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Is Settling Always Bad?

Four ways to "settle" for more.

Key points

  • Our culture pushes us to strive for bigger, better, and more and to not settle for less than the best.
  • Settling is usually defined by accepting less than what we deserve or an unhealthy outcome, but this may not always be the case.
  • Settling can be beneficial if it means accepting what is imperfect while acknowledging the value and benefits.
RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

I recently came across an Instagram post encouraging people not to settle for “good enough.” “We were meant for more!” was written in bold letters across a photo that clearly depicted some sort of tropical island adventure.

More.

More excitement, more happiness, more romance, more beauty, more money, more luxury … more exhaustion?

I often see clients end up in that place of depletion while in the relentless pursuit of more. The question I encourage them to think about is this: When will “more” become “enough”?

In their book The Molecule of More, authors Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long detail the ways in which the neurotransmitter dopamine regulates pleasure and reward. Once that experience is no longer new, we don’t see dopamine released any longer.. This is why Lieberman and Long call dopamine “the molecule of more.” Once pleasurable experiences become ordinary or routine, dopamine is no longer triggered, and so we are compelled to search for more. We look for a new way to find the same intensity of pleasure to feel satisfied.

This explains why after you bought those shoes that you wanted for months, you stopped thinking about them and actually started to fixate on another pair you didn’t have. It’s why your relationship may have begun with passion and fire but now feels comfortable, familiar, and, dare I say, less exciting. When dopamine disappears, we tend to find ways to generate it and the feelings associated with it again.

So no, more will never be enough, unless we make the choice to end that cycle. Settling for enough is one way to do this.

When we think of settling, we may automatically envision an outcome that is less than what we might deserve or accepting a fate of wasted potential. No one wants to “settle” in a relationship or in a career that is unfulfilling. Yet many of these situations aren’t so black and white. What I have seen in practice is that because of our cultural drive for more, many of us miss what is good right in front of us. Constantly comparing, we fixate on more and better, so the idea of accepting what is not the best, perhaps imperfect, yet still very good often is considered “settling.” We automatically dismiss those options because we are told we should.

For example, most long-term, healthy relationships change, have problems, and lose the intensity of initial attraction. That is normal. At the same time, bonds deepen, love strengthens and couples can discover a new level of understanding and security in their partner. Your job may not be exciting as it was, but affords flexibility that enhances your personal and family life and therefore strengthens your mental health and relationships.

In both situations, there may be a case for forgoing some benefits and settling for others.

The perpetual search for more is stressful and generally prevents us from acknowledging what is good already. For this reason, I have begun to ask myself when I'm stuck in the pursuit of more, “Is what I have good enough?”

To some that might appear to be settling, but to me it’s the acceptance of something that is both inherently “good” and also “enough.” It is the realization that I don’t need the best all the time to be fulfilled. I have found that when my clients adopt this practice they begin to release stress and find contentment in what is good and already theirs. Ironically, they do find more—more of those things that truly satisfy.

Four ways to “settle” for more

Practice gratitude: Gratitude focuses our brain on what is good already activating appreciation circuits that release different mood-elevating neurochemicals such as serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Studies show that thinking of and writing down three positive things a day lead to less depression and anxiety, a better outlook on life, and even improved physical health outcomes.

Pause and reflect: Take a moment to pause, take a few deep breaths, and pay attention to a pleasurable experience you are engaged in. You might call this being present in the moment. It might be hiking in the mountains on a brisk day, enjoying a cozy holiday gathering, cheering at an exciting hockey game, or relaxing in front of a blazing fire. Notice the details and what is good—sights, sounds, and smells. We often miss the beauty of the moment because our minds are fixated on the next thing we have to do. When we pay attention, our brain remembers these pleasurable moments and can recall them in the future—releasing once again those happy neurochemicals, which still can lift our spirits even when the experience is long gone.

Connect: Studies show that our level of life satisfaction is connected to the quality of our relationships. Rather than looking for a new relationship, perhaps we can invest in the ones we have. Make the time to connect with the people most important to you and not only will it help to alleviate stress and increase well-being, but moments like these also add up to a fulfilling life. Schedule a coffee, a quick lunch, phone call, or walk with someone you care about. It might just be the best 30 minutes of your week.

Give: As we approach this season of giving, it is interesting to note some of the greatest benefits of giving are actually experienced by the giver. When we engage in an act of giving of our time or resources to help another, we experience the full trifecta of neurochemicals related to happiness and reward: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. MRI imaging also suggests that during an act of compassion our brain resembles that of someone in love. When it comes to experiencing a life of more, giving is a win-win for all.

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