Admittedly, there are benefits to having fewer possessions:
(i) The less we possess could mean the less burdened we feel; we can dance lightly in the world. A few of us find something appealing about the idea of having all our belongings in a swag.
(ii) Perhaps if we developed the capacity to live with fewer items, we might gain a confidence in our ability to do without them.
(iii) I’m not sure we can foster a feeling of abundance by acquiring things; more likely, by developing the capacity to give them away.
(iv) The more possessions we own, the more likely they are to become part of our identity (the way we see ourselves). That can be problematic when we are trying to develop a feeling of substance. Sometimes the fewer items we have, the more whole we can feel.
So yes, there is a lot to be said for having only a few possessions. But it’s not a key to core happiness. 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 or cherishing possessions is a habit with you, consider addressing it. Otherwise, use that tennis racket; swing that golf club. Enjoy it while you can. As they say, you’re a long time dead.
Having few possessions will not add to our core happiness, but having the capacity to let go of them will. Having the capacity to part with our possessions, or our money, or our time, frees us. We then become confident we can handle any material loss in our life. So, we feel more whole and we add to our inner authority.
Q. ‘Isn’t relinquishing our possessions a part of our spiritual journey?’
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 give that cake away?
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 else 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 fewer possessions. Anyway, this book isn’t about persuading people to become ‘better’ people, it’s about what makes us happy and what doesn’t.
Core happiness is not about being a good person. Thugs can be happy too. It’s about satisfying long-term innate needs.
Q. ‘Isn’t it important to be free from desire?’
Desire is a precious emotion to have. It makes things special. It motivates. It gives us something to look forward to. It’s when we can’t handle having our desire unfulfilled it becomes a problem.
‘But losing our attachment to our possessions means we become less anxious about losing them. Less anxiety means more core happiness? Surely?’
There is a big difference between ‘desire’ and ‘attachment’. Desire is healthy; attachment isn’t. Attachment means dependency. It indicates a fear of losing one’s substance, comfort, status, or security.
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.
‘What can I do if I am attached to my possessions?’
Start disposing of them. You will feel uncomfortable at first, but you will come to realise 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.
“What would it feel like to let go of your most tightly held attachments? Could you discover a new sense of self, a sense of liberation, a world full of new possibilities?”
Leo Babauta. Zen Habits.
‘How do I let them go?’
Practise by giving away things you can give away, and work upwards.
‘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 dismissive of an item which embodies genius?’
I have no trouble with the objects themselves; it’s when we feel the need to own them we have a problem (pacemakers excepted!). Some people buy things and don’t even open the boxes.
Q. ‘We evolved to husband resources. By accumulating things we are simply fulfilling an innate need.’
We also evolved a need to eat fat and sugar because those foods gave us energy to hunt and get through the hard times. However, because we in the Western world live in times of plenty, 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 times of abundance, our hunger for goods cannot be sated. The more we have, the more we want. That need can gnaw at us no matter how hard we aim for satisfaction.
Yes, we have innate needs to eat fat and sugar, and innate needs to accumulate wealth and goods, but we need to curb our inclinations, not indulge them.
By the way, the premise is questionable. We didn’t necessarily evolve a need to accumulate, because in much of our past were were nomadic. Nomads could only carry the basics.
Q. ‘What about the nesting thing? Like most animals we are compelled to create a home that can attract a mate. Bower birds strive to make their homes the best possible, so why can’t we be the same?’
Again, in these times of plenty it’s an innate need gone berserk.
‘I bet if a Bower bird could acquire heaps more pegs to display in its bower it probably would.’
Yes, it could also succumb to an innate need.
‘Maybe it’s the pyramid thing.’
‘When the pharaohs died they had their slaves and animals killed and shoved into the pyramid with them. Along with food and stuff. For the afterlife.’
‘We want immortality. If we can build an edifice big enough, an empire big enough, a reputation big enough, a family big enough . . . if we can make a big impact in some way so that our influence is there long after we’re dead, we can feel better about dying. It’s like we’re not really dead.’
Another innate need gone berserk.
Here are some other happiness myths:
– The positive thinking myth. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: we need money to be happy. Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: With wisdom comes happiness. Time and again we see in the movies a strong correlation between wisdom and happiness. Do we need to be wise to be happy?
– Myth: We need close relationships to be happy. It’s the biggest, most common myth about happiness of them all. Nearly everyone says it. Yet, it’s not true.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: We can choose to be happy. This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?