For most of us, growth is synonymous with life. Even before babies are born, their foetal growth is plotted and charted. As kids achieve various developmental milestones, their obviously visible growth is applauded. Once we reach adulthood, we continue to grow, albeit in subtler ways. We seek jobs with an upward trajectory. We want partners who help us discover and foster latent talents. Whether it is taking on a challenging new project, learning a language, acquiring a skill, or pursuing a hobby, we aspire to expand our horizons and extend ourselves.
Our quest for personal growth is situated in a larger cultural context that worships growth as an end in itself. Thus, we value companies that grow at exponential rates and economies that scale. Implicit in this drive for growth is a desire for more. Be it money, prestige, power, knowledge, talents, or skills, we want more. However, believing that more is always better has serious consequences. Foremost is the degradation this kind of thinking and living exacts on our planet. As we acquire more, our carbon footprints become deeper and more dire. Second, a relentless pursuit of growth also perpetuates malaise and dissatisfaction, which then impels us to move faster, creating a vicious cycle. So, what can we do instead?
The cost of growth
The capitalist creed of more is better, is the engine that drives economic growth. In an article in The New York Times, dated 17 July 2022, David Marchese profiles the eminent economist, Herman Daly, who argues that our relentless pursuit of growth is untenable economically and ecologically. Instead, Daly advocates a “steady-state economy” that factors in the environmental limitations of unchecked economic growth. In fact, Daly wonders whether the costs of our current economic model may be outweighing its benefits.
Unfortunately, our thirst for perpetual growth has seeped beyond economic domains into other aspects of human endeavour. By constantly striving to move upwards and onwards, in whatever guise, we are perennially itching for some kind of change. That we can simply be happy with what we have and who we are, is not encouraged by our current zeitgeist. On the contrary, being content with our present lot is often mistaken for complacency or a lack of zeal.
For example, if a person continues working in the same corporate firm for over five years, people start asking why they haven’t made a shift. That a person has to continually seek greener pastures and reach greater heights. To be happy is nothing but a cultural assumption. That we can also be eminently happy, in one place, isn’t something we readily accept, either for ourselves or others.
I am not advocating that people stagnate or fail to stimulate themselves adequately. But, the notion that we need to grow and change all the time needn’t dictate our lives either. We need to recognise and appreciate rather than deride the idea that we can be content with our present lot. At a fundamental level, everyone is hankering for happiness. We work, play, travel, form connections, acquire possessions, and gain skills and knowledge in our quest to be happy. While doing all of the above are aspects of a healthy and rounded life, we need to question whether we need to always be ascending. Our desire to relentlessly propel ourselves upward and forwards can also lead to perennial dissatisfaction and ennui rather than greater contentment and well-being.
Hitting pause and reconsidering and recalibrating our priorities, every now and then, may be beneficial not only for individuals but for society and the life of the planet. Furthermore, there is one form of ‘growth’ that actually requires stillness. Spiritual development, which cannot be measured, graphed, or even described, is about being content with our current lives without yearning for change.
In her book, Little Sprouts and the Dao of Parenting, author Erin Cline, says that the Daoist philosophers cautioned us against filling in the “empty space in our lives” with activities rather than simply savouring these moments. Further, Confucius always emphasised human flourishing over markers of “wealth and prestige,” that are normally associated with growth. Learning to say “I have enough” not only regarding finances but also in other dimensions is definitely a goal worth striving for.
The writer blogs at www.arunasankaranaryanan.com and is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.