The hustle and bustle of the holiday season seems a perfect time to ask “how much is enough?” It’s a question I ponder frequently, especially as I notice my strong tendency to be planning, organizing, executing — doing, doing, doing. For so many families, too much in key aspects of our lives — work, parenting, consuming — collectively makes us feel like we’re drowning in it all. I believe contemplating “how much is enough” is among the most powerful means we each have to regain a sense of sanity and sustainability in our lives.
Consider the following:
• How large a house is enough for two or three or four people?
• How many flavors of cereal or yogurt or beer do you need to be satisfied?
• How many networks — personal and professional — are enough to maintain?
• How many communities (educational, social, religious) are enough to support with your time and money?
• How many extracurricular activities are enough for a child to feel enriched?
• How many fundraisers are enough to support your children’s schools, scout troops and sports teams?
• How many work hours will ever be enough to finish your to-do list?
For professionals, work hours have risen in recent decades such that working a 40-hour week seems a quaint relic of the past. Since the early 1990s I have consulted to dozens of organizations, mostly large multi-national corporations, on issues related to diversity and work-life integration. Employee overload is nearly always a central theme. In addition to the sheer number of hours worked, the intensity of our modern-day work style contributes to the sense of overload. Fueled by technology, the fragmented way in which many of us work and the speed with which we feel the need to respond — urgent matter or not — leaves us agitated, anxious and exhausted.
Layered on top of our work demands, the simple level of choice for nearly every purchase decision — and the energy required to sort it out and decide — exacerbates the intensity. For someone like me who is a bit of an information junkie and an ardent researcher, buying nearly anything feels like another project, whether it’s a computer, a smartphone, a camera, heck, even a cup of coffee is now available in seemingly endless permutations. Don’t even get me started on grocery shopping at the Super Stop & Shop in our neighborhood, where picking up a few things is never a straight-forward exercise due to the endless options for nearly every product. Milk: Is it fat-free, low-fat or full-fat? Nut butter: What about peanut or almond, crunchy or smooth? Yogurt: Does one prefer drinkable, probiotic or Greek?
Do so many choices fuel our robust consumption habits? It appears so. In the U.S. over the last 30 years, the proportion of disposable income spent on consumer debt and mortgages increased by more than a third while savings plummeted from 11 to less than one percent. While the size of our houses have increased substantially, the size of our savings accounts have gone in the opposite direction. Affluenza — a book and subsequent PBS television show — was a term coined to characterize our intense consumption habits: a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
I am acutely aware that not having enough is a true hardship for families at a certain income level, but for many highly educated men and women, the real issue seems to be having too much, not too little. Our consumer economy has driven many of us into the space of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to possessions that we need to buy, manage, insure, clean and finally dispose of. But all this consumption isn’t improving our lives.
Research shows that increases in income track with increases in happiness primarily at poverty levels where added resources have the greatest impact. But beyond a middle class lifestyle, further moves up the income ladder do not equate with increases in happiness. Researchers hypothesize that increased incomes fuel rising expectations, and consequently the baseline adjusts upward, removing the psychological benefits of economic growth. While the GDP for the U.S. and other highly developed nations has increased multi-fold over the last 50 years, our reported level of well being has been stagnant. Rather than greater financial resources, other factors such as strong relationships, a feeling of meaning and purpose, enjoyable work and involvement in civic groups correspond with continued increases in life satisfaction.
Our sense of “not enough” extends far beyond work, money and consumption. Modern-day parents wrestle mightily with what is necessary to raise their children. The requirements for involvement and engagement have gone through the roof, as have the demands for extracurricular stimulation and material goods. During the preschool years, mommy and me classes, music and movement classes and playgroups have become de rigueur, but the full-throttle of activity typically hits in the elementary school years. High school begins the steeple chase for the college admissions process in countless middle to upper- middle class cities and towns across the U.S. My older son is in eleventh grade this year and at the start of school in the fall, he told me he felt the rising intensity as college planning comes into view. As parents, we experience the joys — and the strain — of it all.
Women face high expectations of what is “enough” on many fronts, whether externally or self-imposed. Younger women feel the need to be skilled and loving mothers, successful in their careers, socially conscious, trim and attractive and frequently connected to friends and family. And yes, they feel the need to be all these people at the same time. When researchers ask teenage girls what is important to them — finding a successful job, staying close to their friends, having a family, looking good and so on — they discovered that their answer was “everything.” They ranked nothing as less important. In the arena of doing and being “enough,” men are catching up to women. Men’s reported stress and difficulty trying to balance work and life has risen substantially in recent decades alongside heightened expectations of their parenting involvement.
Many, perhaps most of us, struggle with defining and being comfortable with enough in many areas of our lives. The inability to define enough feeds directly into our desire to work harder and earn more in order to afford the expanding list of requirements for a middle class lifestyle. Our fear of not keeping up and of being left behind, both for ourselves and our children, runs deep, particularly among successful, highly educated men and women in the twenty-first century. It can feel like falling off a cliff for new parents first confronting the collision between heightened expectations on the home front coupled with already intense work demands. We feel unable to put up the boundaries anywhere and life becomes all about the juggle. All the while, we rarely step back to consider, “what is enough?”
But getting better clarity on what is enough — in so many parts of our lives — is deeply connected to increasing our sense of happiness and well-being. One of the Dalai Lama’s teachings is to spend some time alone every day. I believe creating this alone time, a brief space for stillness and reflection, is a powerful step toward wresting control over the seemingly endless demands in our lives.
As we celebrate the holiday season and move quickly toward the end of 2013, my wish is that we all get smarter about answering the questions related to what is enough at this juncture in each of our lives. What is enough for me, for my family, for my health, for my happiness? By doing so, I believe we can focus more on what matters deeply for each of us and feel greater comfort about leaving the rest behind.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women’s conference, “The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power,” which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.