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The Medium Chill: How to Have Enough Without Having More

We know more stuff won't make us happy. So what will?

Photo Credit: Abdulmajeed Alessa


Mother Jones has an interesting package up called “ Speedup: Working More, Making Less.” In the  lead story, editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery chronicle the harrowing pace of modern work life: the long hours and hairy commutes, multitasking and endless accessibility, the sense of always being busy, always falling behind, always doing a crappy job on both sides of the work/life ledger.


Bauerlein and Jeffery discuss the phenomenon mainly in terms of external forces acting on workers — a system of laws and regulations comprehensively biased in favor of employers. And that’s where the main focus should be; policy changes are the stuff of organizing and politics. But it reminded me I’ve been meaning to write something about the other side, the internal forces impelling us to work harder and harder. We are being driven, but we are also driving ourselves. Finding saner, happier, more sustainable lives will involve addressing both sides of the equation.

About a year ago, I was visiting with an old friend of mine who lives in Portland now. He’s helping to run a tech startup, working 80-hour weeks, half that on the road, with barely enough time at home to maintain a relationship with his dog, much less a romance. The goal, he said, is to grow like crazy, get bought out by Google, and retire at 40. “It’s the big chill, man!” (No, Boomers, not  the movie.)

I shook my head and laughed. “I’ll take the medium chill!”

Ever since then I’ve been mulling that concept over. By way of approaching it, I’m going to talk a little about personal experience, so if that kind of thing bugs you, skip on down, there’s some social science geekery below.

Personal chill

“Medium chill” has become something of a slogan for my wife and me. (We might make t-shirts.) We’re coming up on 10 years married now, but we recognized our mutual love of medium chill within weeks of meeting, about the time we found ourselves on her couch watching scratchy bootleg VHS tapes of The Sopranos I ordered off eBay, drinking  Two Buck Chuck, and loving life. We just never knew what to call it.

We now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with  no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do.

But … meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.

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