Myth: We are happier with few possessions.

‘Mr B, will having few possessions add to our core happiness?’

No. But there are benefits in having few possessions.

  • The less you possess could mean the less burdened you are; you can dance lightly in the world, unencumbered. I think many of us find something appealing about the idea of having all our belongings in a swag. Or in a USB.
  • Perhaps if we cared less about owning things our priorities might change – we might end up caring more about people, or ideas, and we might develop the capacity to make-do with only a little, and gain a resilience.
  • I’m not sure we can foster a feeling of abundance by acquiring things; more likely, by developing the capacity to do without them.
  • The more possessions we own, the more likely those possessions are to become part of our identity (the way we see ourselves). In which case, we are more likely to become concerned about losing our possessions (because they are part of who we see ourselves to be).

So yes, there is a lot to be said for having only a few possessions. But it’s not a key to core happiness.

Why not?’

Possessions don’t have to trap us. And purposely not having items we enjoy seems pointless – it has taken our species thousands of years to come to the point where we have enough time, resources and know-how to have real fun. That’s a good thing.

If acquiring possessions is a habit with you, address it. Otherwise, use that tennis racket; swing that golf club. Enjoy it while you can. As they say, you’re a long time dead.

Q. ‘What about the idea that with few possessions we become a better person?’
Why would we? How does that logically follow? And anyway, core happiness has nothing to do with being a better person. Thugs can be happy too.

Q. ‘By relinquishing our possessions, do we not begin a spiritual journey?’
For monks, perhaps. If it’s a spiritual journey you want, would you not be better off keeping your possessions and learning to view them with a healthy perspective? Which person has mastered their diet – the one who can stand by a cake and leave it uneaten, or the one who must hide that cake away?

Q. ‘Isn’t it important to be free from desire?’
The “spiritual” New-agers might tell you that, and the Buddhists, but desire is a wonderful emotion to have. Our desire makes things special to us. It motivates. It gives us something to look forward to. It’s when we can’t handle having our desire unfulfilled that it becomes a problem.
   ‘But losing our attachment to our possessions means we become less anxious about losing them. Less anxiety, more core happiness? Surely?’
There is a big difference between ‘desire’ and ‘attachment’. Attachment = dependency. Desire is healthy; attachment isn’t. Attachment indicates fear – a fear of losing one’s substance, comfort, status, or security.
   ‘What if I am attached to my possessions?’
That’s the time to let go of them.
By relinquishing possessions you will feel uncomfortable at first, but you will come to realise that you can stand strong without them, that your substance comes not from your possessions – it’s within you. Then you will become confident that you can handle Life, and the number of possessions you have will be irrelevant.
‘If I am attached to my possessions how do I let them go?’
Practise by giving away things that you don’t need and work upwards.

Q. ‘Isn’t consumerism a major problem of our society, socially and environmentally? Surely we need to own fewer items?’
It is not the number of items we own which is the problem – it’s when we allow ourselves to be trapped by those items. When we cease to be trapped by them we tend to reduce their number anyway.
‘Isn’t consumerism a problem for our environment?’
Yes. The planet is in strife.

In short, having few possessions is not a key to happiness, but having the capacity to let go of them is. Having the capacity to willingly part with our possessions, or our money, or our time, frees us. We become confident that we could handle any material loss in our life. The more we can handle feeling diminished, the more whole we feel. And we add to our inner authority.

‘The real purpose of the marketing industry, and consumer culture generally, is not to make us happy, but to make us feel unhappy, because by creating in us a feeling of dissatisfaction we will go out and buy the flat screen TV, the new car or whatever it takes. So we have the odd paradox in our modern consumer society: we pursue happiness only by being made unhappy.’
Clive Hamilton, author of  ‘The Growth Fetish and Affluenza.’

Q. ‘What about all the beautiful things people have made? Why be so dismissive of an item which represents the heart and soul of its creator? Why be so dismissive of an appliance which is the embodiment of genius?’
I have no trouble with the objects themselves; it’s when we feel the need to own them we might have a problem. Some people buy things and don’t even open the boxes.

 Q. ‘The Buddhists look at how transitory life and everything is. If we become attached to things or ideas we might lose our perspective and isolate ourselves from the big picture. Would you agree?’
Pretty much.
‘But what if the Buddhists fear attachment? Maybe they fear it so much they can’t enjoy anything? Maybe they’re attached to non-attachment?’

Q. ‘What about people in the Third World? It’s not right that they have so little and we have so much. How can we justify owning anything other than the basics while someone on the planet is cold and starving? Wouldn’t we be better people, and therefore better off, if we had fewer possessions?’
The term ‘better people’ is a loaded one. We don’t become better by having few possessions. Anyway, this blog isn’t about persuading people to become ‘better’ people, it’s about what makes us happy. Judge for yourself what you should and shouldn’t possess.

Q. ‘Wouldn’t owning possessions be innate? Anyone hoarding resources would gain a survival advantage in hard times.’
I don’t know. In pre-history, hominids would not have acquired many possessions, especially nomads. However, the few possessions they did have would have been important to them. So yes, we might well have developed an innate need to possess. But nowadays we have so many opportunities to fulfil that need some of us go haywire. That can be a problem.

Q. ‘Some people prefer possessions to people, such as people with Asperger’s syndrome.’
True. Did you know that if you eat someone with Asperger’s your urine will smell of Asperger’s?’
My mistake, I was thinking of asparagus.

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