To be happy, you first need to define your enough. Understanding three key theories that impact happiness will help us go from always wanting more to saying we have enough.
Years ago, on a visit to India, I was on a road trip with my family. We were traveling between two major cities, driving past many quaint little villages. We pulled over by a roadside tea shop (Starbucks hadn’t yet invaded those areas) in one such village, to stretch our legs.
There, I noticed a few men leisurely drinking chais (teas) in sturdy, not-so-fancy glasses. One of the men had the local newspaper sprawled out in front. The radio was playing a retro tune, interspersed with very chatty hosts, radio jockeys as they’re referred to locally. It seemed to me, to be a peaceful coexistence of loud and quiet at the same time.
It was 10.30 am on a regular Wednesday morning in February. I was on my vacation thousands of miles away from my day job. Had I been at work, I would’ve likely been beavering away on some design specification document or attending another status update meeting relating to project schedules or resource constraints. I contrasted that to the chai-sipping, paper-perusing man in front, who seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere.
The contrast between us couldn’t have been starker. Me, in fancier clothes emerging from a somewhat of a luxury vehicle and he, with his weather-beaten hands and face, ambling around in worn-out sandals. Physical appearances aside, the sharper disparity between us was in our perception of time. He had the air of someone who had all the time in the world. I, however, was aware of every passing minute since I was on a 3-week vacation with a mile-long list I wanted to check off during that time.
Road Trip Wisdom
My inner voice could not resist using the word Lazy to describe him. All my biases and prejudices were on standby. I stayed on my high horse and continued to judge his lack of productivity. I may have even used this episode to lecture a person or two during that trip about the value of hard work and how to use time effectively. Cringe!
Soon, my vacation ended. A life filled with said design specs, carpool, unloading dishwashers, and folding laundry ensued. Then, one day when I was especially frazzled and overwhelmed, I thought of this person on the other side of the world leisurely sipping a cup of chai with not-a-care in the world.
I didn’t realize it back then, but instead of describing him as Lazy, the appropriate term to describe the situation would have been Jealous. Me of him. Not the other way around. I was envious of how little he had to do compared to my busy and hectic life.
Subsequently, a few questions begged to be answered. Who was forcing me to over-schedule my life? To what purpose? What was I chasing after and why?
The obvious answer has been staring back at me all these years. But, it’s one I, and I guess most of us are conditioned to ignore.
The answer is: not knowing what Enough is. Let's see what Define your enough means. In every sense.
We’ve been schooled from early on about the order to get things done in our lives. The advice goes something like this:
Study hard, get a job. Get a better job, climb the corporate ladder. Buy a house, buy a bigger house, and start filling it with toys. Get a car, or two. Get a boat or a yacht. Keep up with the Joneses. Then spend time taking care of what you built and what you acquired, all while living in fear that someone or something may take it all away.
Nowhere to be seen is the advice to ‘Define your Enough’.
In essence, our life choices can be described by one word - MORE. Buy more. Get more. Do more.
Our chase for more begins at 20. At 80 we turn back and realize we chased after the wrong More. If we are lucky to last that long, that is.
Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen - Mark Twain.
Ain’t that the truth?
Do you know who said, ‘I wish I had earned an extra $2000 or bought that beautiful blue couch’ while on their death bed? No one. Ever.
The lure of more
It’s not just about material possessions. More comes in many forms. More vacations, more things to do, more titles, more power, more domination.
To keep this discussion simple and practical, I’ll stick to talking about material excesses in this post. It’s something most can relate to. Other excesses follow a similar pattern. So, feel free to extrapolate.
We all have our obsessions with stuff – just different types of stuff.
Before I go further, let me address the elephant in the room. The irony of me proselytizing about less stuff is not lost on me.
Full disclosure: I love stuff. I have a very close relationship with Amazon’s shopping cart. We’re soul sisters. She seems to have a cure for every ailment of mine from boredom to wisdom. I’ve never been able to refuse her kindness.
Therefore, this essay on how to Define your Enough is as much a note to self as anything else. I do hope others out there may find some resonance with these words.
3 Theories that impact Happiness
To define your enough, you first need to understand three fundamental theories about happiness and hankering.
1. Stuff does not make us happy
You’ve probably heard of the $75K Happiness study. Based on a 2018 Gallup survey of about 1.7 million people from 164 countries worldwide published in the journal Nature, emotional well-being aka Happiness peaks at about $75,000 in annual income. The figure is slightly higher in wealthier nations - $95K, if other factors are considered. Beyond that, there is no discernible relationship between happiness and income.
Even more interesting is this quote from the study.
In certain parts of the world, incomes beyond satiation are associated with lower life evaluations.
The gist: You need enough money to have your basic needs met. Beyond that, money does not make you happy. If it did, we wouldn’t have celebrities' or billionaires' pictures routinely showing up in gossip columns touting their latest mishap.
2. Hedonic adaptation is a real thing
Why does money or stuff not make us happy? Simply because we are human. We adapt. We are good at that.
Social scientists Brickman and Campbell coined the term 'Hedonic Treadmill' in 1971 to describe how we tend to return to a baseline level of happiness regardless of how events play out around us.
Let’s say your decade-old car is giving you some problems. You eye a new Tesla for many months, work hard for it, haggle with the car salesman to get the deal of the century, and drive home in your shiny new car. You can’t get enough of your car for the first few weeks. Your happiness knows no bounds. Your friends are first excited for you, but after multiple test drives you insist they take, they’re plain annoyed because you won’t shut up about it.
Then, slowly, unbeknownst to you, you start to adapt. About 6 months in, while you still appreciate the car, the newness has worn off, both literally and emotionally. You don’t get the same level of pleasure you did initially.
This phenomenon is called Hedonic Adaptation.
Hedonic adaptation can also be a force for good. Why? Imagine something traumatic that has happened and the pain it caused the first time. The passage of time helps heal that pain. When someone loses a limb in an accident, the loss of the limb can be devastating. But over time, the person adapts to the new reality. It is still painful but he has had time to come to terms with it. He adapts.
The fact that we adapt to new pleasures has a flip side. We are constantly looking for ways to improve upon or enhance that experience. When you get a raise at work, you’re initially elated. But over time, you don’t squeal every time you look at your paycheck. Because the new salary is your new baseline. Then, you start to look for something more. A bonus, perhaps or a better paying job.
This is where we start to climb the hedonic treadmill.
A teetotaler starts to enjoy a glass of wine every night with her meal. Soon, one glass of wine becomes two, and so on because the first glass is not sufficient enough to take the edge off anymore.
Every material item you acquire or taste or feel is subject to the same law. Sooner or later they’ll stop meaning as much to you as they did the first time around because you get used to it.
The sooner we recognize Hedonic adaptation to be similar to Newton’s laws of gravity i.e. an unchangeable fact, the better it is for us. Although knowing does not mean we’ll stop hankering, understanding the theory can at least help us put together a plan of action, to define our enough.
3. Beware of the Scarcity Mindset
In 2013, two prominent Economists, Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif wrote up a research paper on what they termed the Scarcity Mindset. Essentially, when you’re short on any resource – money, time, emotions - your brain creates a scarcity mindset.
In doing so, your brain makes you feel like you are always going to be lacking in that resource. So, you end up making poor decisions by only focusing on that problem to the detriment of other areas. In short, your brain creates a tunnel vision that could potentially have longer-term adverse consequences.
For instance, just look at how everyone stocked up on nonperishables such as Toilet paper when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit. The actions were anything but rational, created in the scarcity mindset that the world will be out of TP.
We accumulate money because we think we may run out of it soon. We mass-pile material possessions because we’re afraid we may not be able to afford them later.
To borrow Newton’s line again, All actions have an equal and opposite reaction. The time you used to mass-pile material is time you could have spent doing something more meaningful.
To stop hoarding behaviors such as this, we need the opposite of a scarcity mindset. An abundance mindset. The belief that there is plenty out there for everybody. In other words, don’t stock stuff in your home in a way that’ll make Walmart come to you for stock replenishment.
Define your Enough
Yes, you understand the 3 theories above. They make sense, intuitively.
But how do we go from knowing to doing?
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
Here are five simple steps to define your enough:
- Practice Gratitude: Broken record alert: I have harped about the importance of maintaining a daily Gratitude habit. Just do it. You’ll learn to be thankful for things you already have instead of yearning for what you don’t have.
- Practice Mindfulness Meditation: Mindful reflection, through the practice of Meditation will help unearth for you the real reasons behind your deep desires for stuff. It’s cheaper, easier and more fun than therapy. Not that I have anything against therapists.
- Give more than you take: Volunteer, donate, participate in the community. A popular study by Harvard Professor, Michael Norton, proved that money can buy you happiness IF you spend it on others. Try it.
- Cultivate Empathy: Closely tied to Gratitude, a quick way to stop hankering and learning to be content is by cultivating Empathy for others. Understanding our privileges in contrast to the challenges other, less fortunate people face is key to finding out what’s enough for us. You’ll stop moaning because your shoes are not great when you meet someone who has no feet.
- Distinguish between needs and wants: Easier said than done, I know. Need is buying a good, solid pair of shoes. Want is buying 10 pairs to match outfits that you don’t even own yet. I know it’s not always as cut and dried as this. But practicing with the easy stuff will help us deal with the difficult decisions later.
To borrow a line from the iconic movie Harry met Sally, we always want ‘what she’s having’!
There is no dearth of shiny objects for us to hanker after. Insta Envy and FB Envy are real.
It does not take long for us to go from content, let me just scroll on social media to full-on, my life sucks, why can’t I have a house, body, car, vacation, family, following as she does.
And if we are lucky enough to get those things, there’s always something else.
When you define your enough, you have found the key to your happiness.
As one chai-sipping, paper-perusing stranger taught me, it’s not always what it seems.
Some want the diamond watch, others value time
Nature journal study on Happiness and money - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0277-0