The Art of Wanting Less
There are some practical steps we can take to get more out of life than what money can buy.“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” –Socrates
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 Wittebort in downtown Morgantown, West Virginia.
The roots run deep.
Macy’s, Dillards, Pottery Barn, Banana Republic, J.Crew—I frequented them all. In fact, I shopped at Anthropologie so often that the sales ladies greeted me by name, causing my husband to raise an eyebrow on the rare occasion when he would accompany me.
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’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. I would dare say that our free-market economy—and the vision and values it was born from—has produced one of the greatest nations on earth, a nation that allows each of us to pursue our potential.
There are certain things we need to buy in order to live our lives: shelter, clothing, and food, to name a few. But as my son learned in grade school, we have needs, and we 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 we 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 we feel we should buy more, earn more, have a better car or a bigger house, or when we decide our job or even our spouse isn’t good enough, we create unhappiness for ourselves. Wanting more creates dissatisfaction with our lives and often leads to frustration when we can’t satisfy our desires.
Wanting more can cause us to feel jealous, resentful, angry, depressed, and anxious. It can lead us to believe that life isn’t fair. It can lead us to greed, wanting to outdo others, and a loss of ethics. In our desire for more, we may find ourselves violating our sense of right and wrong to get what we want. Wanting more can lead to harming others, fighting for what isn’t really meant to be ours, 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 craving or desire, which is said to be the root of all human suffering. It’s said that when one can do this, he has 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.
Still, we desire more. One poll found that the average woman spends nearly 400 hours per year shopping for more, amounting to about 8 1/2 years of her life. Yet, most of us wear the same 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time.
Acquiring more things takes more time, more effort, and more money. It clutters up our homes, as well as our minds, and can even complicate our relationships.
So just what is it that makes us 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 we so desired loses its shine as we become accustomed to having it. We’re then left wanting the next new thing, in a never-ending, downward spiral.
Fulfilling our wants leads to more wants. We may believe that we can one day be satisfied, but this rarely happens, because true satisfaction doesn’t originate from desire.
I know this all too well.
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. Science Daily points out that today, even nostalgia is used to achieve this. From the 17th through the 20th centuries, nostalgia was viewed as a disease. Today, it’s used as a powerful psychological tool, giving us 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 us to buy more.
And they get help from our own mental pitfalls.
Author James Clear, founder of The Habits Academy, wrote about one of these pitfalls. It’s a phenomenon known as the Diderot Effect.
Denis Diderot was a struggling French philosopher in the 1700s. When Russia’s Catherine the Great helped with his dire financial situation, Diderot used some of his newfound wealth to purchase a beautiful scarlet robe. But his happiness was short-lived. Looking at his other things, they now paled in comparison to the beauty of the new robe. He quickly became dissatisfied with what he had and felt the urge to buy more nice things. He found that he could never fulfill his endless desire.
“The Diderot Effect states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption which leads you to acquire more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that our previous selves never needed to feel happy or fulfilled,” Clear said.
We buy for many reasons (think “retail therapy” with these): a belief that our 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 we 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.
One study in teenagers showed that those who focused on materialism—placing a high value on owning things—experienced envy, depression, and anxiety, as well as a decrease in grades and overall life satisfaction. Those who focused on gratitude experienced the opposite, seeing positive results.
Several studies have shown that people’s well-being improves when they’re less concerned with materialistic goals and values. Materialistic goals, however, are associated with lower well-being over time.
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.”
Anxiety and depression lead to poor mental health, which can undermine physical health and manifest as things like high blood pressure, heart disease, and increased pain levels. As we acquire more things and live an easier life, we may see our health decrease in other ways, such as becoming overweight, sedentary, and out of shape.
Putting it Into Practice
It’s said that the things you own end up owning you.
Just look at the amount of time spent working to earn money to buy things, not to mention the time spent researching, thinking about, shopping for, organizing, cleaning, maintaining, repairing, or replacing things. In many ways, we become servants to our possessions.
So, how do we learn to want and buy less?
James Clear has listed some simple things we can do to curtail the habits of desire and accumulation.
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 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 us any happier; it just raises our 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.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a preventive family medicine physician and owner of Simpura Weight Loss and Wellness. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health through weight management, healthy habits, and disease prevention.