It’s Friday night, better known as Burrito Night in my household. I look forward to this night more than I should admit, but after a long week of working, parenting, and being compelled to wear pants that don’t have an elastic waist, I’m looking for comfort. I don’t generally do halfsies on dinner, so the giant meal in a soft tortilla package is mine. All mine.
However, since I sometimes like to think of myself as a refined lady, I try to put away that gluttonous thought and replace it with a more moderate one: this burrito is enormous; I will eat only half and can then look forward to eating the rest of it tomorrow. The burrito is the size of a small dog, so this isn’t a crazy thought and it really shouldn’t be such a challenge.
But it is. In no time at all, I’ve hit the center of the burrito deliciousness. I don’t mean to be overly vivid, but it tastes so good and has such a warming and bolstering effect on my body that, simply put, I’d rather keep eating than stop. And herein lies my regular Friday challenge: do I follow the all-in path, or the more moderate one?
Longing for a feel-good moment after a long week is human. Whether we are in the office or at home, the days and weeks can feel long and the stress never-ending. In those exhausted moments, it’s normal to want to let go and simply feel happy. And so, we find ourselves seeking out happiness—in the way that happiness is traditionally defined—through experiences of pleasure and gratification.
But happiness can also be defined another way: that is, as the pursuit of living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Working towards living a meaningful life may not be immediately gratifying. In fact, it might give rise to uncomfortable feelings, because, of course, a life lived fully encompasses the full range of emotions. And yet this type of happiness pursuit provides a satisfying sense of a life well lived that can stick with you, even in those moments of experiencing unwanted emotions.
The difference in these two happiness definitions is a core feature of a modern, scientifically-backed treatment called acceptance and commitment therapy (or ACT, pronounced as a single word). This treatment, developed by psychologist Dr. Steve Hayes, promotes the pursuit of happiness through meaningful living. In prioritizing meaningful living over more immediate emotional gratification, ACT works to interrupt the ‘happiness trap’ (so dubbed by Dr. Russ Harris in his self-help book on ACT) that can keep you stuck in that never-ending loop.
Because happiness sought through pleasure and gratification is so fleeting, chasing these forms of happiness will naturally prod you towards excessive behaviors. And while burrito consumption may be a simpler exercise for you than it is for me, most of us tussle with some form of this dilemma. Whether you are prompted to lean in harder at work, complete a to-do list to ensure a pristine kitchen (and buy the attendant storage bins, of course), or sign your children up for weekly soccer, tennis, and sausage casing lessons, the expectation is that happiness and satisfaction will come if you seek more. But the loop never ends, and we never feel fully satisfied.
But even conceding the downsides of more-is-more living doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with the idea of moderation. For many of us, the word “moderation” brings to mind a sense of ordinariness and mediocrity; a giving up of excellence, success, or even that simple pathway to big pleasure.
Still, what if avoiding excess had the potential to open up a richer life by making room for multiple worlds of meaningful and fulfilling engagement? In this way, moderation in your work life could make more room for family life. Perhaps moderation in the purchase of your dream home would leave more money for travel. And maybe avoiding binge watching the next Netflix release would give you time to have a conversation—perhaps even sex—with that old partner of yours.
So rather than continuing to seek the next happy high, you might instead allow yourself to be guided by the quest for your most meaningful life. In so doing, consider opening yourself up to the power of moderation. Sure, it’s no cakewalk to stop doing something that feels good. But if entertaining moderated behaviors geared towards a meaningful life can help you to exit from the never-ending loop of pleasure chasing, it might be worthwhile to experiment. In moderation, of course.
Embracing moderation can take many forms. But, a first step in this experiment is to take a pause before engaging in your most typical gratification-seeking behavior. During that pause, reflect on what you normally do and try out a more moderate behavior. This might mean you head home from the office in time for dinner, decide to opt out of hosting your child’s lavish 2nd birthday bash (or maybe just cancel the pony rides), and perhaps discontinue eating the burrito at the halfway point.
Trying out new behaviors is more than likely to bring up unwelcome feelings. But, as the hilariously titled self-help book, F*ck Feelings suggests, it can be far more effective to let your values guide your behavioral choices than to leave your feelings fully in charge. Plus, the benefits of making room for more of the pieces of life that are meaningful to you can make that discomfort worthwhile.
Because, after all, eating only half the burrito will leave you more room for dessert.
1. Harris R. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books; 2008.
2. Bennett M, Bennett S. F*ck Feelings. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2015.