Moderation

Several virtues share a focus on self-control and balance in life. Moderation is perhaps the broadest. It is the term I prefer. For my purposes, moderation includes the classic virtues of temperance and continence. Temperance involves control over desires and avoiding excess. Continence often refers to controlling emotional responses. There are extensive writings on the meanings and subtle differences between these terms.

“Moderation in all things,” a phrase often attributed to Aristotle, influenced me since early adulthood. This virtue has probably had the most practical impact on my life. The reason is it applies to many parts of life. Every day presents decisions and actions where moderation is a valuable guide.

People seem prone to and admire excess. We respect athletes devoting their lives to excelling in their sport, even if it comes at a high price. People with outstanding achievements, possible only with a single-minded pursuit of their goals, are rewarded and admired. Society even seems to like, or at least pay attention to, those with lives of material and sensual extremes that ruin their health and relationships. Living life to the full is often viewed as going far beyond moderation. Our natural tendency to seek status encourages excess as a means to stand out and be recognized.

Moderation, in contrast, has been the superior path for me. Moderation is the mid point between excess and deficit. Healthy eating, for example, sits between gluttony and starvation. Moderation recognizes that many situations involve choices of degree rather than yes or no. The lack and excess of something can be detrimental to a fulfilling life. Finding the right balance point is one key to happiness. This virtue is helpful in work, recreation, and sensual pleasure-seeking.

Learning to control emotions, particularly negative ones such as anger, frustration, and jealousy, improved my life immeasurably. In a world where people, especially men, are encouraged to get in touch with their emotions, I learned to do the opposite. Yes, it is essential to know and understand your feelings. It is not good to be numb. But the critical task is controlling the expression of emotions. It is easy to get angry and show it. But expressing that anger rarely makes things better. Many emotions are similar. Moderation, especially the concept of continence, encourages control and effective expression. It encourages thinking before speaking or acting. In time and with practice, the underlying negative emotions lessen, making control easier. All this leads to better relationships and greater serenity.

Moderation is excellent advice when confronting sensual pleasures. This is what most readily comes to mind when thinking about the virtue of moderation. It is easy to take physical pleasures to extremes given the media and societal pressure to seek pleasure, especially sex. The long-term effect is rarely positive, as is evident from the stream of stories of celebrities destroying their lives by excessive pursuit of pleasure. The idea of moderation is a little voice warning me that I will regret having another drink or that a tempting short-term pleasure will have too high a cost. Sensual pleasure is good, and we need it in our lives. But just not too much.

Moderation helps me control my desire for physical possessions. It is easy to want the best, biggest, or most prestigious. But will it make my life better? Do I really need it? Often not. Remembering the virtue of moderation helps me focus on meeting my needs more than satisfying my desires when acquiring things. I don’t own things; they own me, and I don’t want to be a slave to my possessions.

The concept of moderation helps me resist extremes in other activities where the value of moderation may be less obvious. I often seek high levels of achievement in what I do. I have learned that being “good enough” satisfies me in many situations. Time is saved by not going to extremes. Good enough goals are more easily achieved, which is a source of pleasure in itself.

For example, I am an adequate but not good golfer. I play well enough to enjoy the game, not lose too many balls, and keep up with the pace of play. In contrast, I know people so focused on getting a low handicap that it diminishes their enjoyment. More often than not, they get angry at a poor shot and spend endless hours and money trying to get a better score. Moderation allows me to get the most pleasure at the least cost in time and effort.

Moderation does not mean there is no place for excellence. Sometimes, pursuing excellence makes sense and leads to happiness. Developing a talent to a high level can bring joy and benefit others. Excellence requires sacrifice. The sacrifices may be worth it if the benefits are great enough. But often, the ill-considered pursuit of high achievement and excellence decreases happiness. Sometimes excellence is sought for the wrong reasons, such as recognition and status. Excellence in some areas may be feeding our vanity rather than adding to our welfare and the welfare of others.

Moderation improved my personal relationships. A more balanced life gives me time to build and maintain relationships. People with moderate habits and the ability to control their desires provide more stability for meaningful relationships. While the person who lives to excess can be an exciting friend for a while, it is a problematic basis for sustained relationships. I have found that moderation has helped me get along with a broader variety of people, making my life richer.

A more diverse life is another benefit of moderation. I can have a greater variety of interests and activities if I have moderate expectations. Instead of being obsessed with one or two areas, I have many where my level of engagement is more reasonable.

While controlling excess has been the predominant value of moderation for me, there is also value in avoiding deficiencies. I have many deficits—these range from character issues to knowledge and skills. The idea of moderation in all things reminds me to spend time on these deficits. Filling the deficiency gaps in my life has led to more varied and richer experiences.

There is a reason that temperance (moderation) is one of the four cardinal virtues of the Stoics. It relies on logic and reason to avoid excess. Moderation leads to more ethical behavior. It underlies and furthers many other virtues and is essential to living a good and meaningful life.

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