Grow or Die: Why Happiness is Impossible Without Growth

One year ago this month, physician-assisted suicide became legal in Canada. The law stipulates that doctors can only carry out the procedure in situations where patients experience “suffering that is intolerable to them and that cannot be relieved under conditions they consider acceptable.”

But it’s not physical pain that causes most people to request physician-assisted suicide. According to an article in the latest issue of Toronto Life magazine, it’s something much more profound.

In Oregon, where the practice has been legal for 20 years, the most common reasons cited by patients are loss of autonomy, an inability to enjoy life and loss of dignity. Doctors in Ontario say they’ve observed the same reasoning. … There is an underlying medical cause, but the suffering is usually existential. Patients find they are simply playing out the string, without any hope of finding meaning in the limited time available to them.

In other words, they are no longer able to achieve a fundamental human need — the need for growth.

I can relate.

In the months before my kidney transplant, the toxins were building up inside me, poisoning my body and mind. I was physically exhausted and mentally drained. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t exercise. I couldn’t learn. I wasn’t there for my family. My life was on hold. I had stopped growing.

Things got worse when I learned there was a chance I might not get approved for a kidney transplant because of an unrelated medical condition. This news threw me into depression. I knew I didn’t want to die. But life without growth didn’t feel like living either.

Humans have an insatiable need to grow. Our happiness depends on it. As William Butler Yeats wrote, “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

Gretchen Rubin describes growth as a key contributor to happiness in her book The Happiness Project. (My review here.)

Growth explains the happiness brought by training for a marathon, learning a new language, collecting stamps; by helping children learn to talk; by cooking your way through every recipe in a Julia Child Cookbook.

So what does this mean?

It means we need to grow every year, every month and every hour.

It means we must never allow ourselves to believe that we’re too old to grow, or too old to change, or too old to learn something new.

It means we need to grow like our happiness depends on it.

It means we need to grow like life itself depends on it. Because it does.



  1. Hi Keith — Thanks for this. What advice to you have for people facing life-threatening or chronic disease or disability in terms of how to continue to grow and find meaning? I’m also thinking of this in the context of children with disabilities who may not have the same opportunities as peers–or may not achieve the same growth ‘milestones.’ And how this influences their parents.

    • It’s a great question Louise and I don’t know if I have a great answer.

      In the weeks before my kidney transplant when I was sick, confused and exhausted, I really felt like growth was impossible. And it was devastating for me. I wasn’t able to rise above it on my own, but I know there are others who have done so.

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