A challenge in our world today is to be content without the need for too many things. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements about things we could buy and about how happy we would be if we had more stuff. We attach material possessions to lifestyles and people, and in some ways we look toward things to define people. Advertisements and mental images work because we believe them, but they don’t truly reflect the reality of the world around us or what would make us happy.
In Letters to a Stoic, Seneca writes, “the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.” The quote is part of a larger passage about finding happiness in oneself and in the world around us rather than in our things or specific items that we might want. Stoic philosophy, as Seneca describes, encourages us to avoid the desire for stuff, because stuff can be taken away from us, burned down, or never attained in the first place.
What we need for happiness, Seneca suggests, is simply our mental faculties. An awareness of and appreciation for life that isn’t dependent on what we own, the quality of our clothes, or price tag of our car. Unlike the way of thought that we tend to fall into in America, where we associate being a lawyer with owning a sports car, associate being a runner with owning an expensive GPS watch, and associate being a hipster with owning expensive glasses, stoicism encourages happiness through relationships, and an appreciation of simple, yet wondrous moments of life. Indeed, having lots of stuff can take the wonder out of life and fill it with the stress of managing finances, space, and security of possessions.