What is missing from your life today? What would make you happy, if only you had more of it? Is it money? Many of our problems could be solved by having more of that. With more money I could take a vacation to a country I’ve always wanted to see, or take a different job that offers less pay but a more fulfilling experience. Would more prestige make you happy? If you finally got made partner at your law firm then your friends and parents would know how smart and hard-working you must be, and you will have differentiated yourself as above average in your field. What about a nicer home? IF you could get that newer and bigger place in the safer neighborhood then you could have the extra bedrooms for all of your friends, the pool in the backyard, and how much nicer would those brand-new hardwood floors be?
All the above examples have the ability to make us happy, temporarily at least, but how much is enough? How much money do you really need to be happy? Don’t just read this rhetorically, really answer this question – the answer differs from person to person. Consider your expenses, savings, and how much money you need to do the things you want. Assuming you aren’t frivolously wasting money, you probably need less than you think. Lack of money and anxiety over uncertainties such as where their next meal will come from or if they an keep a roof over their head for the next month are valid concerns for many, but how many people do you know who are obsessed with earning more money? Are you yourself this sort of person? Do you really need to earn $20,000 more or do you just want to? Maybe you do, but a large number of us are chasing income with no real understanding of why and are oblivious to the damage to our wellbeing that such discontent brings. Unless you are struggling to pay bills and cover necessities like food and housing, that extra money you so desperately covet will likely not bring as much happiness as you imagine. How much is enough?
How much is enough for our hypothetical career ladder climber above? After the first promotion from associate to junior partner they will likely feel joy and happiness, reveling in the euphoria of achievement and the congratulations and envy of their friends and colleagues. After a while that fades and they feel the same as they did before, and they are once again searching for more, this time anxious about what it will take to jump from junior partner to senior partner. The person is suffering from a scarcity of true happiness and is looking to comparison of others and to superficial rewards to fill the void of unhappiness. For this person obsessed with climbing the ladder- there is a serious possibility that there will never be enough and that they will always feel a sense of loss.
Lastly we come to the better home. I am sure we all have a dream house in mind. I would love to have a home with 6 bedrooms for friends to visit, floor to ceiling windows to let in the sunlight, and a view of the ocean with a large yard where I can sit and hear the waves crashing. The reality is that I may never come to own my dream home and while I will work to pursue my dreams and attempt to make that a reality, I will not pursue that end to such an extent that I forgo the opportunity to be happy now or that I sacrifice precious moments of my life in pursuit of such a goal.
There is nothing wrong with having ambitious aims like earning more money so you can afford to have certain fun and exciting experiences and the abundance of free time it takes to enjoy them. There is nothing wrong with wanting to climb and grow in your career – I am all about achieving your highest potential and often times through such promotions and growth we are able to position ourselves in a spot where we are better able to serve and help others. And there is nothing wrong with wanting a better home, who wouldn’t want a killer view and a room for each of your best friends to come and hang out.
The problem is answering the question: what is enough? Seneca the Stoic’s most famous work is arguably “On the Shortness of Life.” The theme of the book is a discussion of how we live our lives. Seneca argues that while many people lament how short their lives are “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Among the various ways in which we waste our lives and our allotted time is in the pursuit of more. More of anything. I have previously and will continue to argue that ambition is generally a positive force, but it can be a slippery slope if we are unchecked in the extent of our ambition, or unaware of both our reason for acting and the potential consequences thereof. Unchecked and poorly understood ambition, ambition without a known purpose other than the attainment of more, will put is in a permanent state of discontent with the present as we pursue a future where we believe we will have enough, not realizing that we have created a lust that will never be satisfied, for which there is never enough. For the person who is endlessly ambitious, believing that possessions, wealth, fame, accolades, and more are the source of happiness “new preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition,” to quote Seneca again.
I want to reiterate one final time that the inherent desire to build, grow, and improve is a good thing, in fact such desires create the foundation of a good life. It is only when our we desire more for the sake of having more, or when we sacrifice all semblance of balanced and happy life in pursuit thereof that desire or ambition become bad. If you want more money so you can save and send your kids to college or take a family vacation, great, go for it! If you want a promotion because you feel that you have some great ideas that can benefit your company – then get that promotion. Only be certain that you recognize why you want these things and learn to recognize when you have enough. Whatever enough looks like for you, when you have it you will be happy, because enough is as good as a feast.