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Can’t Keep No Satisfaction

26 April 2022

Barbara read How to Want Less:  by Arthur C. Brooks and learned why the high of getting what we want doesn’t last very long.

Tags: barbara read, happiness, health care, healthcare

I stumbled upon the title of the article while scrolling on Facebook and it grabbed my attention... How to Want Less: The secret to satisfaction has nothing to do with achievement, money, or stuff. I had an immediate list pop to mind of things I had been trying to want less of in the last two years because I couldn’t or wouldn’t let myself have them—seeing family and friends, going to a store, getting a haircut, teaching for the American Association for Physician Leaders.

When Arthur Brooks was 48, he found a bucket list he had made at 40 and realized he had accomplished all of them. The happiness or satisfaction for each achievement had only lasted a day, a week, or at the most a month and then he was onto the next thing. This troubled him and he began research to find out why.

He learned that the the body has “…built-in mechanisms to regulate our temperature, as well as our levels of oxygen, water, salt, sugar, protein, fat, and calcium,” and that it also wants equilibrium for our emotions. That is why happiness won’t last too long no matter what caused it—a new love, a wonderfully successful presentation, a newly decorated room, a recent visit from a family member or friend, or drug induced euphoria. We are pleased when our low moments don’t last and we get back to an even keel, but we think something is wrong with us when we can’t maintain satisfaction about an accomplished goal or a dream come true.

“According to evolutionary psychology, our tendency to strive for more is perfectly understandable,” Brooks says. The caveman wanted to survive and reproduce. Feeling satisfied was not going to get it done. Our brains are still wired that way even though most of us are not facing possible starvation. The body is programed to want something, feel a temporary high when it gets it, but then return to “homeostasis,” and want more.  The continuing built-in desire is the body’s way of assuring we have enough drive and energy to get food, shelter, and mates.

I felt relieved. I thought there was something wrong with me or that I was not grateful enough for every good thing that happened.

Brooks said trying to change is hard because “Our desire for more is quite powerful, but stronger still is our resistance to less….The wealthy keep accumulating far beyond anything they could possibly spend, and sometimes more than they want to bequeath to their children. They hope that at some point they will feel happy, their lives complete, and are terrified of what will happen if they stop running.”

As a result of his research, Brooks realized he wanted the admiration of strangers and decided he would try to give that up and concentrate on his family, friends, and teaching position. Following the advice of Thomas Aquinas, Buddha, and others, he tries to make decisions about what to do based on his goal of serving others rather than self-aggrandizement.

I thought hard about what he was suggesting and found I could want less if I kept reminding myself that the next desire fulfillment is not going to permanently fix everything about my life particularly worry or boredom. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up on life or become depressed. It’s just a more realistic view of what my physical body is doing to me.

I was impressed with a big change Brooks has made—he has given up his CEO position of a prestigious think tank. He continues to strive to not crave being admired by strangers, but I had a self-pitying thought when I read that he is still teaching at Harvard, writing for The Atlantic and getting several texts a day from his daughter who is a freshman in college in Spain.

However, I took a deep breath and remembered that I have had a wonderful career and am loved and appreciated by my husband, my children, their families, and my friends. I have also been through a lot in the last two years. I have recovered well from a surgery and a rheumatological condition, but I am not as strong as I used to be. Therefore, I need to make some lifestyle changes so that I can do the things I really need and want to do which are to take care of my husband, be as physically fit as is possible for me, sleep well, enjoy my family and friends, write regardless of whether I can get published, and maybe even one day travel again but always for fun and no longer for work.

With this new clarity about my life, Brooks’ insights about his life have helped me to articulate and feel better about three changes I’ve made or am trying to make.

  1. I have resigned my faculty position at the American Association for Physician Leaders. I had continued to do some teaching after I retired from full time work for AAPL in 2012, but this year I realized that it was time to stop traveling for work so that I can hopefully travel just for fun again. I'm proud I helped my daughter learn how to teach and coach physician leaders, but now I'm clear that I've done all I need to do in this area and am ready to put my energy somewhere else.
  2. I haven’t wanted to downsize, but some health problems in 2021 changed my mind. Reading his article over and over has helped me get rid of things as I prepare to move to a smaller house that is 13 minutes from my daughter's house in Charlottesville, VA. I had a large collection of transparencies that I used for my teaching before the invention of PowerPoint. I had VHS tapes when I no longer have a device to play them on. They are all gone now.
  3. What can seem a trivial issue when said out loud was a big deal for me. I gave up cutting, curling, and coloring my hair. I’ve learned to like long gray and white hair pulled back in a claw clip.

I’ve always believed in having and accomplishing goals and I still do, but I like understanding why the exhilaration of reaching them doesn’t last. It has caused me to think more carefully about what I want to pursue and not be disappointed in myself when the high of reaching a dream fades away. It’s just the way we are made to ensure the survival of the species. As I step into the next chapter of my life in Charlottesville, VA, I think I might be able to get more satisfaction by how things are rather than how I imagine they should be. I really like the sound of that and hope to help myself learn how to have this new mindset.


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