We live in a consumer based society. Your sole purpose, according to this system, is to buy… and you need to keep buying, in ever increasing quantities.
Stuff you need, stuff you don’t need, stuff you want, and even stuff you don’t (really) want. You buy nice new shiny things and you feel good and everyone applauds you and believes you are successful.
That’s how it works and that’s how everything keeps spinning round and round.
Except it doesn’t.
The “economically advanced nations” have some of the highest levels of depression in the world and actually have lower self-reported levels of happiness than their economically less advanced counterparts.
Why is this?
It’s because we are tricked into believing we want/need more, and we are not happy with what we already have. You really can’t blame the common man or woman. There are gigantic marketing departments full of brilliant people who work away day and night trying to find ways to make you part with your hard earned money. Apple is a brilliant example of this, they spent close to 1 billion US dollars on advertising last year.
Another factor to consider is how the internet plays a role in this. Google has a made an absolute fortune with its Adsense program. It’s estimated that 95% of Google’s earnings are from advertising.
So, you are bombarded with adverts. Believe it or not, this does have an effect.
On top of this, we have the celebrity culture. We are allowed glimpses of lifestyle so above the “normal” way of living and because they are disproportionately reported by the media, it seems like anyone can become super rich. That’s actually not the case. The chances of ending up in the higher end of society haven’t changed much in the last four hundred years or so.
So what can be done?
Well, you can either run the rat race and attempt to out-earn and out-spend everyone you know in an attempt to feel good OR, you can just relax and enjoy what you have, right now.
The benefits of the latter approach is the topic for today’s article.
Be Content With What You Have
Before we can go any further I need you to accept a fact, which is one of the core fundamental beliefs of the Stoic philosophy:
“There are some things we can control and there are some things we cannot control.”
I think that’s something anyone can acknowledge to be true. It’s not earth-shattering and it’s not a particularly original insight either.
So why is it so important?
It’s not so much that this particular sentence that has large repercussions, but the questions that it brings up can lead to some very interesting insights.
Spend a moment or two reflecting on what is under your control. Almost every thinks that they are in control of themselves. Let’s accept that, for now, and find something else that we control. Perhaps the company you own or run, or perhaps the things (material objects) that you own. I’m sure you can think of a few more examples.
What if I told you that it was all an illusion, that you cannot control any of the above? Bear with me, I know this ludicrous.
I’m going to argue that the only thing you can control is yourself, partially. I know that doesn’t sound particularly inspiring, but it’s true. After all, you can’t control when and how you get ill, or any other of the thousands of pathological processes that go on inside your body every minute. What you can control are your thoughts and your actions.
Let me quote the very beginning of Enchiridion by Epictetus, a text I highly recommend you read.
“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control. The former are naturally free, unconstrained and unimpeded, while the latter are frail, inferior, subject to restraint – and none of our affair.”
Following logically from this, only a mad man would attempt to control things outside of his control. Of course, many (most?!) people in our society do indeed attempt to do this. While it may temporarily make you feel better, it’s an intricate cover-up and it never ends well in the long run.
So, what’s all this got to do with helping you feel content with what you have?
It’s actually quite straight forward. If you try and find happiness in material possessions and the general rat race, you are relying on things that are actually outside of your control.
It’s much simpler, more efficient and profitable to change yourself, which is something than you can control, rather than attempting to change the rest of the world to suit your needs.
“Everyone thinks about changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy
It doesn’t matter if your financial, family or personal situations get better or worse, you are in the driver’s seat. You can be happy, whatever happens. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t grieve at the loss of a loved one, but that it should all be put into perspective.
The very fact that you are reading this article means that you access to the internet. Just think about how amazing that really is. You have the sum of human knowledge at your fingertips. Imagine going back 50 years and describing what you can do with your smartphone, a device that fits into your pocket. People would be floored. You should be too. You have the capability to learn about anything and everything. Isn’t that just amazing? Are you aware of how many billions of people currently don’t have this privilege?
How about the fact that you can read in the first place. I’ve mentioned what an amazing thing the ability to read is in my essay How to Educate Yourself Everyday, but the points are worth reiterating here:
Reading allows you to connect to people all over the world without even having to get out of your living room.
- It allows you to connect with people who died hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
- It allows you to educate yourself, a luxury which wasn’t available to many people only a hundred years ago.
It’s incredible how we take for the granted the truly amazing things in life, while simultaneously pining for worthless objects that will not enhance our lives but instead trap us in a downward spiral.
"The things you own end up owning you." Tyler Durden – Fight Club
I guess in the end in all boils down to become more minimalist. Enjoying the simple, free things in life. Having the free time to spend with friends and family, being able to exercise and enjoying nature.
It’s also about discovering the distinction between conventional wealth and real wealth. After all, what is the definition of wealth? Let’s look it up and see if sheds any light on how to be content:
“Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. ”
And there it is. The answer is staring us straight in the face. Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions.
That’s the key. Valuable resources.
You can choose what are your valuable resources. Almost everybody would agree that time is a valuable resource. So why spend so much of it working at a job you hate for money you use to buy stuff you don’t need?
These “valuable resources” are where the real wealth is found. Forget material possessions They break, they cost money to upkeep, they require space to store and they tie you down.
Here is a list of things that I think constitute real wealth:
- Good books
- The Internet
- Fresh local food
Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that you go and throw out all your possessions and quit your job, although it may or may not be a bad idea depending on your circumstances. My point is that everyone has plenty of reasons to be happy right now. The very fact that you exist is a cause for celebration.
Yes I am aware that horrible things do happen in life, but they are to be expected and should affect this sense of “deep” happiness
Let me give you an example of someone who I stumbled upon who seemed to me to be very happy, despite probably not owning very many material goods.
The boy in the cover photo of this essay - I found him running around the ruins of an abandoned temple in a jungle in Cambodia. Looked like he didn’t have a care in the world.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have ambition. That’s a completely separate subject. You can be happy with your current state and still want to explore the unexplored. It’s actually not a contradiction!
How to be Content.
- Learn to appreciate the simple things
- Every so often try and imagine the various catastrophes that could occur in your life. This will remind you that your current situation is not so bad and it will also mentally prepare you for some of the curveballs that life tends to throw at you.
- Repeat to yourself every morning that you are thankful for what you have.
- Remember you have a lot more than many other people.
- You probably have a lot that you take for granted (eyes, hands, a working brain etc..all this could someday not be there!)
- Life and the world is just amazing. Spend some time thinking about this.
- Realise how lucky you are to be alive.
I hope this essay will start you off on your own reflections about your life, and you come to the realisation of how lucky we all are.