Understanding the benefits of wanting less go back millennia. Socrates said: “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
I had always loved to shop. A lot. I could spend a whole Saturday going from store to store without stopping. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of happily shopping the day away with my Grandma in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia.
The roots run deep
When my husband would ask where I was going on weekend mornings, I’d typically reply: “To run errands.” This was true — in part. I didn’t usually intend to make shopping a big part of my day, but it frequently turned out that way.
In my quest to have the latest fashion trend or home decor, I sometimes spent more money than my budget allowed, and I certainly spent more time than my schedule allowed. As a result, I often had to find time to return things that either didn’t work out or fell victim to buyer’s remorse. The happiness that buying more things seemed to bring was always short-lived and was sometimes even followed by regret.
Still, I believed that once I got that new shirt that I just “had to have” from Anthropologie, it would quench my desire, and I wouldn’t want to buy anything for a while. But that never seemed to happen. The more I bought, the more I seemed to want.
My desire for more felt like an insatiable, bottomless pit.
Some things are necessary
Stuff. Things. Possessions. It’s what our economy is built upon — the buying and selling of goods and services.
There are certain things you need to buy in order to live your life: shelter, clothing, and food, to name a few. But as my son learned in grade school, you have needs, and you have wants. Today, the two seem to be easily confused.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that everyone live with only the most basic of needs and have no wants at all. It’s when you get out of balance and become too focused on wanting more that it can become a problem.
The danger of always wanting more
“We’re unhappiest when we become dissatisfied with what we have and decide that we want more,” psychologist Steve Taylor, who holds a doctorate’s degree, said in Psychology Today.
According to Taylor, when you feel you should buy more, earn more, have a better car or a bigger house, or when you decide your job or even your spouse isn’t good enough, you create unhappiness for yourself. Wanting more creates dissatisfaction with your life and often leads to frustration when you can’t satisfy your desires.
Wanting more can cause you to feel jealous, resentful, angry, depressed, and anxious. It can lead you to believe that life isn’t fair. It can lead you to greed, wanting to outdo others, and a loss of ethics. In your desire for more, you may find yourself violating your sense of right and wrong to get what you want. Wanting more can lead to harming others, fighting for what isn’t really meant to be yours, and acting impulsively. It can also feed a strong attachment to possessions. The entitlement culture that’s so predominant today is fed by this kind of thinking.
In Buddhism, one of the main goals is to eliminate cravings and desires, which are said to be the root of all human suffering. It’s said that when you can do this, you have enlightened to a truth of the universe.
The Bible also warns of the dangers of wanting more.
“And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,’”— Luke 12:15.
Acquiring more things takes more time, more effort, and more money. It clutters up your homes, as well as your mind, and can even complicate your relationships.
So just what is it that makes you want more?
A look at the psychology
Think about that new shirt or cell phone. While it was exciting at first, before long — if you’re like most of us — the thrill was gone.
Psychologists call this habituation. That new thing that you so desired loses its shine as you become accustomed to having it. You are then left wanting the next new thing in a never-ending, downward spiral.
Our consumer culture tells us that we shouldn’t only want more, but that we need more. The advertising world specializes in helping create this culture. It’s a powerful psychological tool, giving you another reason to want, or hold on to, things. Retailers and advertisers use this and other clever tricks, such as creating a sense of urgency, scarcity, or offering an “irresistible” bargain, to compel you to buy more.
You buy for many reasons (think “retail therapy” with these): a belief that your purchase will deliver happiness or security, as an emotional coping mechanism or means of avoidance, or because acquiring things often acts almost like a drug. Some buy more because they’re competing with others and are concerned with status, reputation, and image.
During my medical training, an attending physician who was nearing retirement shared how he wished that he’d kept the house his wife and he originally bought. He said it was a perfectly nice house, and it would have been paid off by now. Instead, as they saw their friends “move up” to bigger and better houses over the years, they felt the need to do the same. Now, he would retire with the burden of a large mortgage.
In the words of Diderot: “Let my example teach you a lesson. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence has its obstacles.”
Impact on health
Wanting less brings a sense of contentment, satisfaction with what you have. It invokes respect for the present and is an important component of happiness. Conversely, desiring more can bring a sense of discontentment, a state that can eventually lead to poor health.
In his book The High Price of Materialism, psychologist Tim Kasser wrote: “People whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy — regardless of age, income, or culture.”
The benefits of wanting less
First, reduce your exposure to temptation. Unsubscribe from advertising, and avoid window shopping and web browsing for things that might tempt you.
Next, make sure what you’re buying fits in with what you already have. If you only own black pants and you buy a pair of brown shoes, you’re going to suddenly find that you need some brown pants. Don’t create reasons to buy more.
Take stock of what you already have. Do you really need another white shirt (Tatiana)? Will that new throw pillow really make your life better? If not, don’t buy it. If the answer is yes, wait at least 24 hours, then ask again. More often than not, you’ll find your desire for that thing has faded, and the answer is now no.
Another great idea is a shopping holiday. And no, I don’t mean a vacation to go shopping. By going without buying things for a week, or a month, you can detox from your spending habit, and you may even discover that you enjoy doing other things with your time.
Learn to put more value on experiences, rather than things. Invest time and energy into doing things for others. Remind yourself of what’s really important — friends, family, and even a bit of quiet time for self-reflection and improvement.
Next, for every new thing you purchase, give something away. This won’t only avoid clutter, but it’ll make you take stock of what you already have. It’s also a great time to practice gratitude for what you have.
Other tips include avoiding the traps of status and comparison, separating your identity from the things you own, and letting go of emotional attachment to things.
It’s also crucial to set limits for yourself. While self-restraint is undervalued today, it goes a long way in wanting and owning less.
Remember, there’ll always be a newer, better thing to want. But amassing more doesn’t make you any happier; it just raises your reference point.
The key, as Socrates said, lies in not just seeking less, but enjoying less. This requires a change in not just the external, but, more importantly, in the internal.
As you own fewer things, you may begin to realize that you don’t really need that much to be happy. You may even feel a sense of peace and freedom that comes through unburdening yourself from the desire for more.
As I continue to work on this, I know I do.