Stress Management Tip

When is enough enough?

Stress Management Tip

When is enough enough?

Knowing when enough is enough is a stress management tip that is well worth considering.

American industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller was once asked: “what is enough?” Perhaps Rockefeller’s reply explains his enduring reputation as the richest man in history. “Just one more!” he replied.

Arguably this response might be typical of western societies. From a very early age, we’re encouraged to think of security, success and happiness in terms of high salaries, the accumulation of wealth, and ownership of material possessions. Although our business schools and our businesses encourage us to pursue these ambitions, perhaps we need to re-appraise our view of enough.

Stress Management Tip 1: What Is Enough?

In “The Hungry Spirit”, Charles Handy uses the Rockefeller story to help illustrate his “doctrine of enough”. He argues that “in most of life we can recognize ‘enough’. We know when we have had enough to eat, when the heating or the air conditioning is enough, when we have had enough sleep, or done enough preparation. More than enough is then unnecessary, and can even be counter-productive.”

If Handy is right, why do we lapse into “more than enough” at work, when we’re generally capable of recognising “enough” elsewhere? Is it because economic theory encourages us to continually seek more than “enough”?

This point is made by economist Richard Layard, in his book “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science”. Advertising, says Layard, is good for the economy. Encouraging people to think they don’t have enough, encourages them to buy more products and services. This extra spending fuels economic growth, provides our financial security, funds our public services, and creates jobs. It could be argued that it’s our social duty to spend more than we really need to, not to mention our right to pursue happiness through retail therapy!

However, Layard points out an interesting contradiction to this consumerist perspective, and a very useful stress management tip. Once average income rises to a surprisingly modest level, extra income doesn’t bring us extra happiness. If that’s so, it’s no wonder western populations are seeing increasing work-related stress levels. Why are we working harder, to earn more money, to buy more than we have, when we already have enough? Especially if earning and spending more money won’t make us any happier.

Stress Management Tip 2: When Is Enough Enough?

The lower we define our levels of “enough”, the sooner we’ll taste abundance and the freer we’ll be.

In economic terms, we have enough to be happy once we’ve reached a relative subsistence income. This implies that anything we buy requiring more than this income, is more than enough. We might want it, but it won’t bring us extra happiness. But how do we get to the mental state that tells us enough is enough? A frame of mind that stops us striving for more than we need? Getting to a position of “enough” is getting to a position of balance. Handy again gives us an excellent stress management tip. In thinking about what we need to live comfortably, he argues that:

Thinking about and defining our own levels of “enough” can allow us to re-appraise our work-life balance. Are we working long hours or seeking promotions for the right reasons?

In his book “Happier”, Tal Ben-Shahar summarises research into the way people experience their work. Evidently we view work as either: a job; a career; or a calling. People who view work as either a job or a career are primarily motivated by extrinsic factors such as money, status or power. Those who have found their calling view work as “an end to itself”. Whilst income and progression may still be important, the real reward, self fulfilment, is intrinsic. Ben-Shahar says if we live our lives combining pleasure and meaning, the result will be happiness – the ultimate currency. Surely it’s this currency that would really justify any extra hours of effort. Whereas long hours spent in pursuit of extrinsic rewards will probably only result in increased stress levels.

Perhaps the best stress management tip is to ask ourselves: are extrinsic rewards really worth the added stress they incur? 

Harvard Business Review Editor Thomas A Stewart, captured the enormity of what we call success and the burden of expectation we place on people. In an article for Fortune he wrote:

“Tomorrow’s captains of industry must be e-commerce adept and old-economy tested; must have powerful analytical skills and superb instincts, including perfect pitch when it comes to hiring people; …. must be innovators, visionaries, and change agents; must know the difference between a thin client and a lean supply chain; must be able to say no in a way that doesn’t demoralize and to inspire people to exceed their own expectations; must be coaches and team players; must have spent several years working on another continent; must be able to work harder, longer, than most people, while keeping their personal lives in balance; must be young at heart but mature in judgement; and must have good teeth and look great in a suit – and on Friday in trousers and a sweater. What’s a poor schlumpf like me supposed to do?”

Stress Management Tip 3: Would Enduring Success Be Enough?

So what is a possible way forward? Two Harvard academics, Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, talked to high achievers, interviewed successful professionals and surveyed more than 100 executives attending Harvard management programmes. As a result they proposed an ideal of “enduring success”. They suggest this has four categories:

  1. Achievement – accomplishments;
  2. Happiness – feelings of pleasure or contentment about life;
  3. Significance – a positive impact on people you care about;
  4. Legacy – establishing your values or accomplishments in ways that help others find future success.

Nash and Stevenson suggest that “enduring success” is a journey of balancing work, family, self and community, and not being obsessed with “one big goal”. How do people achieve this? They do it by focusing on just enough. “You don’t have to succeed at everything at once. Some things are enough for now; others can wait until later”.

But just enough isn’t simply about settling for mediocrity or second best. “By just enough we don’t mean settling for the minimum. Just enough is actually a vehicle for actively making choices that get you more, not less, through achieving satisfactions on more dimensions in life.”

Stress Management Tip 4: Re-define Your Success Profile

Nash and Stevenson suggest an exercise:

Create four headings labelled: achievement; happiness; significance; and legacy. In each category list a subheading for: work; family; self; and community. Write a list of your successes in each category. This success profile will provide a diagram of your own success history and will point towards which categories you have over-emphasised or neglected.

Stress management tip

Stress Management Tip 5: Ask Yourself Some Questions.

Is your work a job, a career or a calling? If you think you’re suffering from work-related stress, is it because of your view of work? If so, read our article “Do What You Love Or Love What You Do, for some ideas on how to deal with this.

What is your level of enough? We realise this is a subjective interpretation, especially in regard to subsistence income levels. However what would lowering your levels of “enough” do for your life?

Why not swap extrinsic value for intrinsic value? Would your stress be reduced by re-focusing from material rewards to seeking Ben-Shahar’s ultimate currency – happiness?

What is your ideal success profile? How would your life be different if your efforts were expended developing a better balance between work, family, self and community?

What do you waste? One of the principles of growth in the natural world is pruning. Review your use of time, money and energy. Are there things to cut back which are actually waste? What activities should you prune to be focused on reducing your stress? What steals your time? What saps your energy? What eats away at your money?

When is enough never enough? In the area of personal growth and learning, enough is never enough.

Stress Management Tip 6: Be Fair!

As we began this article with a reference to John D Rockefeller, it’s only fair to end with him. Especially as the opening quote didn’t really do justice to his renowned altruism. Rockefeller was as famous for giving money away as he was for being rich. Why? Not because he had far more than enough and could afford it! Because it is better to give than to receive. There is nothing new in this wisdom. It’s been a feature of religions, societies and cultures for centuries. What’s new is the amount of scientific evidence now available to support it.

What’s our stress management tip? We’d argue that pursuit of extrinsic rewards might bring us “enough” – that is, a subsistence level of happiness. However, true happiness can only be achieved by focusing on intrinsic rewards, and by achieving a balance between work, family, self and community.

We can think of no better way to illustrate this than by listening to Charles Handy himself. His words on the death of his father provide a poignant and powerful summary to this article…

Workplace well-being resources

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Have a Good Workday (16 pages, 4 tools)
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