I’ve just completed my first full week without electricity. And the experience has made me think about all the things in life we supposedly need. We each have a list of necessities, things in life no decent human should be without. Some of these are imposed by society, others we impose on ourselves.
However, the last few years for myself have caused me to change my perspective on what I originally deemed as necessities. I haven’t had television access in three years, same for access to a car, and for long periods of time I didn’t have access to a personal bathroom or kitchen. I don’t think I could have enjoyed my last week of cold showers and candlelight if I still expected easy television or cooking access.
The Myth of Enlightened Poverty
For the most part wealth (that is, having more than your bare necessities) is a good thing. All else being equal, I’d rather have access to a car, kitchen, electricity and hot water. When I design my lifestyle for the future by setting goals, I try to include those things. In no way am I trying to argue that being without is somehow more enlightened than being with.
My point is that, if you have a long list of self-imposed necessities, you reduce your flexibility. When you need to stay in 5-star hotels or drive a nice car, you aren’t going to enjoy living on much less. And often, junctures in life involve tradeoffs, so if you’re unwilling or unable to temporarily sacrifice some of your “necessities” for a better life, you won’t.
I’m also not trying to argue, as some people do, that all lifestyles are equal, given enough training. It will always be easier to live on $10,000 a month rather than $100, even for the most malleable spirit. Lifting weights every day can make you stronger, but it can never make a 50 kg weight feel the same as a 15 kg weight.
But, just as not all conditions are equally comfortable, not all people are equally conditioned. Some people may only be able to lift the 15 kg weight, while others lift 50 kg with ease. I don’t claim to be particularly strong in finding comfort with less (I live far above the standards of living in most of the world) but I still feel there is value in training myself.
So far I’ve used material needs as an example of common dependencies. But that isn’t always the case. If you need to have a cigarette or two every day, that’s a necessity, even if money isn’t a concern. Same if you need to be with friends and can’t tolerate solitude.
The longer your lists of needs are, the more you’re held back from improving your life. While some growth can be made within the comforts of your own home, many of the big challenges require moving outside.
Simplifying the List of Necessities
If I suggest everyone cut off their electricity for a week, I know exactly what will happen. A few people will believe it is a good idea, most people will think I’m insane, and absolutely zero will follow-through. I know because I wouldn’t turn off electricity if I had it either.
Simplifying the list of necessities can come from throwing them out occasionally. I’ve gone on self-imposed television and internet fasts. But usually only when the activity itself is the problem. The addiction goes unaddressed unless it is causing direct problems.
Instead, I think that the best way to simplify your list of necessities is to pursue goals that push you to do so. I’m without electricity because of my goal to live in a foreign country for a year, not because I shun modern society. However, an added side-effect of that goal is I’m a little more knowledgeable of my electricity usage and wouldn’t be as hesitant to pursue a goal if I knew it meant heading into the dark.