I have noticed in my own life that I become upset, frustrated, and anxious when I think first and foremost about my wants. Despite having a house, being in a good marriage, and being fit from getting to do a lot of running, I am always able to see more in my life that I want (or to see things in my life that I don’t want). I have noticed that I can become fixated on these likes or dislikes to the point where I cannot appreciate what I have. I start to look at what I have accomplished and rationalize why the things I want should fall into my lap, and why I should never have to deal with the things I don’t want.
This is not a helpful nor healthy way to view the world, and especially when it comes to our relationships, this can be a harmful way of thinking. When I fixate on my own wants I forget the value of the people in my life. Others become tools, objects to be used to obtain what it is I want, or to take on the burden of things that I do not want. For a person feeling discontent, this is the exact opposite way to view relationships in order to find a sense of stillness and happiness.
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Let’s cease thinking of our accomplishments, our wants. Let’s try to figure out the other person’s good points. Then forget flattery. Give honest, sincere appreciation.”
An interesting reality about humans is that our lives become more fulfilling and meaningful when we do things for others. It is not accomplishing things, it is not gaining more material possessions, and it is not obtaining fame which makes us the most happy. It is cultivating deep relationships and finding ways to help serve others which gives us the sense of contentedness that we seek.
Carnegie’s quote captures that essence. Focusing inward on our own desires and justifying the things we want and the possessions we have based on our achievements leaves us feeling hollow, and leaves us always desiring more. It pushes us to use people as means to our selfish ends. However, if we can turn this thinking around, we can see other people as valuable in their own right, and we can develop meaningful relationships with them. We can appreciate people for the things they do and find ways to be helpful to them, and this mindset will ultimately make us more fulfilled than a mindset focused on getting purely what we want out of life.
In Letters From a Stoic a passage from Seneca reads, “How noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon fortune.” Something I find myself returning to all the time is the idea that I am fine and complete on my own, without needing external validation from someone else to tell me that I have value. I can be successful, I can pursue my interests, and I can participate in society without needing someone else to tell me what I am doing is good. I don’t need someone else to tell me when I have become successful or if I am still not up to par. I don’t need another person to tell me that what I spend my time working on and engaging with is worthwhile.
The quote from Seneca reminds me of those efforts of mine to be ok with who I am and what I do. To be dependent on fortune is to be dependent on someone else for external validation and is to be continually striving to fill part of ourselves with things that will never fill us. The reality is that we don’t really need that much money in the United States to survive (compared to the life of mansions, porches, and Lululemon that we picture in our minds). We definitely need some money, and having a lot of wealth makes life a lot more bearable, but we don’t actually need as much as we generally pursue. At a certain point, buying a new sports car, buying a bigger house, wearing designer clothes, and mounting a huge TV on your wall becomes about something other than the thing you are purchasing. Those extravagant purchases beyond what is really necessary become a statement. They are a way for us to show the world what we have achieved and to ask someone else for their validation of our lives.
When I was getting to the end of my undergraduate career my motivations for my behaviors and desires became more clear to me. I started to see that I had placed expectations on myself that were driven by a need to impress my family. I wanted to land a job right after school that would make my uncle say, “Wow, good job, all that hard work paid off.” I wanted to buy a house that my mom would look at and say, “Very impressive!” And I wanted to buy a sweet classic muscle car that my brother would see and say, “Dude that’s awesome.” My entire mindset was focused on what I thought other people wanted me to be and achieve, and not on what I actually wanted to work toward or what I actually needed.
When we can be content with ourselves individually we can live a more peaceful life. When we can see that the external motivations on our life are made-up and likely can’t ever be achieved, we can start to focus instead on goals that are truly meaningful to us, rather than aim toward goals that are meaningful to someone else. Best of all, we can turn that attitude outward and become more accepting of people without requiring them to show us something impressive to deserve our love, friendship, and respect. This puts us in a more healthy place where we work toward creating value as opposed to working toward obtaining things and we place our own value in meaningful relationships and making the world a better place.