Wanting Less

Some highlights from the essay “How to Want Less” by Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic.

Homeostasis keeps us alive and healthy. But it also explains why drugs and alcohol work as they do, as opposed to how we wish they would…It’s why, when you achieve conventional, acquisitive success, you can never get enough. If you base your sense of self-worth on success—money, power, prestige—you will run from victory to victory, initially to keep feeling good, and then to avoid feeling awful.

My thought: Like the two factory theory of motivation and hygiene, success (especially monetarily) may help you be less dissatisfied (being impoverished is hard), but the absence of dissatisfaction is not satisfaction.

“The nature of [adaptation] condemns men to live on a hedonic treadmill,” the psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell wrote in 1971, “to seek new levels of stimulation merely to maintain old levels of subjective pleasure, to never achieve any kind of permanent happiness or satisfaction.”

Professional self-objectification is a tyranny every bit as nasty. You become a heartless taskmaster to yourself, seeing yourself as nothing more than Homo economicus. Love and fun are sacrificed for another day of work, in search of a positive internal answer to the question Am I successful yet? We become cardboard cutouts of real people.

We become cardboard cutouts of real people is an amazingly clear description of what the current form of meritocracy, conventional “acquisitive success,” and social media has wrought.

In truth, our formula, Satisfaction = getting what you want, leaves out one key component. To be more accurate, it should be: Satisfaction = what you have ÷ what you want

Our mental state rests in the balance between reality and expectation/desire.

It is the wanting, for which there is always more, that binds us to the Sisyphean futility of the hedonic treadmill.

And getting off is hard.


M 03.20.22 Reply

Wow. Agreed. I’m currently in residency and recently have been reflecting on how my self worth seems to depend too much on the feedback I get from my attendings. A cringey thing to admit, but not surprising for a veteran teachers’ pet.

It’s residency, so I don’t get much positive feedback. I seem to only be reminded of my deficiencies and the space and “resources” I take up by the same people who panic when I’m off service and are partially paid by my presence at their program. It seems silence is the best feedback I can get.

But how do you get off the hedonic treadmill that threatens your whole life being in shambles (hello $300k+ in medical school debt and social pressure of “not cutting it in medicine”) if you quit, and only offers an emaciated future self a bone or two of respect and value if you stay on?

Or maybe it’s all more dramatic when you have the Sunday scaries.

Ben 03.20.22 Reply

I think in residency you are constrained because your job is set and your flexibility in addressing its shortcomings is very limited. Probably the helpful thing work-wise is considering where/how to work and how much you want to spend/need to earn when it comes to being an attending.

I do think there is a mindset component, but I also believe it’s very hard to cultivate. https://www.benwhite.com/medicine/residency-and-the-craftsman-mentality/

I also think being deliberate on how one spends time outside of work is really, really important (and also really, really hard to do).

Leave a Reply