We naturally assume that more of something will require more cash, time, or effort. However, this calculus doesn't always take into account all the other costs of more. When we add in these other factors, we come to appreciate the high cost of more and understand why less is sometimes better.
For much of human history more was better. As humans struggled to survive, more food, better shelter, and improved transportation helped us to have healthier and more comfortable lives. People who are now a hundred years old cite things like electricity, the furnace, the telephone, and the car as welcomed developments during their lifetimes. You bet! More has resulted in rising standards of living in most places around the world.
Having more has also allowed for the flowering of culture and allowed people to explore and create in wondrous ways. Symphonies, civic architecture, and the novel are just the beginning of a long list of creative expressions that are made possible by our ability to create more.
Concurrent with the expansion of our material world has been the concern that more stuff threatens to overwhelm our sense of well being. In every religion you find the moral refrain against desiring and seeking too many worldly things. In the United States we have a long tradition of this line of thought as well. The Puritans, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and more recently Duane Elgin, among many others have promoted the benefits of less over the burden of more. This sense of cluttering our lives with unnecessary stuff at a cost to our selves is as constant as it is ancient.
The fact is that there are many compelling reasons for why and how we are attracted to more:
These reasons combined with ever rising expectations create a powerful hook for ongoing acquisition. In the long run, however, there are only two really good reasons for inviting more in our lives: love and usefulness. The other motives offer questionable lasting benefits and often saddle us with burdens of paying for and managing more.
As more has become an unquestioned assumption, even a patriotic or professional duty, it is difficult for us to recognize how it currently threatens our well being and even life itself. We are like the frog that doesn't know to jump out of a pot as the temperature gradually reaches the boiling point. (We don't know who discovered this or why, but the image is vivid.) Day by day, things and things-to-do come into our lives, often imperceptibly. Then one day we can no longer fit the car in the garage, close our bedroom closet, or find the time to eat at the table, read a book, complete a thought, or breathe deeply.
Frequently, more of something means we are going to have less of something else. For example, more activity may mean less sleep, less time to day dream, or less awareness to bring to other areas of our lives. Having more stuff may require a bigger house in which to keep it. This, in turn, may require us to work more. In this way, having more stuff may result in our having less time and energy to spend with our stuff and our home. The comedian George Carlin has a humorous take on this common and vicious cycle.
Each new thing in our life can ripple out in ways that we often didn't intend and can't anticipate. A friend recently got a new computer. Her new computer is not compatible with her PDA (personal digital assistant), and so she needed to find a new system for tracking appointments. She was then faced with upgrading her relatively simple cell phone to a smarter phone at a higher monthly rate. (In an effort to staunch the flow of rippling costs, she opted for a paper appointment book instead of the phone upgrade for now.)
Having or doing more not only requires additional material resources, but often produces more waste. In addition to all the packaging it may come in, buying something new means that we are signaling the system to make more. A friend called this "ringing the bell." Currently we are pulling resources out of the earth faster than they can be replenished. In addition we are sending used resources back into the environment quicker than they can ever be absorbed or processed. This is resulting in pollution with serious human and economic consequences. Some calculate that the products Americans use represent less than 10 percent of the resources used to create them. We never see the other 90 percent of the resources that are used in manufacturing which also end up as waste or pollution. Whether we personally seek out more or not, we are now all in the position of being impacted by the cumulative environmental costs of more.
The goal then is for everyone to have enough, but not so much that the costs outweigh the benefits or are unsustainable. Japanese folk wisdom suggests we eat until we feel 80 percent full-satisfied, but not stuffed. We might do well to apply this 80 percent goal to scheduling and furnishing our lives as well. Imagine a room on which every surface is a beautiful object. Now imagine this room with only 80 per cent of those objects. (Frankly I begin to breathe better when I imagine the room only half full!) Likewise, imagine a day in which every minute is scheduled with fun. Now imagine a couple hours of unscheduled downtime during that day. The space around an object, like time around an event, gives us the opportunity to more fully experience it.
Another advantage of only filling our lives to the 80 percent mark is that we are likely to have more opportunity for spontaneity, integration, and growth. These are the things that can keep us engaged and current in our lives. If we cram every nook and cranny with something, how can anything new enter our lives? What will we do with the unexpected? Ultimately, we need some empty spaces in our lives in order to feel how full they really are.
The Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel offers photographic portraits of typical families around the world. The portraits include the people and displays of all the objects they own. The book has a lot of interesting facts and stories about what people value and how they spend their time. There is a
synopsis of the book on PBS.org.
Photographer Chris Jordan has created stunning images of waste as part of his series Intolerable Beauty.
In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, the author Barry Schwartz describes some of the negative consequences of living in culture where there is a constant choice for more and better: anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, depression, not to mention bad decision making. His book is good for anyone who feels overwhelmed by choices or who is interested in helping others with choice making.
Discuss with family and friends:
Calculate how much money you make in a typical day. Imagine having to reduce your expenses by that amount each week. What would you choose to have less of? Are there ways your life could be better with less? Now imagine having one full day a week with no commitments. What would you do? What would you have more of if you had this time?
Select an area of your life in which you feel habitually too full. See if you can find a way to edit it to the 80 percent mark. For example try any of the following:
What do you notice about your experience? How difficult is this? What are the benefits?
We are curious to learn which of the following phrases about LESS you like the best. Answer this one question survey and see what others think. >>
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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