What drives our excessive desire for more? Despite all our wealth and abundance, we always want more to fill us up. We crave the latest fashions, technologies, and hotspot destinations. Consumption has become our favourite pastime. In a society that seems insatiable, how can any of us even begin the quest for enough? Our hungry hankering brings with it an overbearing heaviness, an exhaustion, a longing for a slower pace of life. Yet we cannot seem to escape the yoke of desire. The question springs to mind: what is the relationship between our desire for always more and a good life?
The psychology of scarcity
Any person living on welfare in the UK now has a significantly higher (absolute) standard of living than king Richard III. In fact, most royalty in history did not have central heating, plumbing, access to clean drinking water and toilet paper, to name just a few of the luxuries Western people can now enjoy in abundance. Of course, we do not care much about our absolute standard of living. Once we rise to a level where basic physical needs are met, our material satisfaction becomes relative. The psychology of scarcity teaches us that we quickly become used to our standard of living and are in continual, self-inflicted comparison with our peers. Our happiness thus soon evaporates when we realize that our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours have more (stuff, holidays, happiness and so forth). This way we are chasing a never-ending finish line, a fata morgana.
A game of leapfrog
To free ourselves of this scramble for the evermore, we first need to understand the mechanisms that drive a world filled with imagined shortages. Why do we feel we never have enough? Our likes-culture surely has something to do with it. The privatisation of recognition that social media has unleashed made personal happiness and status a meritocratic endeavour. How well we do in life is no longer subject to class distinctions or even capitalistic limitations. Self-help books tell us that how successful (or happy) we are in life, is entirely up to us. Happiness has become a game of leapfrog. Every step of progress I make will be matched and exceeded by others, which I turn will then need to match and exceed. We have unwittingly entered a collective game of madness none of us can win.
The antidote of this restlessness seems to lie in movements on minimalism, tiny houses, and freeganism. Yet don’t these movements run the risk of achieving the same comparison and meritocracy we wish to escape from so longingly? People show off their ability to live with a mere 50 possessions with a gleaming sense of pride and the interiors of tiny houses are presented on Youtube in much the same fashion as all the other interior design videos that leave us feeling that we are not enough. We always want more – more stuff or more minimalism. When having less becomes a choice rather than a necessity, isn’t it just another form of luxury to aspire*?
Stopping the madness
I assume that part of this madness will never cease to exist. As social creatures, we are hardwired to fit in and belong to a tribe. Comparing ourselves to others is a primal instinct for survival. Living a good life (preferably slightly better than our neighbours) is not a 21st-century invention. The mechanism of our ‘always more’-culture can be untangled, however, if not collectively then at least individually. A slower pace of life in this hectic, meritocratic culture of selfies can be possible when we become deliberate in our approach to life.
Stop the mechanisms of comparing – It is unlikely that we will ever completely stop comparing ourselves to others. (If you have been successful, then please share your secret with us!) That does not mean however that comparing must be actively encouraged. Limiting social media usage to the bare minimum or deleting it completely can work wonders for generating a sense of enough, as I can attest to from personal experience.
Stop desiring what you don’t have – The best way to create a sense of enough is by wanting what you already have. Turning your focus from what you do not have and instead appreciate what you do have (try making a physical gratitude list if you struggle with this one) can be helpful. Limiting exposure to marketing material, whether through promotional blogs, email marketing or TV ads can further reduce the focus on wanting what you do not have.
Stop believing in the makeability of life – We live in a world where we are told that anything is possible. Although that belief might help some to reach greatness, it also leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment. Life is not makeable, and humans are not optimisable. When you stop comparing your capacity with others, life becomes slower, gentler and more graceful.
In my teenage years, I loved spending money on low-quality clothing and overhyped makeup pieces. At age 20 I started traveling and soon found the world of self-improvement and Instagram yogis. I ditched the frantic consumption of things and instead started a journey of frantically becoming more – more smart, beautiful, social, successful and happy. Although I picked up a few good habits along the way, the excessive desire for improvement left me drained and exhausted. In the last couple of months, by the grace of sheer lack of energy, I quit my life improvement madness and started focusing on forgiving myself for all that I was and all that would never be. In that, I found so much peace and contentment, that I can now confidently say ‘less is more’.
*Minimalism has the benefit of reducing the environmental pressure that comes with consumerism.