From an early age, largely thanks to advertising, we’re told it’s normal to be on a satisfaction treadmill.
We feel dissatisfied when we develop desires that are unfulfilled. We strive to fulfil these desires in the hope of satisfaction.
Before long, the fulfilled desire becomes the new normal and is taken for granted. Then the dissatisfaction returns and we begin another revolution of the treadmill.
The Stoics had a remedy for this constant state of anxiety, this dissatisfaction – we should learn to want what we have.
It sounds somewhat nonsensical at first, how can we want it when we already have it?
The answer is to imagine we have lost the item in question. Or even to periodically restrict our own access to it. This either renews our appreciation for the item, or brings us to the realisation that we don’t need it:
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”Seneca The Younger, Epistles 123.6
Before we can want what we have, we have to know what we have. Below is a simple step-by-step exercise you can complete to fulfil that purpose.
Make An Inventory
So, your first task in this exercise is to make an inventory of your possessions. Don’t get overwhelmed by this – take one storage area (e.g. a drawer, a room, whatever you feel comfortable with) at a time. Make a list of what you own or use an app to do it for you. This way you can keep track of what you possess going forward, which can also be useful for things like insurance valuations.
As you go through your possessions, you’ll probably find things you forgot you owned. If you don’t need them, do some decluttering by donating them to charity if appropriate or disposing of them.
Review And Forego
Now you have an inventory you can review. Read through it and pick out the things you value the most. Those things could include your smartphone, your television, or more sentimental items like photographs or jewellery.
Now commit to going without one of things for a week. Make it physically inaccessible during that time otherwise it’ll be too tempting to break the fast. Observe how you feel at the end of the week – you’ll either have a newfound appreciation for the item or realise you don’t care for it as much as you thought.
When you complete the previous steps you reach a clean baseline. You get to a point where you own only what you need and you appreciate those things by periodically going without them. But how do you resist the temptation to start building your inventory up again with things you don’t really need, to jump back on the treadmill?
Hopefully the freedom experienced when your baseline is reached is enough to redirect future feelings of dissatisfaction. It should be easier to find fulfilment in the simpler things in life at this point. Here are some words of wisdom from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that may help:
“And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them—those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess—and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind—to prize it—will leave you satisfied with your own self.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.16
Here’s a quick recap of the steps in this exercise, I hope you find it worthwhile!
- Make an inventory of your possessions. Start small, use an app to help.
- Get rid of, or donate to charity where appropriate, anything you no longer need.
- Review your inventory and highlight your most valued possessions.
- Take one at a time and go without it for a week to renew your appreciation.
- Redirect your satisfaction to the simpler things in life.