When is ‘less’ really ‘more’?

by Paul Goodchild on July 10, 2009

You’ve heard this before, “less is more” and sometimes we mumble to ourselves that “Yup, it sure is” and almost immediately we’ve moved on because in reality, we don’t actually think about what this represents.  I mean seriously, how can less be more?  Then there’s “too much of a good thing“.  Sure, why don’t I just start working pro-bono and live in the park?

Actually these phrases mean something to us… I think we believe it applies and that we live by it.  There is (yet another) saying that, “We judge others by what they do, but ourselves by what we think” .  I know I fall for that sometimes, but keeping that phrase close by helps keep me to stay a little fairer.

So where am I going with this?  I want to explore the idea that in-fact all the evidence points to supporting the principle that less is more.  We do ourselves, our friends, and our environment a huge favour by keeping this in the forefront of our minds.

When more is too much

2009 is the year that followed the beginning of a global economic shake-down that people commonly compare to the Great Depression.  I don’t know how valid that is for several reasons, but regardless, I believe there is a pervasive pattern of thought that has seeped into the general populace of the Western world that has ultimately perpetrated this “demise”.  It basically boils down to the idea that we can never have enough.  We have an insatiable need to always get more – we are rarely ever satisfied with what we have right now, today.  This is really basic stuff, but look around you and listen to yourself and your peers… we want the latest and greatest iteration of the iPhone/iPod, another salary increase, that new pair of shoes, that new dress, a bigger house, a new car, blah blah.  When we get our ‘thing’, we feel great!  It’s fantastic and it fills the little hole in our lives we hoped it would fill.  For a week.  2 weeks?  But for however long this feeling lasts, the hole isn’t filled for good.

Is there really a problem with this?  What’s wrong with wanting more or better things?  In principle, nothing is wrong with it… the question is why you need it and will it really satiate the hunger?  This is modern day consumerism – a continuous cycle of buying/consuming and buying again.  We buy more and bigger, and to facilitate this continual increase in material wealth/possessions we need more money.  How do we solve that problem?  We get a better paying job, 2 jobs, or go into debt.

Go into debt to get more stuff?!  We actually borrow money from institutions in such a manner that we pay them 10~20% on the principle just for the privilege of getting more things?  Here’s a statistic for you: in the US at the end of 2008, the average credit card debt per household was $10,679!

I’m amazed when I read that.  That’s a lot of money to make us feel better.  And do we feel better?  Well only you can answer that.  How long does that good feeling last when you go and buy your new thing?  Perhaps the more significant question to answer here is pertaining to duration, but rather “Does it last?”.

If the answer is ‘no’, and this repeats, you’re basically substituting pursuit of true and lasting happiness with a transient possession that cannot offer you a path to fulfilment of any sort.  It’s a mediocre salve that goes no distance towards curing the underlying pathology and if anything makes it worse.

Your time as money

If you go to the “grind” everyday and substitute your time for a pay cheque at the end of the month, you are in principle trading your life for cash.  We all do it, it’s slavery-as-debt and is our modern day model of life that’s quite hard to escape.

Take a very contrived example, let’s say you work 10hrs and get $200, you are valuing your life at $20/hour.  On your way home from work you see a new iPod for $300 and you want it.  It holds more than your current player, and it looks oooh so much more hot.  Not only that, your peers are bound to think you’re a bit cooler if they see you with it.  So you buy it.  You have in essence exchanged 15hours of your life for that possession now in your hand.  Perhaps you feel it’s a fair exchange, perhaps not.  That’s not the point… the point is that when you view all your purchases, investments, loans etc. in this light, you will begin to hopefully feel the true cost of your possessions.

We are continuously striving to build up around us a collection of material goods in order to fulfil our existence, all the while paying for the ability to do so with our lives.  If this habit was consistently fulfilling, great!  If not, why do we continue to repeat the cycle?  Well, it’s all we’ve ever known…

The path to voluntary simplicity

The philosophy of voluntary simplicity is an interesting one.  It basically advocates the downsizing of our lives to point where our state of mind/being is cannot be factored on the material possessions that clutter it.  It isn’t emptying your life of everything you want and need, but rather the de-cluttering and purging of things that you don’t need and that do not contribute to your life in a meaningful way.  It’s a process of taking time to notice, and express gratitude for, the important things in your life, the people around you, nature and the environment in which you live, and recognising that ‘things’ do not make for a happy person.  We’re on this earth only once and running the rat race and keeping up with the Jones’ can make us scarcity-driven, competitive, begrudging, and short-sighted.

The best way to relay what this is, is to show you.  I haven’t worked my way into this fully yet, but I’m heading that direction.  To show you some of the ways of life people lead, and their thinking, just Google “voluntary simplicity” and see what comes up.  The links below are good examples, bearing in mind the 2nd link is a little coarse, but tells it like it is:

Voluntary simplicity represents the anti-thesis of how we’ve been brought up… rather than strive for more and more, to get ahead of the rest of society, you are looking to live with less and integrate yourself back into harmony with people and our environment.  Perhaps it sounds a little new-age-y for you, but at least give it a look.

At any stage, ask yourself: “Is what I’ve been doing up until now working for me?”.  You know what it means when you can honestly answer ‘no’ to that …

So when is less really more…?  When ‘more’ is excess and ‘less’ is simple.

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