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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