The Medium Chill: How to Have Enough Without Having More
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So why do it? There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.
That’s the best thing about the medium chill: unlike the big chill, you already have it. It’s available today, at affordable prices!
Medium but difficult chill
The medium chill involves what economists call satisficing: abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.
It turns out, though, that satisficing doesn’t come easy to us human beings. We have an extremely hard time saying, “okay, this is good enough.” Why?
Part of the reason is that we hate closing off opportunities, and that’s what satisficing feels like. We like to keep our options open in case something better comes along.
But will a better thing make us happier? We’re inclined to think, “of course it would!” But that’s because, as social psychologists have come to understand quite well, we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy. In fact, we suck at it.
Most of all, we radically overestimate the impact of external events, both positive and negative. We think winning the lottery would vault us into bliss and losing a limb in an accident would leave us permanently depressed, but neither is true. Experiments and surveys show that within a year, a lottery winner and an amputee will be roughly as happy as they were before events struck. We drift back to our natural equilibrium fairly quickly. This is counterintuitive and difficult to accept at first, but the implications are profound.
We also underestimate the significance of our internal resources. We cannot control events, but we can, at least to some degree, control our reactions to events. It is possible to become more positive, open, and empathetic, to cultivate a resilient wellbeing that weathers changing circumstances. It’s been done! For an exhaustive account, see Martin Seligman’s Flourish.
To sum up: the bad news is that it’s unlikely any job advance, material acquisition, or singular event will make you durably happier; the good news is that it’s possible to make yourself durably happier without any new job, material acquisition, or singular event.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert calls the kind of happiness we find through external events “natural happiness” and the kind we generate for ourselves “synthetic happiness.” As he says, we tend to disdain synthetic happiness, as though it’s a species of delusion. People who are happy that way are “fooling themselves.” Their happiness is not as authentic as happiness that arises in response to events. But Gilbert’s (and others’) work has shown pretty clearly that synthetic happiness is more accessible and durable than “natural” happiness and just as, well, happy. Your brain doesn’t know the difference.
Social connections are key to happiness: Money vs. chill
The U.S. economy is built on our error about what will make us happy. In fact, the error is built right into economics. To an economist, the economic actor finds happiness through the satisfaction of preferences, and the more choices we have, the more likely we are to be able to satisfy our preferences. That’s why economists use money as a rough stand-in for wellbeing; wealth represents choices.