Issue: June, 2005
Author: John E. Moore
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Why Do I Feel So Unfulfilled When I Have So Much?
Many members of the bar throughout our country struggle with the question of fulfillment. On one level, as attorneys we enjoy a privileged place in society with opportunities, corresponding responsibilities and incomes greater than the average. On another, many members of our profession experience a continuing lack of fulfillment and happiness in their work. Is it us or the world around us that makes this so?
We live in a society that preaches and sells a model of life based upon happiness. Happiness, a turbo-charged state of life enjoyment, has become a largely commercialized concept that encourages people to consume consistently. We seek the perfect body type, the ideal home, the latest technological advance because doing so offers the possibility of an enhanced life state.
For many, life in this Happiness Society takes place against financial and physical wealth never before seen in the history of mankind. Individual and societal wealth has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. In the United States, for example, real per capita income doubled between 1970 and 2000.
And, yet, large numbers of us fail to feel fulfilled by life in this happiness-based society. Public opinion polls conducted over time reveal that happiness has declined generally over time and that Americans are generally less happy now than they were in 1950. Other polls demonstrate that even within a society, greater incomes do not mean greater happiness.
Why? Because of the pursuit of heightened state of life pleasure that we call Happiness creates a treadmill which many find impossible to escape. There is always something better than the present thing. And, having purchased this latest Next Great Thing our lifestyle adjusts to new levels of comfort. While we continue to feel less than fulfilled, society creates a newer, better Next Great Thing. Proceeding along with the societal flow, we thoughtlessly reset our sights on that new purchase with renewed (but unjustified) hope that fulfillment will follow.
Economists identify this endless process of searching for fulfillment consistent acquisition as the “Hedonic Treadmill.” Highlighted by research conducted by Professor Richard Easterlin at the University of Southern California, the Hedonic Treadmill exists because our material desires adjust to match newly acquired wealth. We quickly grow used to new levels of comfort and material consumption, rendering them meaningless to us. As the name implies, life on the Hedonic Treadmill leaves us constantly acquiring, going nowhere and feeling unfulfilled.
Life on the Hedonic Treadmill leaves us unfulfilled because it does not address the three consistent challenges to contentment: constant change, competing priorities for our time, and financial uncertainty. Constant change presents evolving views of our present and our future which challenge our view of what is important. We ask: What is important to me? We face many competing priorities for the use of our time and the expectation to produce more in less. We ask: How should I be spending my time? Financial uncertainty presented by job worries, market ups and downs and uncertainty about our life in retirement, drive us to greater levels of concern about both our present financial lives and our long-term financial future. We ask: How should I be dealing with money?
The lack of answers provided by life on the Hedonic Treadmill leaves us vulnerable to suggestion, manipulation and misdirection. Many today feel this lack of direction in symptoms ranging from constant, low-level anxiety to a desire to escape to a completely different life. It is no surprise that the lack of fulfillment in our collective lives on the Hedonic Treadmill has produced record levels of depression, obesity and personal bankruptcy.
So, at least at the outset, one can say that society, if not to blame, certainly creates conditions that are ripe for our personal lack of fulfillment to exist. At the same time, as I’ll discuss below, because the solution rests in us, we are responsible for our own failure to feel a continuing sense of contentment in life.
The cure to the distress of life on the Hedonic Treadmill lies in stepping off the treadmill by rejecting society’s happiness model and creating a path that defines our unique, personal direction. In fact, one might argue that living our lives by moving forward on the path defined by the important things in our lives represents a purpose common to each of us. That is not to say that we all must lead identical lives, but, rather, each of us must define what is important to us to create our own path. As such, there are many different paths, but our common purpose remains the same: to live along the path defined by the important.
Defining your own path requires you to determine those relationships, responsibilities and activities that are the most important in your life. There are many ways to begin the process. (At the Wyoming State Bar Annual Meeting & Judicial Conference in Gillette last year, I presented a series of worksheets and exercises designed to help delineate the most important elements in your life. Copies of these are available from the Bar and may help as a starting point.) The goal in creating a path is to enable you to develop a written statement of the path on which you want your life to proceed. Here’s mine as an example:
I live my life as a person of faith with a giving and compassionate spirit. I am a loving husband, father, son, brother and friend. I help people solve problems they cannot solve themselves and teach them to live their lives more fully.
You can see that my path was developed in light of my personal religious beliefs. Your beliefs will influence whether your path has either an end or a destination. If you believe in God and a life after this one, your path culminates in the creation of your after-life. If you do not believe in a life after this one, your path comes to an end. And, therefore, life’s accomplishments and milestones become more critical.
Regardless of your religious or spiritual mindset, once having established the path, your decisions each day determine your sense of movement along your path. Creation of the path means that you know what is important to you. As the world changes around you, you are stalwart in knowing that you know what matters to you even if society tells you otherwise. Having a path allows you to make decisions about how to spend your time: if you truly believe in what is important to you, you will make decisions about the use of time that eliminate the competition among priorities. You can use your path to help you make decisions about money. You come to see that money is not the end point of life and, instead, you make decisions about lifestyle, accumulation and retirement in light of your personal priorities rather than what the Happiness Society says you need. In sum, you trade financial security for the constant, acquisitive insecurity that fuels the Hedonic Treadmill. In sum, then, use of your path answers the three questions outlined above that permeate the Happiness Society.
I’ve tried to cover a lot of ground relatively quickly. A single quote from Friedrich Nietzsche reiterates my main premise.
Formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.
In the end, society creates an environment hostile to finding what is important to you. Your role in creating personal fulfillment is to take responsibility and find your own path. Take the time today to begin creating a written statement of your path. Use it to govern your relationships with time and money. Step off the Happiness Treadmill and into an engaged state of living in which each moment of your day connects to what you know to be important to you. You’ll be a better lawyer and, more importantly, a better person!
John E. Moore is the managing partner of the Vero Beach, Florida law firm Rossway Moore & Taylor, where he maintains an active estate planning practice. He is also an actively licensed CPA. Moore received his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and his law degree from the University of Virginia. His experience profile includes tenure with Arthur Andersen LLP and service as an official of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and the Government National Mortgage Association and time in private practice with a large firm in Washington, D.C.
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