What do Buddha, Jesus, Karl Marx, and Erich Fromm all have in common? They recommend transforming your mindset from ‘having’ (objectifying everything) to ‘being’ (focusing on the here and now). Simple? Yes. Easy? No.
There is no need to strive for more, and to compete for significance, purpose and joy.
Embrace change and prioritise what brings lasting fulfillment to both yourself and others instead of selfishly pursuing power and possessions. This requires learning to say ‘no’.
There is a special energising magic in doing things simply and easily.
Facing ‘option overload’: the numbers
We are more and more overwhelmed by the things we have and the people we meet. This ‘excess all areas’ can be illustrated with impressive numbers:
- During one single commute we see more people than a man in his whole life in his little Middle Ages village.
- People around 1900 had 400 things in their home. Today we have around 10,000. (There are even claims that a typical US-American household holds 300,000 things today.)
- Advertisements claim: buy more and you will be happier. Companies spent hundreds of billions (e.g. $171 billion for in 2013) for this message to keep this ‘need machine’ running.
- In the 70s, the average human saw hundreds of adverts a day. Today, it is thousands. A most recent estimate for Germany is 6000 (for 2018).
- Studies indicate that the average person consumes 3 more information today than in the 1960s.
- In The Organized Mind, social scientist Daniel Levitin even claims that the average American worker processes around 100,000 words of information every day – five times more than in 1986.
- And finally systems analyst Buckminster Fuller: Before 1900, human knowledge had doubled every 100 years. By 1950, it doubled every 25 years. Since then knowledge growth has even more accelerated due to digitisation and the internet.
Actively filtering out and reprioritising has become the most important thing in our life to reclaim enoughness, essentialness, and simplicity.
Why are consumerism and materialism actually bad?
Don’t mistake material possessions with self-improvement. Happiness is more likely to come from the enjoyment of experiences and insights rather than the mindless accumulation of things. Switch to new values such as time, space and autonomy.
- You’ll never make enough money to finally be happy.
- The moment we possess something or get what we want, our minds begin to drift toward something new.
- Your material wealth won’t make you a better or happier person. Often the things we strive for only represent only more of something we already have (‘gear acquisition syndrome’).
- Avoid the ‘hedonistic treadmill’: there is not always something bigger, better, brighter that can buy you a thrill.
- Don’t fall prey to ‘hedonic adaption’: after a while, you don’t realise any more the good things in your life. We adapt to expectations or experiences, and emotionally level out. Consciously practise gratitude.
- In fact, Buddhism teaches that stuff rarely ever makes you happy at all. Material possessions cannot provide safety or security. On the contrary. Attachment to material things implies distrust of the universe, and leads inevitably to anxiety and insecurity.
- There is an easy way to find out if something is really making you happy longer term: if you can do it N times, do you get N the joy out of it? This obviously does not apply to material things. Not to chocolate. Not to cars. Not to money.
- If you really want to buy happiness, spend your money on experiences rather than stuff. Create pleasant experiences and adventures. Which will become fond memories.
Your job and your possessions aren‘t even in the top most important aspects your life. Those are much more likely one of these:
- Your health
- Your relationships
- Your passions
- Your personal growth
- Your contribution to society
Happiness is essentially about wanting what you have, and having what you want.
Paradox of choice: why too much choice is a very bad thing
Don’t chase happiness. Avoid excess. Reduce the choices you have. Less is more. Sometimes it is OK to choose not to choose.
The ‘official dogma’ of the affluent western world seems to be: the more choice the more freedom the more welfare. And this is simply wrong. Too much choice is bad and unhealthy and damaging for us.
Here is why choice is no freedom if it becomes a constant stream:
- Too much choice leads to distraction, decision fatigue, less satisfaction, doubts, regrets, discontentment, self-blame, and stress, or even paralysis, and not to happiness and liberation. You will start comparing to what you don’t have. You will start complaining. ‘Comparison is the thief of joy,’ said Theodore Roosevelt.
- Choice also increases expectations. And that is definitely bad for your happiness. One important precondition for happiness is having low expectations.
- With higher standards you are also more likely to fail in this context. We often do better but feel worse.
- ‘Choice overload’ will exhaust your brain and make you less productive.
Barry Schwartz calls this the ‘paradox of choice’: when you have too many alternatives, you end up focusing on what you don’t have.
But there is even another paradox: The more things we need to decide, the less effort we put into each of our decisions. So choose your efforts well.
Sufficiency vs scarcity
Bigger is not better. Better is better. Enoughness means prizing less over more, small over large, and niche over mass.
Enoughness should not be confused with scarcity. Scarcity is a chronic sense of inadequacy about life. Enoughness is about abundance and sufficiency.
Sufficiency is not about numbers. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough and that we are enough.
Some degree of voluntary (Stoicist) constraint on our freedom will improve our social relations and wellbeing, and decrease the likelihood of distress.
By simply choosing less, chances are that we would be more happy. When you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need or already have, it frees up immense energy to make a difference with what you have. That is also the idea of essentialness.
Learning from Japanese wabi-sabi
The Japanese aesthetics and philosophy of wabi-sabi teaches us to value simplicity and imperfection while recognizing the impermanence of all things.
Wabi describes a mindset that appreciates simplicity, humility, and frugality. Sabi translates to ‘patina’, ‘antique look’, or ‘elegant simplicity’.
This does not only apply to the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’; consider everything as a path or process (Japanese: do) – such as learning, relationships, career, home decoration.
Try to be a little bit less perfect and more ‘flawsome’. Allow yourself to be temporarily weak, imperfect, messy, emotional, broken, in doubt. Look for small improvements.
Rather than accumulating things, putting pressure on ourselves and striving for perfection, we need to accept that life is messy, flawed and always incomplete. Once we accept this, things can become a lot more effortless.
Eckehart Röscheisen is author of ‘The Art of Making Sense: What we can learn from Tao, Coaching & Science‘.