I’m glad they did, as I thought it was a great self help book. I didn't agree with every part of it, but it presented some classic ideas in a fresh way and gave me a lot to think about.
Here's my one sentence summary of the authors thesis on how to be happier: Make a concerted effort to become more compassionate toward yourself and others, cultivate the ability to enjoy the present moment by feeling all emotions without clinging to them, and develop a systematic gratitude practice.
There’s nothing earth shattering there. It’s the way he makes his case that most interested me. So much so that I decided to write 2000+ words about it
We Always Want More
The author’s core idea is that humans have an in-built and very difficult to suppress desire for More. He uses capital “M” more in a deliberate way to refer to how we all have cravings that can’t ever be fully satisfied. He believes that there is no natural regulator on our desires, whether they be for status, money, food, sex, or power. All of these things helped us reproduce in the ancestral environment. Our genes don’t care if this drive for More ultimately makes us feel bad, hurts relationships, gives us diabetes, or destroys the climate. Our genes don’t care if More is the root cause of all suffering. From the viewpoint of our genes, More is good, full stop.
I have experience with this. I’ve gotten big raises that come with a hit of dopamine, only to feel like my same disgruntled self a week later. I’ve secured two separate “dream jobs”, which came with huge amounts of prestige, only to get disillusioned and angry when I didn’t advance as fast as I wanted. I even once broke up with my now wife because while she was amazing, how could there not be someone even more amazing out there if I looked a little harder? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that true happiness was juuuuuust out of my reach. This book claims that I am not alone, and that a constant craving for More is the natural human condition.
Wanting What You Have
If you’ve accepted that you are hardwired to be addicted to More, what can you do about it? You can deliberately subvert it with gratitude, compassion, and attention.
Miller puts it like this:
Here is my summary of how Miller defines his terms:My methods for wanting what you have are easily summarized. I recommend the deliberate, constant practice of compassion, attention, and gratitude.
Compassion: Whenever possible, try to see the good in people. Including yourself.
Attention: Get better at doing one thing at a time with the whole of your attention. Take the time to stop and just be in the present moment while avoiding unnecessary value judgements. Let sensations, good and bad, come and go. (This is similar to standard western secularized “mindfulness” advice)
Gratitude: Pretty much what you’d expect. Try harder to notice all the ways your life is amazing. Even in bad situations there is something to be grateful for, if you look.
Again, this is all stuff you’ve heard before. What I found most interesting was how, in his opinion, there is never a magical point where you can rest on your laurels. You must hammer away at self improvement every single goddamn day, staving off the greedy monster of More. As David Goggins might say, this work is never finished.
Miller’s advice is not for the faint of heart. He doesn't let you off easy by saying “do a gratitude journal once a week” or “meditate for 10 minutes a day” or “volunteer once a month to bring out your compassionate instincts.” He’s more like “try to do your best to notice every single instance where you are thinking More-infected thoughts and replace them with thoughts infused with compassion, gratitude, and non judgemental attention to the fine grained details of the present moment.” It’s a big ask, but it’s also super empowering. You can will your way into being a more compassionate, grateful, attentive person.
This bit of advice for practicing attention gives a flavor for the “go big or go home!” nature of his approach:
Or this, on compassion:I encourage you to challenge yourself, stretch yourself, as much as feels comfortable. When you wash the dog, try pretending it is the only surviving member of an otherwise extinct species. When you urinate, pretend you are a urologist, knowledgeable and curious about every urinary tract sensation and structure. When you watch TV, pretend you have recently arrived from an alien planet where nothing like TV exists. When you eat cornflakes, imagine you have just emerged from a dungeon where you have spent 20 years with nothing to eat but maggoty gruel and muddy water. These fantasies are a bit extreme, so don’t get carried away with them, but you can use them as a tool to get into the proper mindset so that you can perform routine actions as if they are not routine.
And this on gratitude, which he presents after going through more and more extreme hypothetical scenarios that might lead a person to feel ungrateful, only to have Miller drop the hammer and declare that hell yeah you can practice gratitude even if your child is dying or you are locked in a dungeon.If you really want to challenge yourself, behave compassionately toward a person you find exceptionally detestable. For example, if you have trouble with violent criminals, find one in prison you can correspond with. You might visit him, bring him cigarettes and magazines, or try to help his family.
While your More-centric nature will never go away, it can loosen it’s grip. The positive habits get ingrained, and soon enough you get better at seeing the silver lining in a bad situation, you automatically put yourself in other people’s shoes before condemning them, you effortlessly embrace both good and bad feelings without being carried away by any of them, you get better at appreciating all the little details of any given moment.QUESTION: Is there any theoretical limit to the amount of gratitude an ordinary person living an ordinary life might be able to achieve?
It is hard to see what the limit might be. In every person under every circumstance, there always exists the possibility that there is something that person might feel grateful for in some small way. And beyond that one small thing there is always another thing, and one after that.
Miller believes that the practices he recommends will allow you to see that your present situation is pretty darn good, all things considered.
I also like how he spends time addressing the myth that being compassionate means you have to be a pushover or a peacenik. If someone breaks into your house, defend yourself however you have to. He’d just say that there is no need to also hate the person who broke in, as in their messed up way they were just trying to be happy and doing what they thought was right.
Will I Become a Motivation-less Blob if I Don’t Want More?
My hesitation around “wanting what I have” or the whole “wherever you go, there you are!” type stuff has always been that I don’t want to lose my motivation to improve my circumstances. I was raised to always be striving, improving, climbing. And I think there’s a lot of good in that. We wouldn’t have modern technology or advanced medicine or a preponderance of beautiful art otherwise.
The author’s suggestion is not that it’s bad to strive, but that it’s bad to strive in a way that affects your ability to maintain your compassion, gratitude, and ability to appreciate the present moment. If you notice that’s happening as part of your striving, then the juice is not worth the squeeze. A lot of this boils down to the age old maxim of appreciating the journey, not just the destination.
He would recommend going all out towards being the best at your job, for instance, if that’s what you want. Just try to have fun while doing it, don’t hate yourself if you don’t get there, and don’t tear others down along the way.
While he is a huge fan of accepting the things you cannot change, he by no means is saying “never change.” I think he handles that nuance well overall, though I note some confusions in the next section. He thinks all of psychotherapy would be improved if we separated “get what you want therapy” from “want what you have” therapy. Each has their place. I liked that framing.
He also points out that, while almost no one does it, it’s perfectly reasonable to just decide that your present circumstances are good enough. You can put your foot down and announce that you have enough money, enough house, enough friends, enough whatever. This affronts our More-centric being, but it is possible.
Nitpicks and Confusions
The book is a little preachy. He has a whole chapter on ethics that is mostly like, “Obviously everything was better when society was more religious, but here are some ways to muddle through given that’s no longer the case.” Then he presents an updated 10 commandments and suggests people who coalesce around his way of thinking might like to get together and sing modern songs that have compassionate themes, much like singing a hymn in church. That seems...optimistic. But hey, a guy can dream. And optimism is supposed to help with depression, at least according to this book.
I was also surprised that he didn’t talk about physical fitness at all. Maybe the benefits of exercise on mental health were less well established in 1995.
More importantly, I still feel there is something unclear about Miller’s stance regarding when one should strive to improve their position versus accepting what is. For instance, here’s a bit about goal setting. He says that you should set all the goals you want, but:
That’s hardcore! Which is great and all, it just implies to me that wanting what you have is higher on the totem pole of importance than striving to improve. I could be wrong there, just my interpretation.If at some point your goal interferes with your practice of compassion, attention, and gratitude, then you will have a decision to make. Do you prefer to want what you have, or would you rather mortgage the precious present in favor of some hypothetical future? If you knowingly “cheat” one time, will your practice of compassion, attention, and gratitude be forever harmed? You will have to make that judgment the best you can.
But later, it reads like Miller is implying that, in many situations, people will be happier if they change and improve. For instance, he writes about a hypothetical person who has a nose shaped like a rutabaga, and that person wants to get plastic surgery. (Interesting vegetable choice, I had to look it up!)
The way he says “reenter life with a nice new face” sure does make it sound like that’s an objectively better state to be in. Does that not imply we should all strive to be more beautiful? And to make more money to pursue that goal, within limits? These are the deep questions we all have to grapple with, and I suppose it's too much for me to expect this random self help book from the mid 1990's to have a perfect answerIf you have a nose shaped like a rutabaga, by all means get plastic surgery. If your health insurance doesn't cover it, start saving your money. While you are saving your money, live according to the principles of compassion, attention, and gratitude. Do the same as you prepare for surgery, the same as you recover from surgery, and the same again as you reenter life with a nice new face. If you are too poor to have much hope of saving enough money, live according to the principles of compassion, attention, and gratitude. They will help you find serenity regarding your nose. If you have an unexpected windfall, your serenity needn’t stand in the way of plastic surgery.
Finally, to quickly touch on some more modern research, what should we make of this recent study?
Maybe More is really not that bad after all?
All in all I love that the book gave me so much to think about.
I have long had a gratitude practice and a meditation practice. I think my entry point into the recommendations of the book will be through the compassion stuff. I feel like I am empathetic and compassionate in general, but it’s certainly my weakest link of the three that Miller emphasizes. It doesn't take much to set me off on a minutes long internal tirade about how annoying my boss is. If I find myself doing that I am going to try cutting it off way shorter than usual. And I’ll end with a compassion focused thought about how I’m sure that person is just trying their best to be happy in their own way. I will also work in some compassion to my typical morning gratitude practice.
Hope y’all are enjoying the precious present and cultivating a desire to want what you have.