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How to Be Happy With Less

3 tips to avoid the trap of wanting more.

Key points

  • The trap of always wanting more is that you may undermine the very achievements you had worked so hard to attain.
  • It is impossible to appreciate what you have when you are constantly sprinting toward the next goal.
  • Maintaining a broad perspective of who you are can help you integrate competing roles.
Marten Bjork/Unsplash
Source: Marten Bjork/Unsplash

I scurried to the basement couch to find reprieve for a few minutes. It was Friday evening and I was emotionally drained from a hectic workweek.

As I plopped on the couch, I saw my 3-year-old son playing with a toy train whose color had faded from wear and tear. He was so immersed in play that he did not notice me.

As I watched my son, I made a surprising observation. Though exhausted, I was flooded with a sense of deep satisfaction. I felt pure joy watching him contort his little body to ride his train through imaginary hills and valleys. His high-pitched “choo-choo” sounded like a soothing melody to my ears. I dared not make the slightest sound or motion that would disrupt this blissful moment.

In that moment I came to an important realization: No amount of money or success could replicate this experience. Different professional milestones such as earning a medical degree, becoming chief resident, or giving a TEDx talk paled in comparison to the high I was feeling.

This experience will not end up on my professional resume. Nor will it earn me any praise from colleagues.

But it has had a profound impact on my life. Reflecting on this experience provides me with more joy than any of my professional achievements.

What is beautiful about this experience is that I did not have to work for it. All I had to do was slow down and be present, like my son who was immersed in his train game. Unbeknownst to him, he was showing me how to be in the here and now.

Our daily lives are filled with countless opportunities to find satisfaction. It may be the sound of chirping birds on a sunny morning, sharing a laugh with a loved one, or enjoying a few minutes of silence at the end of a hectic day. The key is to be present to soak them in.

Of course, this is easier said than done. From an evolutionary standpoint, being present does not come naturally to us. One of the functions of the brain is to protect us from potential threats. Hence, we are wired to look into the future and anticipate what can go wrong.

In addition, we are not wired to be satisfied with what we have. Our instinct is to want more. This is what helped our ancestors accumulate enough food to make it through barren periods and stand apart from the competition to find mating partners.

Our environment changes rapidly but evolution occurs at a snail’s pace. We no longer have to worry about falling victim to a cheetah lurking behind a bush or being grabbed by a gator as we drink at a pond. Now we have anxiety about making more money, upgrading our homes, accumulating more followers on social media platforms, and pleasing as many people as possible.

The trap with always wanting more is that you may forget to appreciate what you do have. You can become so fixated on future aspirations that you may take current blessings, such as your family, friends, and health, for granted.

You may also start to undermine the very achievements you worked so hard to attain. I have worked with countless professionals who no longer found meaning in their respective roles as physicians, lawyers, or business owners.

One of the greatest tragedies is to sacrifice years of life to achieve a goal, only to find it devoid of meaning and purpose.

There is nothing wrong with having aspirations to better your life. If you want to get a promotion or earn a degree, go for it. If you want to make more money, have at it.

Such pursuits can come with benefits. You may feel more confident in your abilities after reaching your goals. Success can also propel you into a better position to make a positive contribution to the lives of others.

However, beware of the trap of wanting more. Here are three tips to help you find joy and satisfaction as you strive toward your goals.

1. Know where to set the bar.

Have realistic expectations of how future pursuits will impact your life. Achieving future monetary or professional goals does not guarantee happiness. The satisfaction from tasting the sweet nectar of success is short-lived. It is only a matter of time before you are left craving more.

In the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.”

2. Remain whole

In a society obsessed with productivity and achievement, it is easy to prioritize your professional aspirations at the expense of loved ones. I have worked with many achievement-oriented individuals who had devoted their lives to their careers. They then wondered why their spouses were cold and their kids acted out in their presence.

Remember that your professional identity is only one part of who you are. You also hold other roles with their share of responsibilities. You may be a parent, spouse, sibling, child, or someone's best friend.

Maintain a broad perspective of who you are. It is important to invest in your different roles. Otherwise, you run the risk of sacrificing meaningful relationships for the sake of your career.

3. Press the brakes

It is impossible to appreciate what you have when you are constantly sprinting towards the next goal. Going against societal and evolutionary pressures of constantly chasing more is imperative to observe and appreciate the small things that truly make life meaningful.

Like watching a 3-year-old boy playing with his toy train.

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