More goodies – more happiness?

I have a relatively new “rule” for new clothing purchases.  Whatever I am eying has to be something I truly need or something that I like better than something I already have, . . . AND then I have to give the inferior item away.  This keeps me from needing to rent extra closet space at a warehouse somewhere(!), and it also helps me sleep better at night.

I learned this a while back when I realized that during low points in my motivational cycle – you know what THOSE feel like, don’t you? – I often found myself “needing” more new things.  I would poke around looking for just the right  purchase that would remove the feeling that I was not accomplishing what I really wanted.  When I found a new treasure, bought it and took to home, I felt that I had done something worthwhile – I had made a wise purchase – until I went to put it away in my already overstuffed closet.  Then I felt greedy, overindulgent, and ultimately misguided.

After looking at my feelings a little deeper, I realized that all my stuff made the hole I was trying to fill just seem more obvious.  “Look at all of this stuff!  If more were going to make me feel more fulfilled in general, I would not feel this up and down roller coaster ride.”  If I had brought home a new purchase and hung it up in a sparse closet, it may have been easier to think, “Oh, there we go.  I didn’t have much before.  Now I have more and that is nice.”

This is exactly what happiness research finds.  According to an editorial in the New York Times (Don’t Indulge.  Be Happy.), the magic break-off point at which more money does not increase happiness is at an annual salary of $75,000.  In fact, the increase in happiness from $55,000 to $75,000 is a mere 9%!  Spending on others brings more happiness than overindulging in more than we need.  Even saving is more happy-making.

I get this!  Do you?  I just feel gluttonous after a certain amount of self-indulgence of any sort – things, food, self-focused thinking.  I think this has to do with detecting a lack of balance in happiness-producing activities and objects.  Real happiness is a peace that comes from perceiving that there is enough.  When I overindulge, I sense a now-obvious disconnect between how much I have (plenty) and how I feel (unsatisfied).  When there is plenty and I feel like that, the obvious conclusion I have arrived at is that I am attempting to fill a hole with the wrong substance.

In the case of my shopping expeditions, when it starts to go beyond a little pleasure or filling a real need, I know it is time to accomplish something that will truly feel like an accomplishment – write, clean, whatever – or I need to give in to real relaxation that will bring more peace – yoga, meditation, or sleep.

Food is like shopping in this way.  When you have had enough, whatever that means to you, there is a feeling of nourishment, pleasure, and peace.  When it goes beyond that, there is often a feeling of imbalance, lack of control, gluttony, and CHAOS.  No one likes to feel like that, and it can be difficult to keep from overindulging in many of the highly palatable foods available everywhere.

In a way, overeating holds a valuable message – “Pay attention.  A need is waiting to be filled.”  Unfortunately, given this golden opportunity to identify real human needs – perhaps for connection, peacefulness, stress-relief, or another perceived “hole” – the knee-jerk reaction many of us have is to brutally judge ourselves for not being able to stop.

Be kind to yourself!  It is human to want to stop feeling uncomfortable.  We all try to minimize that, and food can be a pretty good impersonator of a real solution at times.  Like my experience with over-purchasing, it may appear to ease suffering for a brief while, until it becomes obvious that more is not better after a certain point.  Then the sheer “in your face” reality sinks in – after an overabundance of food, the real need is still unmet.

So, what is the answer?  Clearly I am not suggesting that you should give away the extra food you don’t need.  If it has already been eaten, the only way to get rid of it would be to purge – not a healthy option.  From my experience, the key to making future changes with anything related to human behavior is to stop being your biggest, nastiest critic and law enforcer.

Just stop, take a deep breath, create a little emotional detachment from the situation (be an impartial, KIND onlooker for a moment).  Then be curious enough to discover what your true need might be.  That in itself is healing.  With time, this gets more natural, but it does take practice.

It may also be helpful to just notice without judgment the enjoyment that comes from eating a little, more, and too much.  Studies show – but we already know this innately – that the most pleasure is in the first few tastes.  After a certain point, the pleasure is not increasing anymore.  It actually starts to decline.  This would make an interesting graphing experiment in a food journal, wouldn’t it?  I think the visual would be enlightening.  Anyone want to try that?

2 responses to “More goodies – more happiness?

  1. I agree with the point about eating beyond what you need. Sometimes I eat treats that are overwhelmingly stuffed with sugar, and I keep going because I feel it will bring me some enjoyment and satisfy my cravings. Usually I am just tired and really need some fresh air and a walk, but reaching for a cookie is so much easier and immediately rewarding. I don’t do if often but I wish I just didn’t do it at all! Few bites of rich dark chocolate would be a better idea. Any favorites?

    • So human, isn’t it – to want easy relief? We all do it sometimes . . . reach for the band-aid treatment when what we really need and want is something with no calories at all. Dark chocolate seems to be easier to stop than a lot of other sweet things, at least for most people I know. What works best for me is when I step back emotionally and just observe. I think we all intuitively know when food is not the answer. Stepping back for a moment sounds easy, but it requires that little “Aha!” that notices that food will not make it better, at least not really. Of course, this won’t always work, but it can improve for everyone. It has for me.

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