It's Never Enough Because We Keep Wanting More

It's an endless eating contest, where the more we eat, the hungrier we get.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There is a paradox I am confused about. My confusion isn't regarding the paradox itself but how we came to believe it a paradox when it is so obviously not. People feel empty; when they accomplish something noteworthy, there is a fleeting moment of delight, followed by a feeling of "it wasn't enough." Nothing is ever enough, so we toil and try harder, make big plans, read self-help books, and set goals. Nonfiction sells vastly more than fiction, and around eighty percent of nonfiction is in the realm of self-improvement. People want to understand why doing more and having more makes them feel like they have less. Answering this question is a whole industry, religion, and culture.

So we take those suggestions and keep trying and it always feels like we're just spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. This is my confusion, a paradox is where seemingly reasonable premises lead to an illogical conclusion. This is not what's happening here because what's happening is a rather natural conclusion. People feel hollow and unfulfilled because they want more. The conclusion is sensible based on the premises. No matter what you do or what you have, if you keep wanting more, then it is pretty obvious, whatever you have won't feel like enough. That is the rational outcome of our irrational wants. Then it is not a paradox but rather a delusion. Like an addict who overdoses; our want to get high exceeds our ability to get high. Yet we'll sacrifice everything in this chase. We think: "Well what if this time I can finally satisfy myself and get exactly what I want?" This is the delusion.

It's an endless eating contest, where the more we eat, the hungrier we get. We know this from real experience; we never get satisfied, our eating, over time, only increases our appetite. As our appetite grows, we eat more, which only expands our hunger. Many of us do this until the point of death; many of us are in varying points along this vicious spiral.

Greed

Our greed can surpass our attainments because unlike things we can have or do, there is no upper-limit to greed. Greed is uncapped, the sky's the limit, and without a cap, our greed skyrockets. Real greed is not necessarily tied to money, though money is always involved. Like a greedy squirrel, we just want more. When want is unreasonable, it becomes greed. When want affects our ability to have a balanced life, is when it becomes a problem.

"The Paradox of Our Age" by Dr. Bob Moorehead captures not only the feelings we all know so well, but also the conflicts we all recognize. That our energy is misplaced, that our methods for happiness are at direct odds with our happiness. Moorehead writes:

We have taller buildings but shorter tempers; wider freeways but narrower viewpoints; we spend more but have less; we buy more but enjoy it less; we have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, yet less time; we have more degrees but less sense; more knowledge but less judgment; more experts, yet more problems; we have more gadgets but less satisfaction; more medicine, yet less wellness; we take more vitamins but see fewer results. We drink too much; smoke too much; spend too recklessly; laugh too little; drive too fast; get too angry; stay up too late; get up too tired; read too seldom; watch TV too much and pray too seldom.

We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values; we fly in faster planes to arrive there quicker, to do less and return sooner; we sign more contracts only to realize fewer profits; we talk too much; love too seldom and lie too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life; we’ve added years to life, not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We’ve conquered outer space, but not inner space; we’ve done larger things, but not better things; we’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul; we’ve split the atom, but not our prejudice; we write more, but learn less; plan more, but accomplish less; we make faster planes, but longer lines; we learned to rush, but not to wait; we have more weapons, but less peace; higher incomes, but lower morals; more parties, but less fun; more food, but less appeasement; more acquaintances, but fewer friends; more effort, but less success. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication; drive smaller cars that have bigger problems; build larger factories that produce less. We’ve become long on quantity, but short on quality.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion; tall men, but short character; steep in profits, but shallow relationships. These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare; more leisure and less fun; higher postage, but slower mail; more kinds of food, but less nutrition. These are the days of two incomes, but more divorces; these quick trips, disposable diapers, cartridge living, throw-away morality, one-night stands, overweight bodies and pills that do everything from cheer, to prevent, quiet or kill. It is a time when there is much in the show window and nothing in the stockroom. Indeed, these are the times.

Fear of Scarcity

So then, what is the nature of this bleakness? We think we can never have enough because we fear scarcity. Without the fear of scarcity, there is no greed. We'll never believe we have too little, for that is the opposite perception of deficiency and inadequacy.

Charles Eisenstein unpacks these mysteries in Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition:

Greed makes sense in a context of scarcity. Our reigning ideology assumes it: it is built in to our Story of Self.... [B]oth biology and economics have therefore written greed into their basic axioms. In biology it is the gene, seeking to maximize reproductive self-interest; in economics it is the rational actor seeking to maximize financial self-interest. But what if the assumption of scarcity is false — a projection of our ideology, and not the ultimate reality? If so, then greed is not written into our biology but is a mere symptom of the perception of scarcity.

The more you believe you have less, the more you'll accumulate. The more that is accumulated, the more it will feel like it's not enough. If you felt you had enough, why would you keep collecting? It's self-fulfilling. The people who have the most are often the greediest because they are the ones most likely to believe they have the least. Then why would you give if you are so afraid of having too little?

Eisenstein writes:

An indication that greed reflects the perception rather than the reality of scarcity is that rich people tend to be less generous than poor people. In my experience, poor people quite often lend or give each other small sums that, proportionally speaking, would be the equivalent of half a rich person’s net worth. Extensive research backs up this observation. A large 2002 survey by Independent Sector, a nonprofit research organization, found that Americans making less than $25,000 gave 4.2 percent of their income to charity, as opposed to 2.7 percent for people making over $100,000. More recently, Paul Piff, a social psychologist at University of California–Berkeley, found that ‘lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth.’ Piff found that when research subjects were given money to anonymously distribute between themselves and a partner (who would never know their identity), their generosity correlated inversely to their socioeconomic status.

[...]

In a context of abundance greed is silly; only in a context of scarcity is it rational. The wealthy perceive scarcity where there is none. They also worry more than anybody else about money. Could it be that money itself causes the perception of scarcity? Could it be that money, nearly synonymous with security, ironically brings the opposite? The answer to both these questions is yes. On the individual level, rich people have a lot more ‘invested’ in their money and are less able to let go of it. (To let go easily, reflects an attitude of abundance.)

What we see is not necessarily reality, we often see what we want to see.

Eisenstein continues:

The assumption of scarcity is one of the two central axioms of economics. (The second is that people naturally seek to maximize their rational self-interest.) Both are false; or, more precisely, they are true only within a narrow realm, a realm that we, the frog at the bottom of the well, mistake for the whole of reality. As is so often the case, what we take to be objective truth is actually a projection of our own condition onto the ‘objective’ world. So immersed in scarcity are we that we take it to be the nature of reality. But in fact, we live in a world of abundance. The omnipresent scarcity we experience is an artifact: of our money system, of our politics, and of our perceptions.

You could say we have too little, but you could just as easily say we want too much. Just as we build wealth, it is not only making more, it is also spending less. Less want, more abundance. The illusion is believing we can want more and have more simultaneously.

Eisenstein writes:

It is true that human activity is vastly overburdening the earth today. Fossil fuels, aquifers, topsoil, the capacity to absorb pollution, and the ecosystems that maintain the viability of the biosphere are all being depleted at an alarming rate. All the measures on the table are far too little, far too late — a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.

On the other hand, an enormous proportion of this human activity is either superfluous or deleterious to human happiness.

The majority of our resources do not go to our necessities. Even with our current population, if we only used what we needed and even a little extra, we would have enough for generations without any more work. Imagine how happy you could be if all you wanted was a bit more than what you needed? This does not sound exciting in the world of achievement, but then again, nothing is that exciting in the world of achievement. Initial enthusiasm, followed by varying degrees of "meh."

Eisenstein writes:

I disagree with those environmentalists who say we are going to have to make do with less. In fact, we are going to make do with more: more beauty, more community, more fulfillment, more art, more music, and material objects that are fewer in number but superior in utility and aesthetics. The cheap stuff that fills our lives today, however great its quantity, can only cheapen life.

Imagine how little we would need if we all shared? Most of the stuff we have idly sits there the bulk of the time. Large quantities of food go to waste, uneaten. Wealth concentrates, never having a chance to be used for good (or used at all). It just sits and grows. Sharing allows us to need less. It frees us more time. Time to do good. And the things we do have, will mean that much more. If everything is expendable, nothing is of value. Waste becomes natural, hollowness becomes standard.

Eisenstein writes:

I advocate an embrace, not an eschewing, of materialism. I think we will love our things more and not less. We will treasure our material possessions, honor where they came from and where they will go. If you have a treasured baseball mitt or fishing rod, you may know what I’m talking about. Or perhaps your grandfather had a favorite set of woodworking tools that he kept in perfect condition for fifty years. That is how we will honor our things. Can you imagine what the world would be like if that same care and consideration went into everything we produced? If every engineer put that much love into her creations? Today, such an attitude is uneconomic; it is rarely in anyone’s financial interest to treat a thing as sacred. You can just buy a new baseball mitt or fishing rod, and why be too careful with your tools when new ones are so cheap? The cheapness of our things is part of their devaluation, casting us into a cheap world where everything is generic and expendable.

We are slaves to our greed; slaves to our wants. We believe this gives us freedom, then where is our freedom to choose to want less? To do something else? To care about things that are provided for free? Not achievement or possessions, but the intangibles: like air, water, nature, and life? Not just in the "grateful and mindful" clichés, but in a deep change in our priorities?

Eisenstein writes:

Amidst superabundance, even we in rich countries live in an omnipresent anxiety, craving ‘financial security’ as we try to keep scarcity at bay. ... [W]e commonly associate freedom with wealth. But when we pursue it, we find that the paradise of financial freedom is a mirage, receding as we approach it, and that the chase itself enslaves. The anxiety is always there, the scarcity always just one disaster away. We call that chase greed. Truly, it is a response to the perception of scarcity.

Wanting less will finally give us a chance to have more.

Eisenstein concludes:

Scarcity, then, is mostly an illusion, a cultural creation. But because we live, almost wholly, in a culturally constructed world, our experience of this scarcity is quite real... So our responses to this scarcity — anxiety and greed — are perfectly understandable. When something is abundant, no one hesitates to share it. We live in an abundant world, made otherwise through our perceptions, our culture, and our deep invisible stories. Our perception of scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is not a paradox but a non sequitur, where a conclusion does not logically follow the premise, a delusion where we blind ourselves to the obvious consequences of our beliefs. We see nothing when there is so much. That is the deceit. We buy books on improving our methods for gaining more, when those books only reinforce our problems.

We have a scarcity complex; like a deranged squirrel, hoarding, filling its tree with nuts — because we cannot see that the tree is brimming, ready to burst. We don't see the value in value. The value of our friends, our families, of conversations, of smiles and laughter, of a stroll under the cover of elm trees. We say, "You don't know what you have until it's gone." That's because when it's gone, it's scarce. Since so many good things are abundant, we don't understand how to value it until it is rare. That leaves us with a system where we cannot enjoy anything, we can only regret them after it's too late. We have to nearly eliminate it to deeply care about it. (And even then some will not care.)

We believe the other option is to see that things are plentiful and take it for granted. That is not the only other option, the other option is to see that things are plentiful and be grateful we have so much. Things are not scarce and that is wonderful, and we should keep it that way. Can humans value what is not rare? Yes we can, as humans, we're capable of many things. The only thing stopping you from living a life of fruitful abundance is you.

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