Scott H Young

How Much Stuff Do You Need?


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You need stuff to live. You need food to eat, water to drink and (at least in most climates) a roof over your head. At a basic level, stuff is necessary for survival. The question is, how much stuff do you really need? And, how can you own things without having them control your life?

I think these are important questions to answer for anyone living in an industrialized country today. We are rapidly reaching the point where basic necessities are almost guaranteed. The problem is no longer getting enough stuff to survive, it’s deciding the role stuff plays in our lives.

Unfortunately, I don’t think many people are actively tackling this question. Instead, they are just letting television commercials and celebrity magazines decide for them.

Comfort Versus Fulfillment

Stuff makes you more comfortable. The more stuff you own, the easier it is to satisfy your need for comfort. Hunger, cold and, to a lesser extent, boredom can all be conquered by buying more stuff. At least on the surface, more stuff is good.

Comfort isn’t the same as fulfillment. You can’t buy the feeling of having meaningful work, great relationships or a goal your passionate about. I know it’s a cliche, but the best things in life can’t be bought. Comfort is nice, but it can’t compensate for an unfulfilling job or lousy friends.

Normally, more stuff is better. All else being equal, being more comfortable will make you happier. The problem is when comfort conflicts with fulfillment. When you need to make a decision that increases one at the expense of the other. In these cases, more stuff can be damaging.

Conflicts with Stuff

One example I’ve written about before is your poverty threshold. This is the minimum level of comfort you’re willing to tolerate. The more discomfort you can temporarily withstand, the more flexibility you have to pursue fulfilling goals. Would you be willing to take a 50% pay cut to switch to a career you found meaningful? Your answer depends on your poverty threshold.

Another example I’ve written about is living a digital lifestyle. Taking advantage of a digital life requires you to be frugal with the amount of stuff you own. Big houses, cars and wardrobes can become a burden if you want to travel and explore a lot of the world.

Those are just two examples, but there are many other decisions where you need to make a trade between comfort and fulfillment.

The Role of Stuff

Stuff isn’t evil. In fact, in most cases it’s good. If buying things increases your comfort levels, then that contributes to the overall quality of your life. It can’t fill the hole left by meaningless work or a boring life, but if you aren’t forced to trade, why not have both?

The problem is the relative importance you assign to comfort and fulfillment. For me, the difference is great. Beyond a minimum threshold, fulfillment is an order of magnitude more important than comfort. I’d gladly take lower paying, but inspiring entrepreneurial work, than becoming a highly paid cog in a large corporate machine.

Although I’d guess my fulfillment is 5-10x as important as my level of comfort, for many people it’s the opposite. Even if they say otherwise, they take decisions which trade a lot of fulfillment to ensure a small amount of comfort. Based on their actions, some people view comfort as being several times more important than fulfillment.

Why Should Fulfillment Be Worth More?

Isn’t my bias towards fulfillment over comfort just a personality quirk? Why should I expect other people to evaluate decisions in the same way? Aren’t some people going to be happier with a house full of nice things and a lousy job?

I don’t believe most people initially weigh fulfillment as being more important than comfort. Instead, I think it takes a lot of mental effort to switch those beliefs. I feel there are two important reasons you should put fulfillment over comfort:

  1. Fulfillment is long-term, comfort is short-term.
  2. Fulfillment reflects your deeper drives, comfort reflects your basic instincts.

Long-Term VS Short-Term

The first reason to place fulfillment first is that it grows over time. Comfort, actually does the opposite, slowly lowering with time. Having a bias towards fulfillment when making decisions means that, in the long run, you’ll be able to enjoy more than with a bias for comfort.

If I needed to make a choice between a high-paying, but dull, job and starting a business which would initially earn little money, the decision would be easy. The job would temporarily provide comfort, but because it doesn’t inspire me, I wouldn’t be able to grow within my position. Starting the business, on the other hand, might leave me initially poorer, but I could build wealth slowly because I was doing something I cared about.

Focusing on fulfillment first usually leads to having more of both fulfillment and comfort later. Focusing on comfort first has the opposite effect. Not only does it stop growth, but soon you adapt to having the extra stuff. After a few months, having a big screen television becomes boring again.

Deeper Drives VS Basic Instincts

The human brain actually had three major revisions in biological history. Near the brain stem, you have version one. This is the reptilian brain dedicated to controlling basic bodily functions. Next you have the mammalian upgrade, giving you higher level emotions like fear or love. Finally, you have the human upgrade, a larger prefrontal cortex, to add imagination and planning.

I’m grossly simplifying human biology, so for the experts in the audience, excuse my blunt-club treatment of the subject. But, I feel the metaphor is still valid. Each of your brain “upgrades” consists of three different versions of you, starting with the most primitive and ending in the most human.

Fulfillment is a product of imagination. It’s a drive from the latest upgrade in the human hardware package. Whereas comfort sits in the mammal and reptile sections of your brain. For that reason, I believe when you emphasize fulfillment, you’re celebrating what makes you human. When you trade fulfillment for comfort, you’re just celebrating that you were a lizard at some point.

Putting Stuff in Its Place

I believe stuff should serve a functional role in your life. It should enable the more important aspects of fulfillment. Being comfortable and having nice things can help you enjoy the things that are truly important. But when there is a conflict, you need to have the strength to make the right decision.


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18 Responses to “How Much Stuff Do You Need?”

  1. Dave Fowler says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve recently halved my income, and I’m living a more fulfilled life as a result, so I can endorse what you’re saying here.

    In losing the income we’re going to have to sell our house and downsize, but the benefits in terms of happiness far outweigh the loss of our biggest possession.

    For what it’s worth, I’m in my late thirties wth four children. So making the decision to shelve my career wasn’t easy (particularly as I’d invested heavily in building that career) – we’re lucky though, because my wife was able and willing to return to full time employment, so now I’m experiencing life as a househusband and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

    I don’t care about the flat screen TVs or holidays. there’s a roof over our heads, there’s food on the table and we have what need to be happy – and we are happy!

    Great post, Scott.

    Dave.

  2. david says:

    I tried to believe for some time that I was a minimalist, but I’ve realized I do like having a bit of stuff around. At first, I think I felt somewhat bad about it, and I tried to resist it, influenced by that idea that attaching to things in general will make you unhappy. That’s just stupid, though. Because, as you say Scott, things are in general not inherently good or bad, but neutral. What matters is your relation to your things.

    I like having stuff around that has emotional value to me. Things that remind me of good memories and give energy, or just things that I like for some reason. I would be sad if I lost them, yes, but it isn’t like my identity is bound to them, or that I would feel less worthy without them. I just like them.

  3. Jen says:

    “We are rapidly reaching the point where basic necessities are almost guaranteed. ”

    Ummm…

    “744,000 homeless in United States”

    “In the last 12 to 18 months, the homeless population has essentially exploded in Philadelphia…”

    Maybe not quite.

    From USA Today in January 2007: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-01-10-homeless_x.htm

  4. Scott Young says:

    Jen,

    In the last 100 years, the economic growth and income of most countries has increased relative to real prices. So, there is a lot of poverty in the world, but if you look at the global trend things are getting better. Perhaps too slowly, but they are getting better.

    Dave,

    Great comment!

    -Scott

  5. Jen says:

    Hi Scott,

    Perhaps things are getting better, but saying that basic necessities are almost guranteed is very different than saying things are getting better.

    It’s not true that basic necessites are almost guaranteed.

    -Jen

  6. Diego says:

    Scott,

    Isn’t this too about independence, after all even an ocean liner is just a great big fancy lifeboat (and for Jen) with people in steerage and people on the bridge.

    Thought provoking.

  7. Lance says:

    I do struggle with this comfort vs. fulfillment battle – and comfort is winning at the moment. It’s difficult to leave something that is secure, you enjoy, and provides a nice income, for what can be the unknown. So that is where my struggle is at. I feel that I have to provide for my family, and I do enjoy the job I have — but I don’t love it.
    Dave — I applaud you for the choice you have made. You have your priorities straight, and that’s what makes what you’ve done so cool.

  8. Abhishek Roy says:

    Hi Scott,

    One of your best posts (according to me)…
    The thing about comfort seeking and the analogy to celebrating being an animal is awesome.,.

    keep writing dude…

    – Roy

  9. Scott Young says:

    Jen,

    Excuse my hyperbole.

    Roy,

    Thanks.

    -Scott

  10. graham says:

    Emotional attachment to stuff is tricky.

    Excessive sentimentality can lead to clutter. Lack of can leave a home feeling cold and sterile. I find a few picture prints and an honest bookshelf go a long way. The rest, I archive in storage, or choose one item of memorabilia per emotional experience to retain and display.

    I also endorse investing in quality. I take this view with furniture, clothing, gadgets, etc. As the saying goes, buy cheap, pay later. However, I always consider the timeline of how long I’m likely to own something, and purchase accordingly. If I don’t plan of keeping something forever, I’ll often go for something I know will be in high demand to easily unload second-hand later via Craigslist. Sometimes, especially with furniture, you can even come out ahead.

    Students and new grads: Ikea is your friend.

  11. […] can’t believe he is only nineteen!) that echo Tim’s ideas. Scott says that there is a trade-off between comfort and fulfillment and the less money you need to live a comfortable life, the more time you’ll have to pursue […]

  12. Dave Fowler says:

    Lance,

    Thank you for making comment above. I must admit I suffered some self doubt over my decision, but I’m confident I’ve made the right move.

    Dave.

  13. […] as important: closet space. If you take a look at your current dwelling, you might not realize how much stuff you have. Even if you don’t need it all, it’s always interesting to make sure that you have […]

  14. Loren says:

    Great Blog Scott!! Stuff is just stuff…It’s neither negative or positive. How do you know if you have too much? If you spend more time on maintenance than enjoying. If these items are not used in the past year, then it’s just clutter. If the stuff you own is a tool for creativity, then it has real value. A book that fuels your imagination, or a guitar that gives music to your thoughts, or a laptop that allows you to create short stories. Just be mindful that you don’t need a $3,000 laptop, or even a $200 laptop. If you can afford a pencil and a notebook, you still can enjoy creativity. (And you will spend more time writing and less time trying to MAINTAIN the laptop)

  15. We need only as much stuff as we could use to be happy! :-)

  16. lisa says:

    anyone have stats on what percentage of stuff people have that they actually use?

  17. […] can’t believe he is only nineteen!) that echo Tim’s ideas. Scott says that there is a trade-off between comfort and fulfillment and the less money you need to live a comfortable life, the more time you’ll have to pursue […]

  18. Richard says:

    I agree. You have echoed what William Morris said in The Beauty of Life (1880) “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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