Sam Radford

February 9, 2022

When less is more—the path to satisfaction

My friend, Ryan, sent me a quite brilliant article in The Atlantic by Arthur C. Brooks this morning. It’s adapted from a book he has coming out next month. He explores the age-old dilemma of how we find satisfaction in life. The key, it seems, is wanting less, but we all know that isn’t easy. It is abundantly clear though, as Brooks writes, that wanting more and having more will never deliver satisfaction:

Each accomplishment thrilled me for a day or a week—maybe a month, never more—and then I reached for the next rung on the ladder...

...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...

...If you base your sense of self-worth on success—money, power, prestige—you will run from victory to victory, initially to keep feeling good, and then to avoid feeling awful...

...Success is relative. Satisfaction requires not just that you continuously run in place on your own hedonic treadmill, but that you run slightly faster than other people are running on theirs.

None of this is to say that money, power, or prestige is all bad though:

...worldly rewards are [not] inherently evil. In fact, they can be used for great good. Money is crucial for a functioning society and supporting your family; power can be wielded to lift others up; pleasure leavens life; and honor can attract attention to the sources of moral elevation. But as attachments—as ends instead of means—the problem is simple: They cannot satisfy.

And if these cannot satisfy, and wanting more and having more never satisfy, we have to think differently about our pursuit of satisfaction. Which brings us to wanting less:

...As we grow older in the West, we generally think we should have a lot to show for our lives—a lot of trophies. According to numerous Eastern philosophies, this is backwards. As we age, we shouldn’t accumulate more to represent ourselves, but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, to find happiness and peace. (Emphasis mine.)

...The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.

I can speak from personal experience and say that managing our wants is no small task. And, as Brooks points out, we’re going against our evolutionary history, and our culture, if we choose to pursue a different path. But if we want to live a satisfying life, that different path would seem to be the only way. 

Brooks ends the article by sharing three habits that have helped him on his own journey towards wanting less. I won’t replicate these here, but they’re worth reading, along with the entire essay.

—Sam

Got some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you—do hit reply or drop me a note.

@samradford | samradford.com