West vs. East: Did We Get Happiness Wrong?

West vs. East: Did We Get Happiness Wrong? September 22, 2022

happiness chipping away
Leonard Laub via Unsplash

Start Chipping Away.

That’s both a chapter heading and advice from Arthur C. Brooks recent book From Strength to Strength, Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. “Chipping away” is of many compelling ideas forwarded by Brooks, a way to increase happiness as we grow older.

Brooks explains that the way we view the world is often dictated by society or more specifically by the cultural norms we live in and may have unconsciously accepted. In his words:

In the West: We believe success and happiness come by accumulating more stuff. More money, more accomplishments, more relationships, more experiences, more possessions.

In the East: They believe accumulating more stuff leads to materialism and vanity. This derails the search for happiness by cluttering our lives and by clouding our true nature.

This is where the concept of “chipping away” comes in.

Brooks tells us that most Eastern philosophies believe we need to “chip away” the excess in our lives until we find our true selves. (Think of a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone to reveal the art inside.) We shouldn’t “accumulate more to represent ourselves but rather strip things away to find our true selves.” This is the opposite of Western thinking where we believe we should have a lot to show for our lives, collecting “trophies” along the way.

The good news is its within our powers to turn things around. We can start chipping away right now—at our possessions, at our insatiable quest for new experiences and accomplishments, at our hunger for more money and recognition. It is only then that we can discover a new meaning of success and true peace and contentment.

The problem may be our flawed formula for success.

 According to Brooks, for most of us in the West, our satisfaction in life has always been determined by a simple equation:

Satisfaction = Getting what I want

This is a flawed formula. Because “while we know more or less how to meet our desire for satisfaction, we are terrible at making it last.” We have fleeting moments where all is right with the world, but the moments dissipate. We then begin our pursuit of the next experience/relationship/ possession we want. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, we can’t get no satisfaction.

Social scientists call it the “hedonic treadmill” and it works like this: You need constant success to enhance your feelings of self-worth and not feel like a failure. So, you run and run and run, capturing small successes along the way—but making no progress toward a lasting happiness. As Brooks points out, our equation for success should really be rewritten to read:

Satisfaction = Continually getting what I want

Many people hope that “at some point they will finally feel truly successful and happy.” But it does not happen. After getting a promotion, the businessperson looks to the next step on the corporate ladder. The new homeowner begins eyeing a bigger, pricier house. The millionaire seeks even more riches. As I said, we can’t get no satisfaction.

To illustrate this point, Brooks mentions a cartoon he saw that showed a man on his deathbed. The man whispers to the loved one at his bedside, “I wish I’d bought more crap.” (Said no one, ever.) And inherently, it’s something we all know: More stuff doesn’t equal more happiness.

Maybe we need a new equation for a happy life.

 Brooks believes the true equation for a simple life should be rewritten as follows:

Satisfaction = What I have ÷ what I want

Your satisfaction is determined by what you have, divided by what you want. Ideally, your “haves” and “wants” are closely aligned. If you find your wants are greatly outnumbering your haves, then it may be a time for a re-evaluation of your goals in life. Will that new “thing” really bring lasting happiness? Or just a fleeting feeling of joy?

The key to true happiness? Brooks quotes the bestselling author Simon Sinek who asks people to find their “why” in life if they ever want to achieve contentment and unlock their true potential. To paraphrase Sinek, “you need to articulate your deep purpose in life and shed any activities that are not in service of that purpose.”

In Brook’s case, he stopped to consider the forces in the future that would be most responsible for his happiness. He made a list of the things he wanted, eliminating anything that would bring only a momentary burst of satisfaction. His list boiled down to 4 items:




*Work that is satisfying and serves others

Everything else is extraneous. Brooks is now aligned with a primarily Eastern way of thinking that “satisfaction comes not from chasing bigger and bigger things but paying attention to smaller and smaller things.” Which raises the questions: Are you paying attention to the right stuff? Is there anything you can start “chipping away” in your life? I, for one, am cutting down my “want” list right now.

Look for another story featuring Arthur C. Brooks From Strength to Strength in a few weeks.

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