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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Finding fulfillment by having enough

I touched on this concept in a recent newsletter, but I wanted to dive into it further here, as it has been something I’ve increasingly tried to live by. Starting new professional endeavors just over six months ago, I found myself quickly thrown into the “go, go, go” atmosphere associated with not just medicine, but virtually any profession in our society. Workaholism is alive and well in the United States, and one could argue it is very much perpetuated by a number of harmful underlying systems we have in place. Nevertheless, many of us either feel the need–or are directly encouraged by our colleagues–to accomplish more, more, more.

Of course this is not just the case in professional life, but in personal life as well. We crave more. We want the latest iPhone, or a new-look wardrobe. We want more food, not because of true hunger, but often because of desire to experience the pleasure of eating again (it does not help that we live in an environment with virtually unlimited access to incredible-tasting food, but that’s a separate point). Maybe we want to exercise more and more, never satisfied with our level of fitness or physique… and so on.

Many of us are probably aware that such things are problems in our materialistic society, but this concept actually transcends merely wanting more possessions. Each of these examples I have referred to is not just some materialist tendency, but they all fall under the category of addiction. When we think about the definition of addiction, we are typically thinking of a strong compulsion towards something that achieves a certain effect, and as a result of repeating that behavior, the effect size wanes with each successive action. In other words, the pleasure you’re getting from the ice cream isn’t as good when you’ve had it all day every day. Regardless, you’re repeating the behavior again and again to try and get the effect you know you want, because you have had it in the past. Now, I’ve written in the past about the actual mechanisms of addiction and strategies for avoiding it, but these strategies for habit-forming are not always all-encompassing or sufficient. The most effective strategy may actually be a mindset shift to recognize such patterns of behavior.

In fact, I think addiction is more prevalent than ever in our society in part because, unfortunately, a lot of its forms can be subtle, entirely unrecognized, or even encouraged. Starting this post out with my own experience in an environment of workaholism recently, I can absolutely tell you that in medicine, this behavior is completely rewarded (and yes, the irony of this being considered a positive attribute in a field focused on improving health is not lost on me). And of course, this is applicable to pretty much any career in a capitalistic meritocracy.

Understandably, our default mode is to want to be the best, to have the most, to be as comfortable as possible. Just for a moment, truly sit back and consider the following: what if what I had was enough? Is there a problem with what I have right now? Are my ambitions, my aspirations, my desires, even possible to realize? Do I really even want whatever I want that bad? Would it truly satisfy me if I had it? Or would I instantly move on to the next thing?

In full transparency, I am as guilty of all of this as anyone. I truthfully do not know that there has been a single achievement in my life that I have really let soak in and appreciated, before almost immediately thinking about what I need to then do next. We all do this, and enter into the endless cycle of “well once I have this, then I’ll truly be happy,” as if such a state of eternal satisfaction actually exists. The analogy is that of a hamster on a wheel who eventually no longer even needs the cheese–it just runs. Because what actually is the end goal? Does the cheese really even exist? Or will there always, always be a different cheese beyond what you now envision, which is bigger and better, and that you need to have?

Hopefully all of these questions are thought-provoking and lead you to the same general conclusion I have made (thanks to insights from many others), which is to truly minimize your “wants” relative to your “haves.” For me, unlocking this perspective has been a key element to finding happiness. The reality is that many of us are never going to make major changes to our haves in the way that we envision (and again, it’s worth pondering if we would really even want to). Thus, the solution is to actively decrease our wants. Do I really want another snack? Or am I just bored and seeking some extra momentary pleasure? Do I really want to be 5% body fat? Or do I look and feel perfectly good with my body right now? Do I actually want more, or do I have enough?

Lastly, at times, embrace discomfort. It is a privilege to live in circumstances that basically allow for constant comfort at all times, but many would agree that this actually does not seem to produce a life of great fulfillment. It really is experiences of hardship that help us appreciate the good times. True enjoyment, physiologically, results from balance and moderation with pulsatile pleasures, not the constant barrage of dopamine that’s seen in addictive behaviors.

A fantastic example of this came as I was speaking to a group of refugees recently from several countries in Africa about preventive health strategies. When the topic of nutrition came up, a man raised his hand to share a beautiful Muslim teaching to demonstrate moderation, in which the Prophet Muhammad emphasizes that one does not ever need to be full. However, “if (one) must (fill his stomach),” it should be one-third with food, one-third with drink, and one-third left empty to allow space to breathe. Essentially, the teaching shows that if we stuff ourselves, we won’t truly enjoy it because it’s physically uncomfortable, to the point where we struggle to even breathe. This is a core example, in an everyday behavior, of finding satisfaction in having enough. To be content with what you have, or have had, or will have, is far easier said than done, but I can assure you that in the long run it will yield far greater net happiness.

I want to close with a famous story I mentioned in the newsletter, because it brilliantly sums up the content of this post. Writers Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were chatting at some billionaire hedge fund manager’s party, when Vonnegut informs Heller that their host made more money in a day than Heller had made in his career. “Yes, but I have something he will never have,” Heller responds. “I have enough.”


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