For a long time, I thought I had a problem.
I found myself always wanting more out of everything: my possessions, my relationships, my career, my life story.
It was like nothing I had was ever good enough, and I kept telling myself that if only I had one more thing, then I could finally be happy.
I like to call it the shopping effect because, for me, it often involved actual shopping, wandering around malls on the weekends, looking for nothing in particular.
It was all about “the hunt.” The glimmering possibility that maybe, just maybe, I could find something more interesting, valuable or unique this time than I found the last time. And the hunt infected most of my life.
I had so much, and yet, I kept searching.
At first, I blamed it on advertisers, social media and pop culture. I thought my bulging closet, busy schedule and big plans were signs that I was materialistic or never satisfied. I wondered whether I was comparing myself to other people on Facebook too much, or trying to meet unrealistic expectations.
But it turns out, the “problem” with shopping is much deeper than that, and it doesn’t have to be a problem at all.
There’s an element of shopping that’s hardwired into human brains. We find a deep sense of satisfaction in seeking things out. In fact, Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that seeking is our most powerful core instinct, and studies have shown that it makes us happier than arriving at destinations or even winning the lottery.
So while we might think that our culture has created our never-ending desire for more, that’s not entirely true. Advertisers and social media are simply selling us the power of something that already controls us, and the desire for more seems like a bad thing because it often deceives us.
It keeps us unhappy by telling us we’re one search away from what we want, and then it makes us feel threatened that at some point, we won’t be able to search anymore.
Part of the reason marriages and long-term commitments are intimidating is that they tell us the search is over, and as human beings, that’s a scary thing to hear.
It’s like approaching the end of a good book, and as much as you want to know how it ends, you also don’t want to know. At least, not yet. You want the journey to keep going.
Most days, I don’t even know what I’m going to talk about after I get married because so many of my conversations right now revolve around the search of dating.
But the problem is, both stories we tell ourselves about searching are deeply flawed.
It’s not because we aren’t satisfied with what we have. It’s because we are fundamentally unsatisfiable.
When we acquire the next thing we want, we aren’t going to be happy because we’re more happy when we’re hunting. And when we make a big commitment to something, like a marriage, we aren’t going to lose our ability to search because we can’t lose it.
It’s built into who we are.
We will always want more, and it’s not because we aren’t satisfied with what we have. It’s because we are fundamentally unsatisfiable.
So how do we make searching healthy? How do we keep searching without putting our lives on hold until we arrive? And how do we evolve within the confines of a commitment?
If you ask me, it’s all about searching for the right things.
I read once that Johnny Cash and June Carter stayed in love their entire lives by getting to know each other better every day. That’s a beautiful illustration for how searching can help us.
Instead of fixing our minds on what we don’t have, searching can help us press in and learn more about the people, issues and ideas that matter to us. In fact, always wanting more could enrich our relationships and inspire us to devote our entire lives to something bigger than ourselves.
We can never fully know someone, so we have to keep getting to know them better every day. And like our relationships, our world is full of issues and ideas that are endlessly complex.
Challenges like global warming, pollution in the fashion industry, gender inequality, racism, hate and discrimination are constantly vying for our attention. And the fact that we can never fully solve these problems in our lifetimes might make them daunting, but it should also inspire us.
Our restless souls are naturally equipped for whittling away at goals day by day and devoting our entire lives to the process of improvement.
Strangely enough, the same thing that could make us perpetually unhappy holds a true chance at bringing us lasting joy.
Always wanting more can be a good thing, too.