a brief exercise to examine the cost of our wants. As my good friend, Pat Goodman, taught me: “You can’t just want what you want; you have to want what your wants lead to.” Whether you’re considering one more cocktail after a night of merriment or a new purchase, this wisdom is eminently applicable.
You can’t just want the cocktail unless you also want the mental fog the next morning. You can’t just want to double the square footage of your house; you have to want to double your mortgage payment (maybe triple with the rise in rates!) and double your cost of utilities and maintenance.
Our wants tend to present themselves as temptations without tradeoffs, but there is no such thing. And by pausing to consider the cost of our wants, it can have the effect of diminishing their power in our minds.
3) Count your blessings. If Arthur Brooks is right that our “satisfaction equals our haves divided by our wants,” it makes mathematical sense that we can increase our satisfaction by decreasing our wants. But isn’t it also possible to increase the value of our haves—without actually having more—through the practice of gratitude?
The power of gratitude is well-worn for a reason—because it works. I asked Brian Portnoy, the author of multiple best-selling books and founder of the consulting firm, Shaping Wealth, whose mission is “funded contentment for everyone,” if there’s anything we can do to be more content.
He responded, “Contentment starts with gratitude, with the observation that there are good things in the world and that we are blessed by them. This isn’t always obvious or easy; life is hard. But to pause and reflect on the good is a power within everyone’s reach, one we can all avail ourselves of, at least from time to time.”
Ironically, I began writing this article in a state of discontentment, bemoaning to my wife that I was struggling to find an optimal zone of concentration, having been “kicked out of my home office.” She didn’t even need to say anything before I remembered that my oldest son just got home from his first year of college, we’re fortunate enough to have his delightful girlfriend staying with us for a few days, and by allowing my office to act as a guest room, she’s able to have some privacy and a comfortable place to sleep.
The most important people in my life, together.
What more could I want?
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