Nephew: Yesterday you gave me a heap of reasons why we don’t need money to be happy. I assume then that the fewer possessions we have, the better. Right?
Uncle: Admittedly, the less you possess might mean the less burdened you are. Unencumbered, you can dance lightly in the world. I think many of us find something appealing about the idea of having all our belongings in a swag. Or in a USB.
Nephew: Are you mad? Who thinks that way?
Uncle: Well, anyway, I’m not sure we can foster a feeling of abundance by acquiring things; more likely, by developing the capacity to do without them.
Nephew: Hang on. Say that again?
Uncle: ‘Is not dread of thirst when the well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?’
Nephew: Are we talking in riddles now?
Uncle: Kahlil Gibran said that.
Nephew: He didn’t have something better to do?
‘Happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want.’
Nephew: So, are we better off having fewer possessions?
Uncle: Not really, unless they’re a problem. That said, the more possessions we own, the more likely they are to become part of our identity. That can be awkward.
Nephew: The Buddhists call that ‘attachment’.
Uncle: Yes, there is a lot to be said for having only a few possessions. But it’s not a key to core happiness.
Nephew: Why not?
Uncle: Possessions don’t have to trap us. And, to purposely not have 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.
Nephew: So having plenty of possessions is okay, provided we don’t become attached to them, and provided we think we could handle losing them?
Uncle: That’s right. If acquiring possessions is a habit with you, address it. Otherwise, use that tennis racket and swing that golf club. Enjoy it while you can. As they say, you’re a long time dead.
Nephew: What about evolution? You’re big on evolution. Wouldn’t owning possessions be innate? Anyone hoarding resources would gain a survival advantage in hard times. Greed is part of our makeup. By accumulating items we are simply fulfilling an innate need. Checkmate.
Uncle: We also evolved a need to eat fat and sugar, because those foods gave us the energy to hunt, and to help us through hard times. But we in the Western world live in times of plenty, and that innate need to eat sugar and fat has become a problem. We can’t switch it off. Furthermore, the more we eat, the more we want. In the same way, in these consumeristic times of abundance our greed cannot be sated. The more we have, the more we want. Greed will gnaw at us no matter how hard we aim for satisfaction. The fact that we have innate needs to eat fat and sugar, and innate needs to accumulate wealth and goods, means we need to curb our inclinations, not indulge in them.
Nephew: What about . . .
Uncle: By the way, your premise is questionable. We didn’t necessarily evolve a need to accumulate, because in much of our past we were a nomadic species. Nomads didn’t benefit by accumulating items because they could only carry with them the necessities.
Nephew: Yes, alright. What about the nesting thing? Like most animals, we are compelled to create a home. That means that having mansions and boats and stuff is natural. Bower birds strive to make their homes the best possible. Wouldn’t we be the same?
Uncle: Again, in these times of plenty it is an innate need gone berserk.
Nephew: What about the idea that by having only a few possessions we can become a better person?
Uncle: Why would that be? How does that logically follow? And anyway, core happiness has nothing to do with being a ‘better’ person. Thugs can be happy too.
Nephew: Can they?
Uncle: Sure. Thugs, cads and bounders can be happy. Core happiness is not about being a good person, it’s about satisfying long-term innate needs.
Nephew: Cads and bounders? Are you a hundred years old? . . . Anyway, from what I gather, by relinquishing our possessions we can begin a spiritual journey.
Uncle: Where did you get that from? Television? The internet? Yes alright, that point of view might suit monks, but if it’s a spiritual journey you want, keep your possessions and learn how 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?
Nephew: You keep saying things I don’t expect you to say.
Uncle: What point would there be in me saying things you expect me to say?
Nephew: Isn’t it important to be free from desire?
Uncle: The New-agers might tell you that, as do 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.
Nephew: But losing our attachment to our possessions means we become less anxious about losing them. Less anxiety means core happiness, doesn’t it?
Uncle: There is a big difference between ‘desire’ and ‘attachment’. Desire is healthy. Attachment isn’t. Attachment means dependency. It indicates fear, of losing one’s substance, comfort, status, or security. It’s alright to desire and it’s alright to possess, but don’t become attached to your possessions.
Nephew: What if I do?
Uncle: Start disposing of them. You will feel uncomfortable at first, but you will come to realise that you can manage without them. And, you will come to realise that your substance comes not from your possessions, but from within you. That will add to your feeling that you can handle life.
Uncle: As well, your attachment to possessions will evaporate.
Nephew: So, having fewer possessions does add to our core happiness after all!
Uncle: Only if you’re attached to them. It is not the number of items we own which is the problem, it’s when we have allowed ourselves to be trapped by them. When we cease to be trapped by them we tend to reduce their number anyway.
Nephew: I’m confused.
Uncle: Having few possessions will not add to our core happiness, but having the capacity to let go of them is. Having the capacity to part with our possessions, or our money, or our time, frees us. We then become confident 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.
Nephew: 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 dismissive of an appliance which is the embodiment of genius?
Uncle: You’re still missing the point. I have no trouble with the objects themselves; it’s when we feel the need to own them we have a problem.
Nephew: What if the Buddhists fear attachment? Maybe they fear it so much they can’t enjoy anything? Maybe they’re attached to non-attachment?
Nephew: Some people prefer possessions to people, such as people with Asperger’s syndrome. Where do they fit into your theory?
Uncle: Did you know that if you eat someone with Asperger’s there is a good chance your urine will smell of Asperger’s?
Uncle: My mistake. Sorry. I was thinking of asparagus.
‘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.’
‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’
3rd century BC philosopher, Epicurus.