Isn’t Success About Having Enough?
I am a 59-year-old American. I don’t own a home. I don’t own a car. The furniture that I sit upon and the bed that I sleep in is not
my own. Most of the mementos that I accumulated over the years are gone. I have no material reminders of my school days; no physical reminders of 25 years on the job and only a very few special family keepsakes and small collectibles that I hold dear.
It didn’t use to be this way. A decade ago, I owned a home and a house full of nice furniture. I drove new cars and filled my rooms with electronics, keepsakes, and memorabilia. I had a country club membership and an embarrassment of “boy toys.” But, all of those things are gone. Sold, given away, or discarded. There was no misfortune or other disaster that befell me. I saw that those things impeded me from accomplishing what I wanted from life, so I got rid of them.
And I have never felt freer, more content or happier.
It is estimated that the average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from thumbtacks to televisions. Over the last century, the average American house has grown 74% larger, and the supply of self-storage space has grown over 400% in just the last two decades.
You would assume that with all of this “stuff” and more room to store it, Americans would be happier than ever. However, surveys show that, as a group, Americans (who as a country have never made it into the top ten of the World Happiness Report) are now more unhappy than ever.
I came of age in the early 1980s. The economist Milton Friedman was on PBS, talking about how a corporation’s only responsibility is to increase profits. “Wall Street” the movie was playing in theaters espousing the philosophy of “greed is good.” Ronald Wilson Reagan was on televisions everywhere, telling us that if the government would get out of the way, we would all be able to have more and claim a larger share of the American Dream.
Income inequality in the United States is a growing issue, but even though far too many are falling behind, most people have at least the very basics. However, even after our basic needs are taken care of, it is human nature to irrationally desire more and more, despite having no concept of where to stop. Unlimited ambition is often seen as a desirable trait, but by definition, a person with this condition will never be satisfied. Maybe the new, high profile venture, or job promotion, will bring satisfaction. Is it the new car or the next pair of shoes that will finally make you happy? Perhaps a new smartphone or designer handbag will do the trick.
Want is a bottomless hole that can never be filled. Enough is far more subjective. Once you have the basics, enough is not an achievement; it is a decision.
Writer Kurt Vonnegut told a story about a party he attended with the novelist Joseph Heller at the home of a hedge-fund billionaire. When Vonnegut playfully pointed out to Heller that their host makes more money in one day than Heller had ever made off of his famous novel, Catch-22, Heller replied, “yes, but I’ve got something he can never have. I’ve got the knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
To some people, my situation may sound miserable. After all, what kind of person accumulates so many possessions and then gives it all up? They wonder what it is like living without homeownership, or the (false) security of being surrounded by a lifetime of accumulation. But for me, the condition of enough allows me to be more focused, grateful, and able to savor the beauty in my life and in the world around me.
They say a person is the total of all of their experiences in life, not how much land they held or how many possessions they accumulated. It is about their spirit, how fully they lived, and how completely they loved their circumstances.
I learned a long time ago that it is often the people who rise to the pinnacles of wealth and power that never achieve happiness or satisfaction. How sad is that? Materially they may be wealthy beyond imagination but still in dire poverty depending on how you view success.
Sadly, for them, they will never know the secret of real success. What it is like to have enough.