My dad collected Hot Wheels toy cars. He had thousands of cars, all in their packaging, with limited editions and rare valuable cars all collected and organized together. It was a hobby, and an example of how much value an individual can attach to objects that don’t mean anything to other people.
On my wife’s side of the family, near-hoarding behavior is not uncommon. With my dad’s collection and my wife’s family’s saving everything just in case, we have both seen the excesses of placing too much value in objects. We try hard to think critically about the things we have in our lives, and try to avoid having too many things and giving them too much value. But still, it is hard to part with things, even when they are gifts that we never really wanted and even when we know that we don’t need it or could replace it easily.
In the book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write the following about the value of objects. “People do not assign specific values to objects. When they have to give something up, they are hurt more than they are pleased if they acquire the very same thing.”
People are not actually that good at thinking about value. We will go out of our way for free stuff, we will hoard things to avoid feelings of loss, and we will collect items that don’t have the same economic value as the emotional value we attach to them once they are in our possession. This impulse helps drive our economy, but it can also drive us as individuals into madness.
I think that it is important to understand the quote from Sunstein and Thaler. When we recognize that we are not very good at thinking about value objectively, we can recognize irrational ways that we become attached to mere objects. We can start to shift the way we think about the material things in our lives and to really consider if they provide us value. We might find that our Hot Wheels collection really does provide us value, but at the same time, we may recognize that the decorative thing that someone gave us years ago doesn’t provide value. We can look at items that sit around taking up space, requiring cleaning, and cluttering our lives and feel more freedom with parting from those items. Understanding our irrational tendency towards objects and value can help us rethink what we keep, what we fill our lives with, and can help us get beyond the loss aversion we feel when we think about selling something or tossing it out.
We like to show off. We like to have nice things to impress other people, and we like when people notice our things, compliment us on our fancy stuff, and respect us because of the wealth that we have. It is an instinct that likely evolved as humans lived in small tribes. If you had an ability to accumulate resources, you could be seen as a valuable ally, and you became a more attractive mate. Those who were good at creating allies and demonstrating their value through resource dominance passed their genes along.
The problem is that we don’t have an easy off switch for our resource signaling behavior. Finding a partner, having children, and living comfortably might not always be easy, but the way we compete for these things is different in the 21st century than it was eons ago when our early ancestors were living in small nomadic tribes. Today many people have sufficient wealth to live comfortably and are able to get married and have children or even adopt without the need for overt displays of wealth. Nevertheless, all around us is the pressure to have more. We are tempted to spend more on housing, buy new cars, take more impressive vacations, and signal our wealth through our material possessions. Without a real reason, we still push ourselves in a signaling game to show off our wealth, and as we do, our possessions and wealth steal the meaning and enjoyment from our lives.
In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger—in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.”
The pursuit of wealth for purposes of showing off and signaling leads us to have things we can’t enjoy. We become so fearful of losing our stuff that we lose connections with our communities and fellow citizens. We become willing to subject ourselves to longer work hours, worse working conditions, and lengthy commutes so that we can have nice things. We trade off the qualities of life that make it meaningful and enjoyable so that we can show off to others. In the process we become servants to our wealth, and rather than using the resources we acquire for a positive impact on the planet, we allow our wealth to have negative impacts on the planet and on our very own lives. We should puzzle over our wealth to ask ourselves what is needed for comfort, security, and to have a bigger positive impact on our communities and planet, rather than puzzle over our wealth in pursuit of more for ourselves.
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.
In Letters From a Stoic Seneca encourages us to avoid living a life that is motivated by material possessions. He encourages us to recognize times when we desire more and more comforts and pleasures in our lives and to remember that we will never be satisfied with our things, and will always desire more.
An unfortunate reality for us humans is that the things we want seem to give us less satisfaction over time. We become accustomed to the heated seats in our new car, the large TV becomes normal, and the new espresso machine gets old and we stop thinking about how happy we are to have freshly brewed coffee each morning. The question becomes, how can we be content with what we have and avoid landing in a place where we are never happy and constantly need to buy more stuff as if attempting to fill a hole in our lives?
Seneca has some advice, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”” What Seneca advises is that we spend time going without any comforts. That we picture what total failure would look like in our lives, and live in that way for a short while to truly experience the loss of our comfort. In today’s world this may look like locking up our GPS watch and smartphone, wearing only our most junky tennis shoes for a few days, sleeping on the floor in the living room (as if we didn’t have a bed) with our oldest pillow and thinnest blanket, and eating just canned beans and rice for a few days.
Living with nothing for a short period of time may help us appreciate the things we take for granted in our lives. It also can help us see that all the comforts we rely on, that we were so excited to get at first and that we forget about over time, are not things that are essential to our survival. By remembering not to rely too heavily on these comforts, by seeing that we could live without them, and by roughing it for a little while, we can develop better relationships with our stuff.
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” wrote Seneca in Letters to a Stoic. A big challenge in the United States today, and across the globe in our social media connected world, is being content with what we have. There is always a temptation to do and have more. We want to have the most exotic vacation photos on Facebook, we want to have the best decorations during the holidays, and we feel like we need to get a new car when the neighbor gets a new car. The things we possess and the memories we have become stale quickly and the remedy that we turn to first is purchasing more and going further.
Seneca continues, “What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”
A key theme of stoicism is that we cannot rely on standards and measures set by other people to determine our own value or whether we are successful. We cannot compare ourselves to other people who have had different opportunities and challenges in their own lives. The best we can hope for is good luck and to do the best with what we have. These ideas become very freeing and have become very popular following the great recession where many hard working individuals ran into an economic downturn and faced obstacles that were beyond their control. Defining success by things that can be measured from the outside always leaves you in a place where your own success is beyond your control.
Seneca would describe the state of needing other people’s approval and needing certain possessions to impress people as being in a state of true poverty. If you can only feel wealthy and successful because you have more than someone else, then you will never be able to enjoy the richness of life. Self-awareness and a deep focus on the world around us helps us to see great wonders in even the mundane and banal aspects of life. Having material and financial success is great and can make for a more exciting life, but you will never be able to enjoy that life if you cannot find your own value in who you are as a person separate from the adulation and praise of others. If you can only define success for yourself as somehow being more than another person, you will always live in poverty and fail to truly enjoy the moment you have and place you are at right now.
In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”
Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness. The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.
Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.
A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.
One of the writers who sent James Harmon a letter to be published in the book, Take My Advice, is Tom Bobbins. His letter is very short and focuses on refocusing and finding a way to keep mind, body, and soul in harmony. Bobbins writes, “At least once a month, remind yourself that your purpose on earth is to enlarge your soul, light up your brain, and liberate your spirit.”
His message in this quote and throughout his letter is to take time to remind yourself of what is important in life, and to remember that the material goals that we all strive for are often not aligned with our spiritual goals. Bobbin’s also writes, “repeat after me, “I’m not a Buick, I’m a Buddha,”” which shows his emphasis on being more connected with your spiritual self than your material possessions.
Last night with a friend I was discussing how quickly life seems to move once you have graduated from college. We get out of school and begin making more money and chasing important positions, nicer cars, bigger houses, and things to fill those homes with. What we can lose sight of, and what Bobbins reminds us to stay connected with, is our bigger purpose on the planet, and the spiritual importance of being humble. Living a life focused on BMW’s, the newest washing machines, and the latest apple products keeps us entertained, but it does not give us a sense of completion. That sense of completion Bobbins would argue, comes from knowing who we truly are, reconnecting with our spiritual selves, and understanding that life is about more than the ideas pushed into our minds from car commercials.