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.