What Is "Enough"? Achieving the Right Balance in Our Lives and Families

by Suzita Cochran   |   December 5, 2011


When our middle child, Daniel, was 10 he would have traded his left foot for the chance to play video games for hours on end. Food, companionship, and sleep could likely have been sacrificed in the quest for the highest score. 

The video game marathon never happened. Being aware of this potential in our son, my husband and I held off introducing such games into our house. Instead, we found ourselves regularly chanting, “Once your reading becomes second nature, we’ll talk about video games.” What did this vague, non-measurable comment even mean? The certainty with which we said it must have stood in for its lack of clarity.

This is part of the reason Daniel received a Kindle for Christmas that year. He was rosy-cheeked from the chilly morning air as he tore open his gift with hopeful anticipation. Seeming slightly underwhelmed, he nonetheless smiled and thanked us. You could tell his 10-year-old brain was quietly working to arrive at a final judgment on his gift. At least it fell within the category of new technology. He probably figured he could make something of that. Later that day, I overheard him talking to his friend Joey about the Kindle, saying, “maybe it’ll break soon and I can get an iPad.”

Several reactions simultaneously took shape in my mind. “How did I, the one who lacks the shopping gene, raise such a little consumer? Will Daniel say the same thing when he buys his first car? ‘I hope I total it so I can get a better one next month.’ Maybe if we’d bought him video games earlier he would have gotten his minor obsession with computer products out of his system. Is this generation learning that everything can be thrown away and painlessly replaced?” And then ultimately, “Note to self: keep teaching the kids to have an ‘attitude of enough’, especially Daniel.”

But in order to cultivate an attitude of enough in our kids, we first need a good grasp of how much is enough in our own lives. Whether it’s a material item (shoes) or a non-material one (free time), how do you know when you have enough of something? “Enough” seems to reside at the sweet spot between needing more and wanting more. It’s a calm, settled, balanced place. Enough is a place where one easily feels gratitude and appreciation. At this sweet spot, we have access to the bigger picture and can gain perspective. When we stop at enough, the excess energy we would have used to secure more, becomes available for bringing creativity and ingenuity into our lives.

Enough is an elegant concept, and it’s a place we’ve been numerous times in our lives. But it can also be illusive and slippery. Kind of like trying to hold water in the palms of our hands. Sometimes (usually one of those quiet periods when my husband has taken the kids on a bike ride), my personal place of enough sits right beside me. I see it clearly and can use it to gauge whether something I’m pondering is a need or a want. At these times I consistently remember to be grateful for what I have. 

Then he and the kids return home, and the day invariably takes a different turn. Life becomes noisier and busier. When I find time to look up from the shoe I’m tying or sunscreen I’m applying, all that beautiful clarity I had earlier has evaporated. Of course, these are the times when most of the parenting decisions get made. “Mama, Ella is taking singing lessons, can I do that too?” “Mom, my biology teacher says we’d get more out of this unit if we had a microscope at home.” “Mama, can I play a game David told me about on the computer? He said it’s a math game, not just a computer game.” Where is my enough gauge now? 

80% Full or the Other Extreme?

Eating is the activity where it’s easiest for me to practice the concept of enough. The Japanese use the term “hara hachi bu” which means eat until you are eight parts (80%) full. I like this idea (unless I’m really hungry). The concept of enough seems to be intertwined within hara hachi bu. If you know there is enough to go around, that there is enough for you, you’ll experience that calm, balanced feeling while eating. Hara hachi bu also requires an internal focus on the messages of one’s body, rather than an external focus on factors such as the amount of food left on your plate or a waiter’s suggestions. Using our own internal cues to gauge our point of enough is always healthier and more accurate than relying on messages from others. 

I assume the Japanese incorporate the idea of hara hachi bu into other areas of their lives as well. This is more challenging for me and I’ve noticed, my kids. How do we know when we are 80% full of pants, kitchen gadgets, or iPad applications? This is still a work in progress at our house.

The opposite of hara hachi bu is a strategy we’re all familiar with, gorging oneself. We’ve all done it. Our kids have likely done it. Think back to last Halloween. When my friend Eva lived in the mountains outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, she and her husband didn’t receive any TV channels. When they moved back into town their apartment came with a full array of cable channels. Eva did what most people would do. She watched more television than she ever thought possible, especially since she worked full-time. She said she watched so much TV that eventually TV made her feel nauseated. Today, five years later, when she thinks back on that time she still feels a little sick. These days Eva watches two shows a week. She’s found her place of enough. 

It’s hard to recommend the gorging method as a path to finding one’s point of enough in all areas of life. It’s fairly inefficient, often expensive, and frankly hard for friends and family to watch. The two differing strategies of hara hachi bu and gorging highlight the challenge of figuring out our spaces of enough. But just because something is a challenge doesn’t mean it isn’t worth attempting. 

The Green Triangle, a Useful Motivator

Another motivation for seeking the place of enough in our own lives is Ernest Callenbach’s concept of the Green Triangle. According to Green Triangle theory, if you make a positive change in one area of your life, it also affects other areas positively. The three points of the Green Triangle are Money, Environment, and Health. The classic example Callenbach uses is a person commuting to work by bicycle. Perhaps she made this change in order to save on gasoline and car wear and tear. In this case, the behavior was initially begun in order to save money. However, riding one’s bike to work also helps the environment by reducing pollution and carbon emissions. And thirdly, riding a bicycle to and from work daily improves a person’s health. Each point on the triangle is connected to the other two.

In my reading on the Green Triangle, I came across the suggestion that instead it be a Green Diamond with the fourth angle labeled Community. I agree this would make Callenbach’s concept more complete.

My initial motivating factor for cultivating an attitude of enough in myself and my family would fall under the category of health, more specifically mental health. An attitude of enough would reduce my stress levels on many fronts. But stopping at enough would also likely save my family money. We would buy less of everything from cars to vacations to office supplies. Buying and traveling less, and carefully researching the items we do purchase, would in turn support the environment. Finally, having an attitude of enough would leave us with more energy for relationships. Getting to know our neighbors. Being available to lend a hand to someone in need. Supporting those hardworking teachers at the kids’ school a little more. I’m feeling more energized already!

The Green Triangle concept reminds me of one of the messages in Juliet Schor’s book, Plenitude: the less you buy the less you need to earn. An attitude of enough could unhook us from the exhausting work-spend-work-spend-work cycle. Or at least it would allow us to step back from this energy-draining existence enough to consider our true priorities. As I contemplate how my life would change if I focused on stopping at enough, I envision more space, more breathing room. And it seems that more breathing room almost always leads to a clearer vision of our true passions, a worthwhile destination any day.

As for my technology-obsessed fifth grader, one strategy that made some inroads with Daniel was showing him Annie Leonard’s web video, The Story of Stuff. It took several viewings for him to fully understand the message, but eventually he was emailing it to his friends. We’ve also always let Daniel play video games at friend’s houses. Recently I tried to look upbeat when, upon retrieving Daniel from a buddy’s home, the mother told me the boys had played the Wii for the entire three hours. They hadn’t even stopped for a snack. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I don’t have the stomach for the gorging method with Daniel and video games. But I have been reading aloud to him more. We’ve discovered we both enjoy biographies. And I’m happy to say that another year of maturity and practice has turned Daniel into a better reader on his own as well. 

So it’s been a process to ever so slowly establish an attitude of enough in my son. We’re not there yet, but this year he put numerous books on his Christmas wish list, along with of course, the Wii.

Suzita Cochran is a clinical psychologist from Colorado. For the past year, she has been writing a blog (http://playfightrepeat.com) on how to incorporate "more of what matters" (and less of what doesn't) into parenting.