The question that is the title of this essay may be one of the most important questions that humanity needs to ask itself, and yet this is also something that I bet hardly any of us asks ourselves very often.
I believe it is in the same league as questions such as:
- How did life begin?
- Is there a meaning of life?
- Is there life after death?
This may appear to be over-stating the case of asking how much is enough. After all, it’s a simple question that can either be applied to:
- The organization of our hedonistic-consumerist society.
- Or just simply a personal question.
Surely it’s not one of the questions that we must absolutely face in life?
Well, in this essay, I want to tackle this assumption head-on. I want to show that it is absolutely one of the most important questions you can ask yourself because it will directly define who you are, and what you do, and a logical answer to this question will almost certainly directly challenge the majority viewpoint of the society you live in.
It challenges the assumption that we should never be content, that we should always strive to improve our lot, and that an advanced society is better than a primitive one. What’s really cool, in my opinion, is that just asking the question, regardless of what you believe the answer is, sets you apart as someone who is special, someone who actually thinks. In the end, the question of how much runs into the question we all want to answer, and that is:
What does it mean to live a good life?
A Case Study: My Apartment
I have lived in a series of beautiful apartments in my life.
A few years before this I was in my first apartment living by myself, and that was essentially a shit-hole. It had no windows of any description, it often smelled strongly of fermented fish, which my next-door neighbors loved to cook, and the bathroom was on a separate floor. The bathroom quite literally had its own ecosystem, and I noticed that during my six months stay that one type of insect would have the upper hand for a while, and then another would take over. However, I wasn’t miserable. I simply got used to it and continued with my life. Since then, I’ve changed and upgraded the apartment half a dozen times, and also ended up with lots of stuff I don’t particularly need, but somehow convinced myself that I needed to buy at the time.
During my latest house move, I began to think about what is the natural limit of a house, and have I exceeded it? Living in a country a third-world country, where the GDP per capita is around $1,100, has made me realize how incredibly lucky I am to have been born in Italy to middle-class parents. I’ve been given a huge advantage from the day that I was born and I hardly ever think about it.
My monthly rent is significantly more than the GDP per capita, which is the equivalent of paying $54,000+ per month in rent in the United States. I am incredibly privileged compared to almost everyone around me, and yet this doesn’t register on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps it is human nature to be ungrateful, or perhaps it is just my nature.
Nevertheless, I’ve come to the conclusion that we all need very little to actually live and experience a positive life, but it’s our insatiable desire that is to blame, or rather, our inability to control our own impulses and desires. In the last six months,
I have been actively practicing negative visualization toward the things that I feel a desire towards. So I imagine all the things that could go wrong, and also how these particular objects and experiences would not live up to my high expectations and I would simply be disappointed that I wasted either money or time on such endeavors.
The most important point to note is that changing apartments hasn’t changed who I am, and it hasn’t made me happier. Happiness is something that comes from a constant state of mind, and while in the short term it can be pushed or pulled by material objects or events, in the long term we will always fall back to our default state of mind.
Natural vs Unnatural Desires
Epictetus makes a very insightful distinction between natural and artificial desires, and how to distinguish between them: natural desires have set bounds and can be easily fulfilled, while if you fulfill artificial desires, it simply increases your desire. Here is Chapter 39 from the Enchiridion of Epictetus:
The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.
So this is how we can begin to answer the question that is the title of this essay. We tend to our natural desires, and try our hardest to extinguish artificial desires from our minds. I’ve previously discussed a host of Stoic Exercises that you can practice to help you on your path to becoming a Stoic. What is worth remembering, is that people as great as Socrates had never experienced the luxury that many of us take for granted each day. They didn’t suffer due to what they didn’t have, but we suffer because of what we do.
Being able to say “this is enough” is a strange feeling, but it has personally led me to some very serene conclusions. For instance, regarding my apartment. I am currently in my twenties, and I have an apartment that I would be happy with for the rest of my life. I simply don’t need any more from an apartment, and I’ve managed to curb my desire for ever-increasing luxury. Of course, the real trick now would be to prepare me for the eventuality of downgrading back to my original apartment…
Resources are Finite
There is an inescapable fact, and that is that there are limited resources on our planet, and in the universe as a whole. I touched upon this in my essay on The Fermi Paradox, where I stipulated that there might be super-advanced predator civilizations roaming the galaxies hunting for more resources. If we look at our history in the last few thousand years, it’s likely that if we ever gain the ability to travel to other stars, we would be one of these predatory civilizations. Just look at what the Europeans did to the Native Americans a few hundred years back.
You don’t need me to tell you that resources are finite. We can’t all live like Americans, and that is obvious to anyone. But at a deeper level, we also now know that the universe is also finite, and so there is a maximum level of growth that humanity can reach before Earth is overpopulated, and eventually our entire solar system, galaxy, and so on. Granted, this is not likely not to happen anytime soon, but surely we should live in a sustainable manner and at least try and solve some of the problems of overconsumption, instead of sweeping these problems under the carpet for future generations to deal with.
While I believe it’s great that scientists are always developing new and advanced methods of clean energy, recycling previously unrecyclable goods, and generally diminishing the impact of our way of living, it is much easier for us to change our overall lifestyles as individuals as a society, than to be forever trying to patch up the problems caused by our insatiable desire.
On a personal level, resources are also finite. Obviously, we have a finite amount of time before we die, and we also have a finite amount of health – our bodies will only tolerate so much abuse before they start to revolt. We also have a limited attention span and limited opportunities, and yet many of us waste endless hours on silly distractions instead of working on our dreams and ambitions. History, as always, is a great teacher, and now I’d like to take a look at how one society managed to make a mess of things, and perhaps see if we can learn some lessons from it.
The Story of Easter Island
There is a really interesting story of an island called Rapa Nui, or more commonly referred to as Easter Island in English If you haven’t heard of the island itself, you most probably have previously seen photographs of some of the 887 huge 30-tonne statues called moai that mark its landscape, and still stand as a testament to the Rapa Nui civilization that imagined, carved, and then transported these monuments in their current location, without any of the advantages of modern machinery, and limited to the resources of an island with an area just shy of 164km squared, and with the nearest continental mass over 3,600km away. The Rapa Nui people are descendants of the Polynesians, who somehow, quite remarkably, settled on Easter Island at some point between 700 and 1100 CE.
While these statues are beautiful in their own way and are a marvel of engineering considering they were made hundreds and hundreds of years ago, they are also a stark reminder of what happens when human desire gets out of hand – these statues are essentially all that is left of the civilization that once used to rule over Eastern Island.
The initial settlers made an arduous 2000+ mile journey to reach Rapa Nui, which goes a long way to show their ingenuity. When they arrived, they found a lush tropical island that had everything they needed not only to survive but to thrive and prosper. This idea of prospering is something to keep in mind for later, as we will come back to it. The only thing to say for now is to note that often in life success breeds the seed of its own destruction. So for the settlers life was pretty good, and the small population eventually ballooned to over 20,000 members who enjoyed the rich spoils of the sea, the dense forests full of wildlife. They had it pretty good, so good in fact, that they started to build these giant heads. It was probably a mix of religious beliefs and a case of keeping up with the Joneses.
Each family or small tribe competed to see who could create the largest and most impressive head. While this may appear quite stupid to us now that centuries have passed, so will our obsessions with consumer gadgets and bank accounts will seem to be a future civilization that won’t have the concept of money. It’s easy to look back and laugh, and yet, as we shall see, we’re still making the same stupid mistakes. The thing about these huge statues is that they had to be carved out of large stone blocks near the center of the island, and then transported using tree trunks to the various sites. And soon enough, you can guess what happened, deforestation took over, and lead to a downward spiral of decreasing wildlife, harsher winds that caused soil erosion, and the loss of wildlife.
By the time European explorers found the island, there were only a couple of thousand people left on Rapa Nui, and this was after centuries of war and cannibalism. Yup, the story is quite dark. What is interesting about this, is that it shows on a small scale what we’re currently doing to the whole planet, and also what many of us are doing to ourselves on a personal level. We’ve got to be careful, or we will go the same way as the Rapa Nui. So this is a clear example of a society that crossed over that line of too much, but again that was hundreds of years ago, and we’re far more advanced now, so perhaps we can now avoid this type of mistake. I would actually argue that it is scary that just ten to twenty thousand people on a smallish island were not able to organize themselves to work for the greater good, which gives me little hope that several billion of us will be able to do so in any effective manner.
So now that we’ve seen what happens if we don’t ask the question, let’s now turn over to the question itself, and try to understand actually how much is enough.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
This, for obvious reasons, is also known as Maslow’s Pyramid. The first time I read about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs I was like, yeah, this totally makes sense – and it does.
Maslow states that we need to take care of the basics before we can self-actualization can be achieved.
I agree, up to a point.
For instance, like a man going moving along the path to becoming a Stoic, I am very suspicious when I see something that solely depends on others as a basic requirement.
Under the “Esteem” category we see “respect by others”, which is something that I believe we shouldn’t care about, because other people’s opinions of us are not something we can control, and if we put our happiness and well-being in the hands of other people we run the risk of living a life full of discontent.
Some philosophers would argue that a lot of the safety aspects are superfluous also. It is our fear of death that causes our issues, not the fact that we live in an unsafe place. Remember that there is no right time to die. Death can come at any time, to anyone, young or old, healthy or otherwise.
Most of what we’re used to today in the economically advanced nations would be a luxury to almost all of the seventy billion humans that have ever lived, and yet we still manage to be unhappy with what we’ve got and want more and more and more. We can never have enough. This is because many of the things we want from artificial desires, and these have no limits. After all, there actually isn’t much difference between a small apartment vs a huge mansion, they will both do an equally good job of keeping you safe from the elements, and providing the basic comforts to lead a good life. In fact, a large mansion may actually be detrimental to your goals because it may well take up a lot of time and money to manage, and also be a target for burglars, and also invite envy from neighbors.
So now that we’ve briefly looked at the issues with over-consumption, and why we should curb our desires, let’s look at some practical ways of how we can do this. I won’t get into too much detail and specifics because times change, and I like to keep everything that I write as timeless as possible, so you won’t see me giving you tax advice!
Money Money Money.
Money is a huge subject and, in fact, I plan a comprehensive essay on the topic. However, it is still worth touching upon it here in brief.
The first thing to understand about money is that it hasn’t always existed, and may well fade from existence in the future. The fact that we might not use money in the future may sound far-fetched to us who live in the era of fully-fledged Capitalism, but the only certainty we have in the world is change and nothing is free from the risk of becoming obsolete in the future.
So not enough money obviously has some negative consequences, and that is often what people fear. You can buy certain things, you cannot acquire certain services, and the worst case is that you have nowhere to live and you end up living on the street. While this may appear to be a terrible thing, it could actually carry a silver lining.
Take, for instance, Christopher McCandless, who at the age of twenty-two became a nomadic traveler across the United States of America, and, if you read the accounts of the people who met him, was perfectly happy. He did pass away at the age of twenty-five starved to death in a minivan in Alaska, but one has to ask the question if it’s better to live a short, honest life doing what you want, or a long disgruntled life, not living up to your potential. Also, be aware that this is a false dichotomy, you can live a long life while staying true to yourself.
Socrates put it well:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
So my point here is that not having money is not bad, it just is. In fact, many of the problems we face in the first world are due to the fact that we have too much money.
To give you an anecdotal argument, I often find that I am far better when I don’t have large reserves of cash in the bank. I live better, more frugally, I write more, I read more, I wake up earlier. This is because I don’t have to exercise any self-control against all the temptations that are out there – I simply can’t afford them!
When I am flush with cash, then suddenly a million and one options appear on the horizon, and that’s how you find yourself coming home at 6 am in the morning after having spent stupid amounts of money on a night out. I’ve written about this topic before, and here are some essays you might want to review:
The Real Question: What Do You Need to Thrive?
As we saw above, there is no universal version of “enough”. It’s a case of each to their own, and that is because value and wealth are subjective, relative measures, not absolute ones.
So a better question to ask yourself is what do I need to thrive? As an aside, I actually prefer the greek Eudaimonia, which is actually surprisingly difficult to translate. It’s normally translated as happiness or welfare, but human flourishing is perhaps a better translation.
It’s the ultimate aim of practical ancient Greek philosophy, and also something that is still worth focusing on today, and even in the future. Exactly how you should go about flourishing as a human is a highly disputed point, and I’ll leave that for another time. However, let’s define thrive to make our own lives easier:
to prosper; be fortunate or successful. To grow or develop vigorously.
So, in a nutshell, it means giving yourself the opportunity to be the best version of yourself, of doing what you want to do when you want to do it. Again, let’s remember that success itself is a subjective and relative measure, not an absolute one. The measure of success has varied across countries, cultures, and time, and will continue to do so. Right now, in most of the world, success is described by the balance of your assets and bank account, but just as it wasn’t always this way, it won’t always be this way.
You can choose how you measure your own success and ignore other people’s viewpoints. This is actually a very good strategy and something that is recommended by many of the world’s leading philosophies.
So once you know how you can thrive, you need to ask yourself what you need for it. This may be more or less than your current means.
For instance, if you want to thrive by writing a book, you probably want to minimize the time spent on doing other stuff, such as working at a full-time job, and so it makes sense to reduce your monthly expenses to be as small as possible, so you can work as little as possible, and concentrate on your writing.
If your version of thriving is raising a healthy and happy family, then you can draw your own conclusions regarding what you should focus on.
I recently discussed my thoughts on witnessing a double homicide, and how the shooter was clearly so far away from being a reasonable human being that it wasn’t actually a surprise that he died.
Playing the Devil’s Advocate
By this stage, you’ve probably noticed that I am quite anti-consumerist, and I regard desire in the same way as you might regard a pet tiger. Something that lives with us but needs to be vigilantly guarded in case it devours us whole.
However, there is a competing school of thought, which says that unbounded desire is a good thing, even if it does create some problems. It’s the whole you-have-to-break-some-eggs-to-make-an-omelet argument.
Essentially, the argument goes, without this burning desire that each man, woman, and child have in the world to increase their lot, we wouldn’t see any improvement in life, and nobody would start a business, go to work, invent something, or perhaps even have sex.
We would all this be living as hunter-gatherers and none of the things we have created so far would exist, because nobody would have wanted to struggle when we can just take the easy way out and accept things the way they are.
This is a very compelling argument and makes a lot of strong cases against the need to curb our desires.
Also, if you want to control your desires, is that a desire in itself? If we want to be fully free of desires, shouldn’t we also be free of the desire to be free of desires? How can we resolve this seemingly impossible paradox?
I’m not going to claim to have all the answers, but I am going to use some historical examples, as well as personal examples, to show that actually, we can live a good life without being a slave to our desires, and yet still try to fulfill the goals we set ourselves, as well as fulfill the various responsibilities that we have to society, friends, family, and so on.
The first issue that I have with the above argument is that a lot of our desires come from our evolutionary history, and our environment and society have changed far more quickly than our species’ ability to evolve. This means that we’ve essentially been left with physical, emotional, and responsive baggage from living in the African savanna, and then we wonder why we’re not happy when we’re in Manhattan.
Just to give you one fact, the population density of the African savanna a few tens of thousands of years ago was roughly the same as modern-day rural Alaska, where you find a little bit less than one person per square kilometer. In Manhattan, there are around 27,685 people per square kilometer. It’s understandable why people in cities routinely report lower happiness levels than their counterparts in the countryside.
However, we are not forced to drag around our evolutionary baggage, fortunately, we are creatures with a faculty for logical reasoning, and so we can actively change the way we behave by employing logical reasoning. So when someone insults you and you have this feeling inside your chest that you just want to attack them and teach them a lesson, you’re able to take a deep breath and shrug off the insult.
The type of people who are not able to employ such levels of self-control are the ones who often get caught up on the wrong side of the law.
The above-mentioned story of the Rapa Nui is also a good example of desires that are really quite meaningless. It seems ridiculous to us that they destroyed their own habitat just to build and transport 30-tonne statues. However, it may appear equally ridiculous to a future civilization (or an alien one), that we’re still destroying the planet as we chase an ever-increasing amount of material goods, when the best experiences in life, such as enjoying nature and the company of friends, can be had for very little and is so easily achievable.
The argument as to whether humans were better off as hunter-gatherers have raged on for centuries. The reality is that hunter-gatherers had far higher incidents of violent death, and even minor accidents could be fatal, but they were also far more in touch with nature, worked fewer hours than the modern office worker, and spent more time engaging in social activities.
A False Dichotomy
The idea that you either have to give in to all your desires, or be a “loser” in life, is a false dichotomy. It’s not a case of either-or, but a matter of personal choice.
The point that often gets confused is that people assume that you have to give up all of your desires, which, of course, is something that is quite impossible, unless you are clinically ill or suicidal – and even then, you still have the desire to end your own life.
Desires are always popping into our heads uninvited, and there is little we can do about that except engage in meditation to try and quiet our own minds, but what we do have full control over is what desires we decide to chase, and which we decide to simply let fizzle out. The previous point I made, taken from Epictetus, about natural and unnatural desires, should be the way we distinguish between which desires we should act upon, and which desires we should not act upon.
I made a similar counter-argument in my essay on control, where I argued that even if we accept that we only have control over our opinion of the events that happen around us, we can still create enough meaning to wake up and get out of bed in the morning, by aiming not to achieve our goals, but trying our best to achieve our goals. It may sound like pure semantics, and one of those odious word games that modern philosophers engage in, but there is a huge distinction between these two points.
And so it should be with our desires. We should wish to win the tennis match, but just desire to play our best.
So I hope you’ve had some value from this essay, and that has been able to kickstart a conversation in your own head about how much you need to live a good life. This will vary from person to person, and that’s fine – we’re all different, and some of us need more to live than others.
For a long time, I have always suspected that success sows the seeds for its own destruction, and that is because it is often accompanied by excess. If we are able to keep advancing in life, while remaining humble, simple, and honest, then there is little more to be said.