“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club
Beyond a minimum threshold of poverty, having more things doesn’t make people happier. But in a society driven by consumption, it can be hard to realize this truth.
Living a less materialistic lifestyle doesn’t mean becoming a monk and abstaining from all of life’s pleasures. It means shifting your focus away from possessions so they become less important by comparison.
Materialism Fills a Void
Owning things becomes important when you have an internal void. When your internal world is deprived it is only natural to want to fill it with external things. Unfortunately, this is like filling a sieve with sand. The sand may fit in the sieve temporarily, but it will soon sift through the holes, leaving you empty again.
What do you fill that internal void with? Here are a few aspects that fill the void better than possessions:
- Passionate Work
- Service to Others
- Personal Challenges
At the core of all these things is your philosophy towards life and understanding of the world you live in. You can be rich, but you can’t be wealthy unless your life philosophy and internal world are healthy.
Ending materialism doesn’t mean forsaking all your possessions. Ridding yourself of everything you own would only prove you are still too preoccupied with possessions themselves. Someone who has developed a healthy inner world would see possessions as neutral. This shift is more about attitude than specific actions.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- You aren’t the things you own. The problem is that you view things as possessions in the first place. Ownership is just a societal construct to keep order, it doesn’t have any deeper meaning. Separate your identity from the things you own.
- Relationships are about doing, not having. You can’t have a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse. Although those terms are fairly commonplace, they demonstrate that many people still view relationships as possessions. The more you see relationships as possessions, the less intrinsic value you can get from experiencing them.
- Create a system of goals and challenges. Materialism fills a void. Replace that uncomfortable filler with goals and challenges. Although many of my challenges are directed towards material gain, that isn’t the real point. Just as winning Risk isn’t about world-domination as it is about a fun challenge.
- Serve. Invest your energies into helping other people. I don’t view acts as being on a continuum from selfishness to selflessness, as acts that directly benefit me can benefit others as well. But even in that case, shifting your focus onto the needs of others can replace materialism.
- Trash it. I’m the opposite of a packrat. When I need to do a major cleaning, I usually toss just about everything I haven’t used recently. Getting rid of old possessions can be a liberating experience, stripping away from you what isn’t important.
- See wealth as a challenge not a result. I view earning more money as an interesting and complex game. I expect my minimum comfort threshold would only be around $15,000 to $20,000 per year. Beyond that, earning more is simply a bigger challenge.
- Experience over objects. The only reason to buy an object is because you believe it will (directly or indirectly) improve the quality of your experience. Going straight to the source helps you avoid the middlemen that are material goods.
- Build intangible assets. Habits, time-management, discipline, emotional control, understanding and learning are just a few of the non-physical assets you can hold. Building intangible assets replaces your need for physical ones.
- Use money to free, not chain, yourself. When you have a larger income, don’t simply adapt by increasing your lifestyle. Instead work to create a buffer between your income and lifestyle so you live below your means. This will give you more freedom to pursue goals and ideas that may not immediately contribute to your productivity.
- Go basic. Simplify all your material possessions so they don’t consume your mental resources. Simple, even if less glamorous, requires less maintenance, offers fewer distractions and uses less thinking. A simple lifestyle affords you the ability to focus your energies on your inner world.
- Avoid the status game. Seek friends from all social layers. Don’t buy into the game that decides a persons worth based on their money or profession. I know people I would consider smarter and more enlightened who live on a fraction of the income that others do. Keeping pockets of connections within all levels separates you from the competitive aspects materialism brings.
- Judge yourself by your ethics and your understanding. I’d be far happier with myself if I were poor but I understood the world and lived true to a system of ethics, than if I had the opposite. Don’t base your self worth on how much you’ve achieved or the admiration of your peers.
- Let go. Buddhism teaches that attachment to things creates suffering. Again, this is all in the mindset. I’m not a Buddhist, but as I understand it, this doesn’t mean the only path to true happiness is to abandon everything. It simply means that you stop trying to hold on to all the things you own and the relationships in your life.
- You can’t take it with you. What is going to matter to you on your deathbed? Looking back at your entire life, what was important? Use that to prioritize.