Why do people have so much stuff?
Even though my family and I have relatively little compared to most, we’ve still managed to accumulate too much: from getting gifts from other people to buying necessities (and non-necessities) along the way. Stuff just piles up over time—that’s the nature of stuff.
But most of it is not necessary. We often buy excess stuff because of the feeling of uncertainty. This is the underlying groundlessness, shakiness, insecurity we feel about the future and the present moment. It’s the uncertainty we feel every day, to varying degrees. It can cause us to feel fear, stress, anxiety, worry, and even anger. It can also cause us to procrastinate and put off our healthy and productive habits.
Here are some examples of how uncertainty can lead to buying too much stuff.
- You are going on a trip, and feel nervous about it so you do research and buy extra stuff to feel more secure and prepared.
- You feel anxious about attending a conference so you buy gear feel more ready.
- You start a new hobby and spend days researching and buying everything you can think of to be fully prepared.
- You are stressed about hosting a social gathering so you buy things to make sure the party goes well.
- You feel a lot of disruption and uncertainty in your life, so you procrastinate while doing online shopping.
- You feel uncertain about your looks or clothing so you buy new clothes or products to feel more confident.
There are endless examples. Uncertainty brings with it an urge to gain certainty, control, preparedness, or security. And so we buy stuff to try to get that feeling.
The Futility of Shopping for Certainty
We don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity so we try to get rid of it, get away from it, or push it away—as quickly as possible. We develop habitual patterns over our lifetime to do this and buying things is perhaps the second most common after procrastination. In fact, it can sometimes be that buying stuff is just a costly form of procrastination.
Here’s the thing: buying stuff doesn’t give us certainty or security. We buy things but we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. Of course, there are some limited exceptions to this, but often the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. Now we just have the uncertainty that comes with more debt, less money, and more stuff to crowd our homes.
We’re looking for a magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s a defining feature of life. As Pema Chodron once said, “If you are invested in security and certainty, you are on the wrong planet.”
In fact, this is the real answer to satisfying our feelings of uncertainty—acceptance. If we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, and learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much unnecessary stuff.
If fact, if we can learn to live with little, we might even find ourselves a little more secure with our own purchasing decisions.
Opening to Uncertainty and Living With Less
Imagine owning very little, living in a spare room, eating simple whole food, not being involved in social media, and just working, reading, walking, and spending time with loved ones. Maybe you start meditating and drinking tea instead of fancy coffees.
It’s a life of very little and is beautiful in its simplicity.
But then uncertainty comes up, as it inevitably does. You have a trip, you have to go to a party, or you are starting a new venture. You feel insecure and uncertain.
Here’s how to practice with it instead of buying something:
- Notice you have the urge to buy something (or procrastinate, or gain control, etc.).
- Notice that underlying the urge is an unwanted feeling of uncertainty.
- Instead of rushing to buy something, sit with the uncertainty for a minute or two.
- Turn your attention to the physical feeling of uncertainty in your body. Where is it located? What does it feel like?
- Stay with the feeling and get really curious about it.
- Relax around the feeling. Be generous with it. Give it compassion, openness, gratitude, and love.
- Notice that this is just a sensation, nothing you need to run from, or push away. You can be with it and open up to it.
With this practice, you don’t need to fill your life with more stuff. This is my practice right now, as I see the effects of having too much stuff come into my family’s life. I sit with the uncertainty, embrace it, and fall in love with the groundlessness of my life.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit Zen Habits.