We are inhabitants of a world that never has enough. Whether it’s in terms of emotional fulfillment, money, political power, consumer goods, resources, or anything else that impacts our day to day reality, our existence seems more and more contingent on the sensation of wanting without end.
In simpler terms? We’ve lost our ability to experience true fulfillment, and it’s killing us.
Being the irreverent bastard that I am, I’ll use a poignant lyric from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton to illustrate the modern experience many of us have as, well, ourselves.
“You’re like me, I’m never satisfied…
Is that right?
I’ve never been satisfied.”
I used to describe myself as “restless,” as if that were a defining personality trait. Always wanting, needing, seeking — and all this in spite of having, literally, everything I could ever want or need. And if someone like me can feel that way on a regular basis, it must be a lot worse for those who do not occupy a space as privileged as mine.
I want to explore the concept of “enough” with you all today because I and many others have had enough of never having enough. Inspirational writers like Tim Denning and Jari Roomer talk about this frequently through their work on this very site, and the frustration of millions can be heard wherever you go, online or off.
So, how do we go from a sad, linear life of wanting to a healthier, happier cycle of purpose and fulfillment? Well sh**, guys, I have no idea. But here’s what I’ve observed.
The World Used To Provide All Our Boundaries For Us, And Now We Have To Build Them Ourselves.
Let me preface this by saying I’m a huge nerd, and (thanks to a bunch of AP credits) I was able to pursue studies in History, Politics, Religion, and Psychology during college.
I had a ton of free time in my curricular schedule and a lot of ADHD fueled curiosity. More broadly, I just had…a lot.
Historically, that kind of lifestyle is a profound oddity. People have rarely had a lot of anything when you think about humanity’s collective past. Individuals didn't have a lot of food, time, money, security, education, social equity, rights, or even perspective, because they lived in a world defined by boundaries.
Most of those boundaries were there from the moment they were born to the instant they died. They did not set those boundaries, either — nature, political entities, physical limitations, or community norms did. We would not have survived as a species, otherwise. In essence, we evolved within set boundaries, and we are programmed to exist within them.
Fast forward to the big, small word of today. Most of the historic boundaries have been removed from our individual lives. This is especially true in the global West, which has built itself upon a powerful mythos of liberty and self-responsibility.
We call it freedom. Maybe it is. And far be it from me to label individual freedom as inherently bad, good, or neutral, because I believe that humanity’s most unique feature is its ability (and prerogative) to exist within their own hand-crafted reality.
But most of our major boundaries are gone, and we’re still wired to have them. It’s pretty confusing to be human, isn’t it? Without clear, inviolable boundaries regarding expression, consumerism, emotion, social roles, or prosperity, we are both freer and more overwhelmed than ever.
And overwhelm, at its core, is a trigger that tells our most primal survival instincts to take over the business of living.
Wired For The Familiar In An Unfamiliar World: Aka, We’re All VERY Confused Primates And We Want To Go Home.
Here’s a scenario for you to ponder while stroking your (possibly metaphorical) beard. There’s an orangutan named Gary and he’s minding his own business, or as the kids say, he’s “mad chillin’” as orangutans do. Suddenly his comfy forest completely changes.
Maybe all of the trees start talking to him, or he suddenly realizes that he can breathe underwater and fly. Perhaps he has a super meta, matrix-esque mind-expansion and can suddenly comprehend the futility of his own limited existence in the dense Indonesian rainforest.
Poor Gary. What will he do? Well, based on what we know of orangutans, he's probably going to panic. “Oh no, oh f***,” says Gary, “where the hell am I? Who am I? Why am I even asking these questions?”
Welcome to the human story, folks, and an event anthropologist and prehistory expert Yuval Noah Harari calls the “Cognitive Revolution.” Unlike in Gary’s abrupt example, our own sudden shift in perception and thought happened somewhat gradually.
Still, by evolutionary standards, it might as well have hit us like a ton of bricks (or a borderline apocalyptic asteroid).
“Enough” used to mean you were alive, not starving, and momentarily not under threat of death or violence. Once our brains got swole and we started to perceive a rather complicated reality into existence all around us, that definition became a bit…iffy.
Every time a new Revolution happens — say, the Agricultural Revolution or the Technological Revolution — our definition of “enough” shifted again, and it always did so radically.
Revolution has a few dictionary definitions, and one is “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it.”
Just as our perception of time, space, need, and value shifted and expanded, so did our definition of “enough.” Every R(evolution) brought us, in some way, more — but our concept of “enough-ness” expanded right along with it.
Honestly, it’s a lot for our poor, primate bodies and still-wondering-where-the-rainforest-went instincts to handle. Just because our perceptions and cognitive abilities expanded (just because our brains got huge), it doesn’t mean every other part of us was in lockstep with that process.
This brings us to the next evolutionary phase of our “oh God what the hell is happening” conundrum.
Evolution Is Like, Super Messy, And We Aren’t Sure What To Do About That. (Or, “I’m Not Hungry Or Dying, So Why Do I Still Want Things?”)
Ah, yes, we really are profoundly unique creatures, us humans. Being unique is really f***ing overwhelming from an evolutionary standpoint. We don’t occupy any of the traditional, ecologically-mandated roles that other animals do, after all, and that leaves us…where, exactly?
Exactly. Nature doesn’t provide answers, only experiments. Results. Humans, however, are always looking for answers. It’s what we’re wired to do!
Our brain is the single most powerful problem-solving tool ever made, and if it can’t find a problem (like a pouncing predator or a shortage of edible roots), dammit, it’s going to make one up. Our basic, biologically-programmed instincts, on the other hand, are still stuck in the “well, I only want things when I need them, so want must = a problem” phase of existence.
Put those two forces together and you end up with what I’ll fondly call the Anxiety Revolution. When your basic needs are all met but your perception is telling you that you don’t have “enough,” your instinctive response is to look for more of something.
Want is too similar to need on a basic, biological level because our evolution happened too fast for our bodies to automatically differentiate the two. When you feel like you don’t have enough of something, your mind is going to try to identify and solve the “problem,” whatever form it might take.
Sometimes it’s trying to “solve” something that isn’t a problem at all. Not in the way nature would define it, anyway, which leaves us scrambling.
In physiological terms, you end up with a feedback loop of: “well if I feel like I don’t have enough, I must be in need and my survival must be threatened, so I have to react to that…and if I never have enough I should always be in wanting/needing/react-to-survival-threat mode.”
I’d explain it more concisely, but I can’t because I suck. Sorry! But, hopefully, you see where I’m going with this…
The Modern Age Is All Stimulus, And The Human Brain Is Hard-Wired For Response.
After the Agricultural Revolution, our ancestors started to experience something odd. When times were good, all they could do was worry about the future when times might not be good. When times were bad, well, they were bad.
Either way, we felt pretty anxious about it all.
Still, with so much labor necessary for survival and so many boundaries to keep our lives on a predictable course, we didn’t necessarily have time to sit around and nurture that anxiety.
The path toward today’s “never enough” world is one of stimulus and response. We evolved to be absolute masters at responding quickly, intelligently, and efficiently to stimulus — that’s why we became the dominant species on Earth.
Evolution is a game of “who can respond the best and the fastest to stimuli?” In many ways, we won that game….but *Morgan Freeman voice* there was a cost. Each human Revolution brought about more stimuli, even if they were largely internal. As they were made to do, our brains kept on responding.
The feeling of never having enough is, in many ways, a tragedy of over-response. With more stimuli than we’d ever naturally encounter at a given time, our response mechanism has gone haywire. Off the rails. Into the stratosphere.
In one of those annoying, philosophical twists of fate, feeling like you never have enough is actually a response to constantly having too much. Too much stimulus, that is. Too much to respond to.
If you examine things from an evolutionary, cognitive perspective, humans evolved so quickly and so radically that we outpaced ourselves. The result is that we exist in a reality built upon contradictions — a sense of needing without need, instinct without an outlet, and a mega-computer brain that is literally made for one thing.
To respond to every stimulus that comes our way. To react by finding a problem, identifying a solution, and then moving on to the next stimulus…ad infinitum.
Jesus Christ, no wonder we feel restless. Which begs the question: now, what?
One Optimistic Caveat To A Brain Gone Rogue: We Can Tell It To Shut The F*** Up.
We all hold a basic societal conviction that some people are smart, while others are…not so smart. But from an evolutionary standpoint, all of us are actually really, really smart.
Yep, even that guy. You know the one.
The problem is that our capacity for handling that intelligence isn’t all that much better than Gary the orangutan’s. We can think up all sorts of realities and “truths” that would never come up in nature, like politics, consumerism, economics, or philosophies with our intelligence, but a lot of our other features are still built for a much simpler, environmentally-based existence.
In essence, we can think our world into existence, but our reactions will remain the same as if that imagined world was urgent and physically real. We can feel really, really afraid of things that are, by nature’s standards, weird, collective hallucinations. And our natural reaction to fear?
It’s to seek. To want. To solve. For some people that results in life itself becoming one of those pesky problems the mind has to find a solution for, often with tragic results. Maybe even worse is when other people’s lives become “problems” to solve in our confused, over-stimulated minds.
For most of us, though, we’re just wandering around in a daze, trying to make sense of it all. What we want is to understand our own situations, which have become more and more complex as we struggle to adapt to an unnaturally fast-paced, inundated reality that never seems to slow down and give us a moment to breathe.
But let me posit something: if we thought ourselves into this world, can’t we talk ourselves into a different one? Our brains made it possible for humanity to have a consciousness like no other, and perceptions so powerful they can literally shift reality around us.
We do this by telling stories. We do it by speaking to our own selves, and to the selves that inhabit communities, nations, and networks. When we become aware of something, we don’t even have to consciously respond — our response-programmed brains will file that information away and start to adjust reality accordingly.
If you know why you feel restless, and if you’re aware of how the definition of “enough” has changed, you’ve already set the reaction in motion. You are the stimulus once awareness enters the scene, and that means you get to choose the direction your brain takes in response to what you’ve learned.
Complex? Yeah, I guess it is. That’s never stopped us before, and if you look at the wisdom the spiritual masters have left behind throughout our history, you’ll find that things are always pretty simple once you let them be.
Will you ever have enough to feel happy? To feel purposeful, fulfilled, satisfied? I honestly don’t know, because ultimately you have to decide that for yourself, and it’s not going to be easy.
Sometimes wanting is as much a tool as fear or hunger, and if it drives us to do incredible things, then, we probably shouldn’t try to get rid of the sensation altogether (sorry, Buddha, but I’m not enlightened enough to give it up yet).
The purpose of this piece isn’t to give you a roadmap to satisfaction. It’s simply a way to think and, maybe, to start thinking towards a happier life. A life where you can feel a little less than restless and a little better than dissatisfied.
Start there, and you might find that your beautiful, crazy, reality-bending mind is already halfway to the joyful place you were always meant to be.