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Becoming more by doing less

Olwyn Bartis

The hunger for more, especially in a world willing to offer it, is innate before it is externally motivated. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-American neuroscientist, argued that of the human brain’s seven primary emotional systems (CARE, PLAY, LUST, SEEKING, FEAR, ANGER, SADNESS), seeking is the most meaningful for our lives. Each of these primal emotional effects is evaluative, meaning that it is either pleasurable (positive valence) or aversive (negative); and seeking enables mammals to investigate elements of their environment and determine which is which. Funnily enough, seeking isn’t necessarily the vehicle through which animals and humans encounter experiences that leave them fulfilled; the act itself involves dopamine, the neurotransmitter related to reward and pleasure. Panksepp’s book, Affective Neuroscience, elucidates upon this phenomenon much more clearly than I can; but, in short, these biological factors mean that animals are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information for survival. The behavior of self-stimulating animals isn’t provoked by possible rewards as much as it is by the impulse to explore new opportunities/discover new information (i.e. seek). 

When contextualized, it’s then intuitive that achievements alone are not enough to satisfy humans, and are unlikely to permanently elevate one’s levels of happiness and complacency (a phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill). Generally speaking, we will always seek out more, simply because it’s in our nature to do so. But what about when one considers the role that external factors possess? Our world isn’t constructed exclusively around survival. When additional complications present themselves, the urge to have and learn more evolves into an obsession with being more. 

As a whole, we are enthralled with the concept of self-improvement. One’s inborn desire to add on to his or her fundamental identity is exacerbated by the interminable slew of options that exists; endless choice facilitates universal mutability. This may seem like an overcomplicated statement in regard to what goes on around us, but think about it- how often do you mull over just how much choice you have, and all of the things that you could become if you were able to pursue said options? This “freedom of choice,” especially in an environment that feeds off of our biological want for more, can become paralyzing; suddenly, there’s far too much to do, to see, to accomplish, and everything begins to feel wrong. How do I know that I’m committing myself to the right things; why am I wasting time on this when I could be doing that; if because they’re doing this, shouldn’t I follow suit? The lines begin to blur and things stop adding up, and the little voice in our heads continues to wonder whether we’ve got it all wrong. 

The societal institutions that we comprise, and are in turn governed by, prey upon this fear that we are inherently not enough. The most obvious example of such is the wellness industry, which not only consists of sectors related to “personal care,” but also wellness tourism and wellness real estate. So, “wellness” is essentially an incredibly nebulous, broad, and arbitrary umbrella under which a lot of bullshit resides; yet, as of this year, it’s worth an estimated US $4.5 trillion globally, with an expected CAGR of 7.0% by 2028. That’s a lot of money spent on chai lattes, breathwork spas, and trips to Tulum. 


I’m not arguing that any conscious attempt toward self-betterment is ineffective or devoid of substantial meaning, and I recognize that not everyone subscribes to the idea that one must invariably try new wellness trends in order to feel growth. But, the rhetoric surrounding self-improvement and the manner through which something internal has become so blatantly monetized remain concerning. Not only does it introduce so much goddamn choice that actually accomplishing anything is impossible out of the picture, but it also divides people on both an interpersonal and intrapersonal level. 

Take, for instance, the language surrounding men’s wellness regimes versus that of women’s; whereas wellness trends for men center around becoming stronger and more machine-like, women are nudged toward what appears like outright vanity. While “human performance consultant” Ben Greenfield is releasing articles entitled “How to Make Your Penis Stronger With a Private Gym,” Gwyneth Paltrow recommends vaginal steaming, $15,000 gold dildos, and vaginal jade eggs. Undeniably, both of these ideas are ridiculous, but it’s relatively straightforward to see that one focuses on some measurement of performance, while the other is about presentation. Moreover, self-optimisation divides us on a singular level; while working toward certain advancements, one begins to see herself in halves - there is the part that must be altered, and the part that initiates said improvements. This self-surveillance is alienating, and it detaches us from the lives we live and the bodies we inhabit - because we are of the mindset that “before I can act, I must be, and before I can be, I must change.” Nothing is ever good enough as a whole; instead, we have fragmented and flattened ourselves in an attempt to build up more. 


It may be an extension of an overused banality to conclude this piece by stating that we must find contentment within ourselves first; but truthfully, that’s what this circles back to. It’s not enough for us to do more simply because we are afraid of becoming unseen or left behind. It’s not realistic to continue to chase some idea of betterment, when the seeking isn’t motivated by autotelic tendencies. Having more, checking off boxes, being able to say you’ve done this versus that - these are aspects of a hollow, barren endeavor to become more by filling yourself with things that you are not. 


I read a book in highschool called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and it’s about a young, impoverished girl coming of age in the early 1900’s. Francie Nolan is bright, observant, and stubbornly quixotic; she is also achingly human, a quality that presses her to piece together fragments of happiness in any way possible. Somewhere in the story, she prays, “Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.” She continues to beg to be “gay, sad, cold, sincere, deceitful, hungry, satisfied,” - any and every emotion and experience so that “not one little piece of living is ever lost.” I’d like to be this way, as well. I too want to be more; I yearn for continual growth and curiosity and challenge - but I want it to come from the innermost parts of myself and those around me. For every minute and every hour of my life, I want to be more - merely by being me.

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