It’s Friday night, better known as Burrito Night in my household. I look forward to this night more than I should admit, but after a long week of working, parenting, and being compelled to wear pants that don’t have an elastic waist, I’m looking for comfort. I don’t generally do halfsies on dinner, so the giant meal in a soft tortilla package is mine. All mine. However, since I sometimes like to think of myself as a refined lady, I try to put away that gluttonous thought and replace it with a more moderate one: this burrito is enormous; I will eat only half and can then look forward to eating the rest of it tomorrow. The burrito is the size of a small dog, so this isn’t a crazy thought and it really shouldn’t be such a challenge.
But it is. In no time at all, I’ve hit the center of the burrito deliciousness. I don’t mean to be overly vivid, but it tastes so good and has such a warming and bolstering effect on my body that, simply put, I’d rather keep eating than stop. And herein lies my regular Friday challenge: do I follow the all-in path, or the more moderate one?
Longing for a feel-good moment after a long week is human. Whether we are in the office or at home, the days and weeks can feel long and the stress never-ending. In those exhausted moments, we want to let go and simply feel happy. And so, we find ourselves seeking out happiness, as it is traditionally defined, through experiences of pleasure and gratification.
But happiness can also be defined another way: that is, as the pursuit of living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Working towards living a meaningful life may not be immediately gratifying. In fact, it might give rise to uncomfortable feelings, because, of course, a life fully lived gives rise to the full range of emotions. And yet this type of happiness pursuit provides a satisfying sense of a life well lived that can stick with you, even in those moments of experiencing less than positive emotions.
The difference in these two happiness definitions is a core feature of a modern, scientifically backed treatment called acceptance and commitment therapy (or ACT, pronounced as a single word). This treatment, developed by psychologist Dr. Steve Hayes, promotes the pursuit of happiness through meaningful living. ACT works to interrupt the ‘happiness trap’ (so dubbed by Dr. Russ Harris in his self-help book on ACT) that can keep you stuck in that never-ending loop.
Because pleasure and gratification are so fleeting, this form of happiness pursuit naturally prods you towards excessive behaviors. And while burrito consumption may be a simpler exercise for you than it is for me, most of us tussle with some form of this dilemma. For example, you may find yourself faced with the decision of how big of a house you need, how many drinks to order at the bar, or how many jack-o-lantern notepads to buy from the dollar bin at the after-Halloween sale.
You may find that the all-in option can entice you like a clairvoyant vixen that knows all of your secret fantasies. And it isn’t only consumption where this all-in temptation arises; it’s also a whole host of lifestyle choices. Whether we are prompted to lean in harder to our work lives, complete a to-do list to ensure a pristine kitchen, or sign our children up for weekly soccer, tennis, and sausage casing lessons, the expectation is that happiness and satisfaction will come if you seek more. But the loop never ends, and we never feel fully satisfied.
But even conceding the downsides of more-is-more living doesn’t make it easy to fall in love with the idea of moderation. For many of us, the word “moderation” brings to mind a sense of ordinary mediocrity; a giving up of excellence and success.
Still, what if avoiding excess had the potential to open up a richer life by making room for multiple worlds of meaningful and fulfilling engagement? In this way, moderation in your work life could make more room for family life. Perhaps moderation in the purchase of your dream home would leave more money for travel. And maybe avoiding binge watching the next Netflix release could give you time to have a conversation—perhaps even sex—with that old partner of yours.
So rather than continuing to seek the next happy high, you might instead allow yourself to be guided by the quest for your most meaningful life. In so doing, consider opening yourself up to the power of moderation. Sure, it’s no cakewalk to stop doing something that feels good. But if entertaining moderated behaviors geared towards a meaningful life can help you to exit from the never-ending loop of pleasure chasing, it might be worthwhile to experiment. In moderation, of course.
What that looks like can take many shapes and forms. But, a first step in this experiment is to take a pause before engaging in your most typical excessive happiness-seeking behavior. During that pause, reflect on what you normally do and try out a more moderate behavior. This might mean you head home from the office in time for dinner, decide to opt out of hosting your child’s opulent 2nd birthday bash (or maybe just cancel the pony rides), and perhaps discontinue eating the burrito at the halfway point.
Trying out new behaviors is likely to bring up uncomfortable feelings. But, as the hilariously titled self-help book, F*ck Feelings suggests, leaving your happiness hunger n charge is less effective to leading a meaningful, fulfilling life that allowing your values of what really matters to you guide your choices.
And, after all, you may find that moderating your burrito feast will leave you more room for dessert.
- Harris R. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books; 2008.
- Bennett M, Bennett S. F*ck Feelings. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2015.