Does Dreaming Smaller Result in Living Happier?

Think Smaller?

How much is enough?

What level of monthly income is enough? What level of fitness is enough? How good a relationship is enough? How much success and impact on the world is enough?

We, as a culture, rarely ask these questions. The dominant viewpoint is always maximization: don’t ask what’s enough, but ask how to get more. Even the tagline of this website is to “get more from life,” not, “get enough from life.”

I wonder whether we would lead happier lives if we asked ourselves this question of enough more often.

Can Dreaming Big Result in Losing Perspective?

For the most part, I believe ambition is a good thing. Assuming your ambitions aren’t to steal, embezzle or kill pandas, wanting to do more is worthwhile.

There are a lot of people who lack any ambition. They have the ability and resources to do big things, but either through short-sightedness or lack of motivation, fail to set any goal. I’m guessing if you read this site, then you aren’t one of those people.

My question is instead posed at all the reckless and impossible dreamers out there: Do we spend so much time pursuing our goals that we fail to ask what is truly “enough”? And, in doing so, does it make being happy a struggle and even modest successes taste somewhat bitter because they did not reach our high expectations?

Forgetting What is Enough

I noticed this when I recently launched my rapid learning course. My goal initially was to do a ten-thousand dollar month. To some of the readers here, that may seem obscenely high. Considering I invested several months in product development and I have a readership in the tens of thousands, that may seem low to you. Nevertheless, that was my goal.

In the end, when the final count came in, I had made $7500 from the first month. Even though I hadn’t reached my initial goal, I was genuinely happy.

However, as I thought about the process, I wondered whether I would have felt the same if I had only made $4000. Given my benchmark, 75% achievement seemed like a comfortable compromise, 40% would have felt like a failure.

Thinking more about this, I decided that all these expectations were completely disconnected from what was actually necessary. Given my lifestyle and current position, $2000 per month is enough to cover my expenses and give a margin of savings. Even my hypothetical failure would have been more than enough.

Strive for Ambition, But Know What is Enough

The aim shouldn’t be to lower your ambitions to whatever is enough. Instead, it should be to know deeply what those two values are—both your ambitions, and what is enough for you.

I remembered this idea when a recent girlfriend broke up with me. In the past, my instinct would have been to draw on my ambitious, growth-oriented nature. To channel those negative feelings into self-improvement or taking action.

Instead, however, I asked what was enough. Even if I did nothing differently, it wouldn’t be long before I found someone else, and even now I could be happy being single. Knowing what was enough changed my focus from what I lacked, to what I already had.

While dreaming big can keep us alive with hope and enthusiastic in success, it’s small comfort in disappointment and failure. But in those times, it’s valuable to know what is enough. To know that, despite our setbacks, we will still be okay.

The Space Between Wants and Needs

For the most goals, achieving the goal will not make you happier. There are exceptions, but even if a goal is worthwhile the hedonistic high that comes afterwards rarely justifies the effort. Instead, the point of setting the goal is to improve how you live in the interim, because it feels good to hope and strive for things.

If you accept this idea, then it doesn’t make sense to pursue a goal if pursuing it leaves you feeling miserable. That can happen if, in the process of chasing your wants, you lose sight of what you need. In wanting ten million dollars, you become depressed at only finding five.

Dreaming Small and Finding Happiness

The idea for this article came from an interview I heard with Mark Silver. He argued that one problem many new entrepreneurs face is dreaming “too big” and that by being content with smaller ambitions, they could avoid the cycle of stress and panic that was ultimately detrimental to their business.

Maybe dreaming big isn’t the answer to every crisis. Maybe dreaming smaller—to know what is truly enough for you, is equally important. Having a space between your wants and needs, and realizing that you can live somewhere in the middle.

Image courtesy of linh.ngân

  • Carlon

    Excellent post. Right on the money.

  • Emma

    This brings to mind a musical number from a recent Disney movie.
    But still a much needed reminder. Thanks for that.

  • Dave

    Timely and relevant once again! This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently!

  • Nick

    A man’s got to know his limits-
    I think thats a Clint Eastwood quote. I didnt really accept/understand it until I read this post.

  • Karanime

    I think the point is progress. So long as you have your basic needs covered, wanting more isn’t really a bad thing, it’s just not something you should stress over.

    Dreaming big isn’t the problem. It’s getting frustrated when your big dream isn’t fulfilled. If you don’t get frustrated, that means you can try again, or do something differently. If you’re not dead, you still have a chance to reach that goal, and if you want, go even further.

    No, it can’t be the most important thing in your entire life. That’s where joy should be. But it can be something to occupy your time and make you feel happy about the progress you’ve made.


  • Jason Dudley

    “Instead, the point of setting the goal is to improve how you live in the interim, because it feels good to hope and strive for things.” – Pure gold.

  • Jonny Gibaud

    Does dreaming smaller result in happier living?

    In short I think the answer is that for some it does and for some it doesn’t.

    The really critical point that needs to be touched on is that for some the stress and risk involved with big ambition will cause them to be constantly living in misery whereas for others the easier and smaller life will have exactly the same effect.

    The big question to ask is “In which of the two lives do I feel most alive and to what degree?”

  • Natalie

    Hi Scott

    Such a great post. I agree that most high achievers have big expectations and are constantly dreaming big and setting `big hairy audacious goals’.

    When you don’t achieve them it often seems like failure, as Kariname says above, it’s all about the journey not the destination, making progress.

    If every dream we set was easy to achieve then life would be a bore. 75% for your sales is pretty damn good I’d say, next time you have a benchmark from which to judge and better – or be content with a similar result and what makes you and others happy.

    As you say your expenses are low so what do you really want per month?

    Isn’t it about leaving a legacy after all..


  • Stanley Lee


    In terms of ambitions and happiness, it all boils down to balance. Too modest of an ambition would ultimately mean living from paycheck to paycheck (i.e. unsustainable) and short-sightedness. Too ambitious of a goal would ultimately mean sacrificing enough present moment happiness for future gain to a point of forgetting what better means (articulated through Cal Newport’s recent open letter).

    Regarding ambitions of finding mates, it’s created by a paradox of choice, in my opinion.


  • Scott Young

    Stanley and Natalie,

    I think my point was misunderstood.

    I’m not claiming that you should equate your ambitions (that is, your goals) with whatever happens to be “enough”. Rather, you should realize that they are two completely distinct values.

    My argument in this article is that classic goal setting advice, to make your ambitions a necessity (therefore elevating your level of what is “enough”) is just as dangerous as lowering your ambitions to meet your level of “enough”.

    In my opinion, the issue isn’t one of balance, but separation. Knowing mentally you have high dreams and at the same time knowing that what you need in life to be happy, but not ideal, is a far lower standard.


  • Zengirl @ Heart and Mind


    Being ambitious is good but not at cost of others. In western world, we put so much emphasis on success, money and achieving materialistic stuff (I am part of it) but I have seen my relatives in India, they seems so happier than us with less things. Being content or appreciating with what you have the best example of being happier.

  • Ville Pietarinen

    Great post, Scott!

    William James, a 19th-century psychologist, came up with an equation you’re pointing at: self-esteem equals success divided by expectations. The main thing here is when your expectations rise, your self-esteem will be lower.

    Alain de Botton used this equation in his book called Status Anxiety to point out how modern society isn’t getting happier even though we are more successful than ever.

  • Travis Webster-Booth

    As usual, Scott, you’ve drawn out a great distinction that typical personal development is content to gloss over without examination.

    It strikes me as a very spiritual question because it is so related to the ego. On a recent post over at The Bold Life,Tess wrote, “we always want more and when we get it our ego moves the line.” How true is that? And yet how much satisfaction do we get from constantly pushing for more, more, more?

    I think, as you say, ambition is not the culprit. It’s more a matter of acknowledging that critical distinction between needs and wants, putting things in perspective to that barometer, and being extremely grateful for every good thing you have. Maintaining a appreciative mindset seems to naturally allow more of the good stuff into our life, anyway.

  • Scott Young


    Exactly. The point is not to lower your ambitions or raise what is enough, but to acknowledge the two as distinct, and to remember that you can live in between them.

  • bb

    “Its ok to trade ambition for happiness”
    You guys might enjoy this article:

  • Steven

    Damn Scott, nice thoughts! I sometimes think of this as the paradox between “self improvement” and “self acceptance,” – can we ever have both?

    I think you explained your position really well. And it makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. Of course we should always strive to improve ourselves and the world, but by the end of the day we should always be grateful for what we have.

    I think a great way to be satisfied is to identify your highest values to intangible, non-material luxuries…the chance to live, the meaningful relationships we have with one another, and the ability to smile and enjoy the moment. Everything else – the money, success, fame, etc. – is just icing on the cake.

    Love the post!

  • Alejandro


    how do you think this plays with the idea of arete?

  • Scott Young


    I see arete as being the pursuit of quality, excellence and virtue–a present moment-like activity. The question of “enough” is reconciling our ambitions with our current state.


    Agreed, the line between ambition and acceptance is often difficult to merge.

  • Wendy Irene

    Loved this post! Good work 🙂 Felt good reading it and remembering what I have is enough.

  • private label rights package

    I would still regard 40% in your 1st month as a success rather than a failure!! I have set up business projects in the past and come nowhere near 5% never mind 75%. Good blog tho, enjoyed reading it 🙂

  • Scott Young

    Well the goal was for the month, not a long-term paypack of the project. As a lifetime value, I’d hope that the project would continue to earn 3-5 years from now.

  • Jennifer

    After some reading, listening and thinking, I guess the problem posed here lies in associating happiness with success or achievements.

    That there is nothing wrong with wanting to dream big and achieve huge success, but at the same time, we have to make it a point to be happy and enjoy life inspite of our achievements. That happiness should not be dependant on something that is so hard to achieve and so variable… but in contentment, in enjoying the little things in life that matters, loved ones, in nature, in contributing… that we all deserve to be happy, no matter what the circumstances.