Take a moment to reflect on the following question. What is the root underlying motive for every action you take and every decision you make? If you were to ask the great ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle this question, without skipping a beat, he’d respond with one word: happiness. Aristotle believed that if you peel back the onion far enough, you’d find that the driving force underneath the entirety of human behavior is our happiness and well-being[i]. Test it out for yourself: pick an action you did today and continue to ask yourself “why did I do that?” and see if you ultimately come up with “because I want to be happy” at the end.
Fast forward more than 2,000 years and enter modern psychology. Dan Gilbert, professor at Harvard University and author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” has been studying human behavior and decision making for most of his career. He finds that we strive to make decisions that lead to our greatest levels of happiness, but that we’re unfortunately pretty bad at doing so[ii]. We’re not very good at predicting our happiness levels in the future and understanding how our decisions and choices in the present moment will affect our long-term happiness.
For many of us, the temptation is to think that changing our external circumstances, whether that means buying a bigger house, getting a promotion at work, owning nicer clothes, or upgrading our smart phone, will make us happier. These external changes usually produce a momentary spike in our happiness, but level off quickly and bring us back to our baseline level of happiness, causing us to then strive for more external changes. We get stuck on a never ending cycle of looking for the next positive change to bring us lasting happiness – a process that psychologists have labeled the hedonic treadmill[iii].
One of the problems with placing our hopes and expectations on these external changes is that it anchors our attention on what we currently lack instead of the good things we already have. When we’re focused on what we don’t yet have, our brains are searching and scanning for a better option that’s ahead of us. Striving for positive changes isn’t a bad thing and there are certainly times we should make a change, but when our default mode is to fix our attention on what else is out there, we can often miss the opportunity to fully appreciate and enjoy what we have in the present moment.
If our goal is to increase our overall well-being in life, one of the first steps we can take is to learn how to get off, or at least reduce the speed, of the hedonic treadmill. There is no quick and easy way to do this, but one practice that could help is shifting our mindset from striving for the best to striving for what’s good enough. This mindset shift is something that psychologist and author Barry Schwartz describes as satisficing versus maximizing in his book “The Paradox of Choice.” His research found that maximizers, those who strive for the best, tend to do slightly better objectively, but end up feeling worse and being less happy than satisficers, those who pursue what’s good enough.[iv]
When we are striving for the best, we are always evaluating what we have against what we lack, and this creates a gap that we’re continually trying to close. But if we’re striving for what’s good enough, we have a clear definition of what we actually need and what we want, making it easier for us to measure our experience against what we gained. It primes our brains to process our experience from a perspective of sufficiency and abundance instead of scarcity, and this can make all the difference when it comes to our health and well-being.
Re-wiring our brains to view our possessions and experiences from the perspective of good enough can take time and intentionality. It doesn’t always come naturally to us, but it’s something we can practice and improve in. To make this mindset shift stick, it can be helpful to find new ways of weaving it into our lives. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to practice minimalism. Minimalism is a philosophy and lifestyle that encourages people to experience more joy through owning less stuff. Minimalism helps us remove the excess from our lives and to focus our attention on what truly matters to us[v]. By valuing a smaller number of meaningful things, minimalism helps us experience the joys and pleasures of life from a mindset of sufficiency and helps us step off the hedonic treadmill of always striving for more.
Socrates might have been the original minimalist when he said that happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.[vi] As you continue to make decisions and navigate through your daily life, see if you tend to look for happiness on the other side of acquiring more, or if you typically find joy in the good enough. If what Socrates said is true, finding the good enough might just be the best next step in living a life of greater contentment, happiness, and overall well-being.
About The Tiny House of Happiness
We believe that tiny houses, the minimalist movement, and the science of positive psychology work best together to help us live in thoughtful relationship with our stuff and to build a life of greater meaning and fulfillment. Our goal at The Tiny House of Happiness is to provide our guests with a unique well-being retreat in a peaceful restorative space to experience the benefits of minimalism and practice research-based habits of happiness during their stay. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram @thetinyhouseofhappiness and book a stay on our website: www.thetinyhouseofhappiness.com
[i] Aristotle. (1985) Nicomachean ethics. (T. Irwin, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
[ii] Gilbert, D. T. (2006).Stumbling on happiness.New York, A.A. Knopf
[iv] Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York ,NY: HarperCollins Publishers.