Thrifty, Part 1: The Sufficiency Sweet Spot

Being thrifty, or not wasting money and resources, is a long-held American virtue that fosters material wellbeing. Material wellbeing starts with the ability to meet basic needs for food, water, shelter, and clothing, plus essential services like health and education. If you’re reading this now, there’s a good chance that you have that covered.

But the harsh reality is that over half the world’s population—more than 3 billion people—struggle to survive on less than $2.50 a day. A whopping 80% lives on less than less than $10 a day. It’s safe to say that global inequality is growing more extreme. Adding to the problem, some of us higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs feel like we don’t have enough—we’ve been socialized to believe that the more money we have, the happier we’ll be, despite all the research to the contrary. So we continue to consume on the assumption that it will lead to greater wellbeing, but what many of us end up with is simply more debt. Thus the global consumption gap gets wider and more complicated.

There are two major flaws with our drive to accumulate. First, without a clear idea of what is enough, we will never be satisfied.  We get stuck on this hamster wheel of consumption and never arrive. Second, our linear model of consumption is unsustainable, particularly with respect to waste. In fact, according to the World Bank, the amount of waste we produce will double by 2025, with that amount relative to income.

So for those of us on the wealthier side of the spectrum, our biggest challenge is to resist the siren call of stuff.  Once we can consistently meet our needs, we would be better off curbing our consumption, particularly staying within our means so we can maintain financial security long into the future. Beyond the physical manifestations of consumption, true material wellbeing exudes a feeling of satisfaction with what we have, the comfort of enough, or sufficiency.  

An equally significant challenge is to think critically and creatively how to shift our linear consumption system (using raw materials to make goods, consuming them, and then tossing them into a landfill) into a circular one. By reducing our waste and putting what’s left back into the system, the material aspects of our lifestyles become much more sustainable. These two principles together – sufficiency and sustainability – make up a modern approach to thrift that can help close the global gap in material wellbeing.

They’re also two of the most obvious lessons I learned at Srisa Asoke—the residents were fully committed to reducing both consumption and waste. While their ascetic lifestyle likely kept the movement from spreading too widely in Thailand (most Thais considered it too extreme and not amenable to urban living), it factored largely in their ability to achieve material wellbeing for themselves and extend it to others. The fact that the seven Asoke communities (including Srisa Asoke) continued to thrive through the global recession while so many others were suffering is a testament to the movement’s success.

 I. Sufficiency

Asoke folks live by the slogan “Consume Little, Work Hard, and Give the Rest to Society.” It’s not empty rhetoric—residents practice it daily. Here, the administrative leader of Srisa Asoke explains the sentiment behind the slogan:

We have a philosophy: we here must eat little, use little, and work much; the leftovers support society….As such, we will come to be viewed as poor people by those in the other world. The other world is the system of capitalism, which must have much money, much property. . . . We will be diligent but we will not accumulate—we will spread it out to other people. . . . Everything we have here, we have in order to help other people.

Breaking down the slogan, the call to “consume little” is what we are most interested here. The average Thai person already consumes less than the average American, according to my experience with both lifestyles. But Asoke folks whittle down the goods they own to the bare necessities. A look inside Srisa Asoke homes reveals their spartan existence. Most have no furniture, except for old people who have trouble getting up from the floor. Noticeably absent are electrical appliances of every kind, including those most common in Thailand: televisions, radios, refrigerators, and hot-water pots. Bedrooms are simply furnished with a reading lamp, sleeping mat, blanket, pillow, mosquito net, and metal cabinet for storing clothes and books. Bathroom accouterments are similarly sparse: a squat toilet, a faucet on the wall with a plastic bucket and scoop underneath (for washing and flushing the toilet), a mirror, a few containers of soap and toothpaste, and possibly a showerhead. Some but not all households have basic cooking implements.

But while Asoke members value mak noi, “being content with little,” they also caution against extreme deprivation. Oi, the community leader, actually revised the slogan in our conversation about it: “Use enough; don’t use little to the level that one is lacking. ” And Jaenjop, a fiftyish street vendor from the impoverished Northeast gave the spiritual reason: “The Buddha taught to support life by a proper amount, not to be too needy and not too luxurious, but just right to be able to have happiness.”

These sentiments harken to Buddhism’s origin story, which goes something like this: The Buddha was born Sidartha Gotama, a prince who enjoyed all the trappings of his royal position. On a walk outside the palace one day, Sidartha encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man. These four meetings profoundly affected the young prince. He took them as signs that life is impermanent—that he himself would die someday—and that being the case, all his riches were meaningless. Sidartha renounced his worldly life including his wife and child and set out to find out the truth about suffering and happiness. At first, he followed the ways of holy men he met in the forest, but he soon found their severe self-deprivation to be another form of suffering. The Buddha thus charted his own path to end suffering, the Eightfold Path, and called it the Middle Way of neither extreme luxury nor extreme asceticism. It’s up to the followers of Buddhism, however, to figure out their own “middle way” or how much is enough for them.

In combination with mak noi, consuming little or enough, Asoke members stress sandood, “being satisfied with what one has.” According to Buddhism, it’s our desires (in this case, wanting more than we already have) that cause suffering. Wichai, the leader of the Intensive Human Development weekend (described in the introduction), explained this concept: “Being content with what one has is important because if [what you have is] enough, you are richer, suddenly richer.” That’s not to say that people who experience real material deprivation should be satisfied, but once we get past a certain level of material comfort, we would do better to focus on what we have than what we don’t.

Whether or not people actually feelsatisfied is more difficult to ascertain than actual consumption practices. At least a few Srisa Asoke residents expressed their desire for more, either in conversations with me or through their actions: my twenty-three-year-old housemate Raud wanted to make a million baht in her lifetime, own a 4 X 4 truck, and fly in an airplane; Jantima hoped to have her own house in the community; and my next-door neighbor liked to buy sweet, juicy Chiang Mai oranges from the market in town. But hey, we’re all a work in progress when it comes to wrangling our desires.

The big question is why do Asoke members curb their consumption in this way? They would certainly attract more members if their lifestyle weren’t so austere. But the reality is that in the Asoke movement, reducing consumption relates directly to an individual’s morality, and that’s a big part of any religious practice. Asoke members uphold Buddhist precepts (like the Christian Ten Commandments) by not consuming meat (first precept); not using alcohol and drugs including cigarettes, gambling, or seeking nighttime entertainment (third, fifth, and eighth precepts); not wearing cosmetics, perfume, jewelry, the latest clothing fashions (sixth precept); and not sitting or lying on furniture (tenth precept).

Reducing consumption targets greed, which is at the root of our suffering (again, according to Buddhism), and its external manifestation, luxury. Payasin touched on this when she explained to me the value of consuming little:

It makes us be thrifty people, using only things that are necessary, not luxuries. And then it makes us not greedy, to want to get other peoples’ things, to bring many things to ourselves. It empties us of greed, you know? It allows us to sacrifice—we have a lot, so we give it away to people who are poor or who need it.

Anyone who spends time around children knows how greed, or that constant desire for more, takes constant redirecting. It seems to take forever for kids to make the transition from “me” to “we” that Payasin refers to. Even as adults it can sometimes be a battle.

Perhaps equally significant for the average Thai with financial troubles, reducing consumption decreases financial suffering. Pranee tells the story of how following Asoke advice helped her family out of debt:

Most of us go astray by using more than the income we receive. It causes suffering—being in debt. . . . At that time [when we first started to learn about Asoke], our children were many and the monthly salary was small. We had much debt. We had built a new house and were in debt to the bank. So we came to consult the monks.

The monks said, “You have to stop up the leaky hole,” meaning, don’t spend money on luxuries. “However much clothing you have now, use it all first and then buy [more]. Don’t buy cosmetics—they’re not necessary. There are four necessary things: shelter, medicine, clothing, and food. These are the four things. A fifth thing, you don’t need to be interested. Plug the leaky hole. Then look for additional [money].”

We thought, eh? Where will we find more money? We came back to ask the monks again, and they said, “Sell soy milk!” So we started to sell soy milk in the mornings before school. We felt very shy [to work as street vendors] because we were teachers—we were government officials. So we felt embarrassed. We sold little by little, and our income increased. . . . So we took [the income] and used it for our debt. We saved money—in fifteen days we collected 3000 baht. We built up our own position because of what Asoke monks taught us.

Although Pranee and her family attained financial security, they abandoned their life in town and moved to Srisa Asoke to be closer to the monks. To be sure, financial considerations should not be the primary reason people move to Srisa Asoke, but it’s easy to see how it would be a motivation. Without economic worries, Asoke members can focus better on their spiritual development.

Lesson: Consume just what you need to tame financial concerns and feel more satisfied.

One obvious question in deciding how much to consume is: will more make us happier? Research shows that money (and what it buys) can indeed bring happiness, contrary to the old adage that it doesn’t.  But only to a point. Once individuals have fulfilled their basic needs and achieved financial security, life satisfaction levels off even as income continues to increase. In some studies, happiness takes a nosedive at higher incomes, presumably from increases in work-related stress. In other studies, our wellbeing increases only if we spend that money on other people or give it to charity (just as the Asoke folks give away their surplus to help others).

Digging deeper, research over the last 10 years has shown that buying material goods does not bring as much pleasure as spending money onexperiences. So why do people continue to prioritize stuff? Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich explains: “People often make a rational calculation: If I go there, it’ll be great, but it’ll be done in no time. If I buy this thing, at least I’ll always have it. That is factually true, but not psychologically true. We adapt to our material goods.” This “hedonic adaptation” is what makes it so hard to buy happiness with stuff. Our purchase may give us a brief boost, but we soon come to take it for granted and then need more to reach the same level of adaptation. Sounds a bit like addiction.

 The Asoke movement isn’t the only one to inspire individuals to consume less. The Voluntary Simplicity movement gained momentum in the 1990s, advocating a simple lifestyle that strips away what is inessential to make room for what’s important: as Thoreau would say, “Life near the bone where its sweetest.”  This approach, also known as downshifting, emphasizes self-sufficiency, satisfaction with what one has, and something more. Cecile Andrews, a leader in the Voluntary Simplicity movement, explains in her 2009 edited volume, Less is More:

Simplicity is about much more than ten tips to save money. Ultimately, Simplicity is asking yourself: ‘How do I really want to live? What truly makes me happy? What are my actions doing to the planet? How does my lifestyle contribute to the greater good?’ Ultimately, Simplicity is about knowing who you are, being clear about your values, understanding what brings true wellbeing. It’s cutting through the commercial static of manipulation and deceit that says that the consumer society is the good life.

This sounds very much like what we are trying to do here with the Intentional Wellbeing Project.

Despite Voluntary Simplicity’s common sense message and approach, it never quite took off the way the Minimalist movement has recently. Perhaps it was just a matter of timing. The most prominent voices in the Minimalist movement are Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalistand Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, a.k.a, The Minimalists. The latter define minimalism as “a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” Again this message is familiar. Joshua Becker doesn’t define it, but instead “encourages each reader to discover their own journey and the far-reaching benefits that come from owning less.” With 58.6 thousand and 116 thousand twitter followers respectively, what these minimalists have to say clearly resonates within a global community that’s searching for a more satisfying way to live.

Common to these movements as well as the research on the relationship between money/stuff and happiness is the concept of sufficiency. Sufficiency makes common sense at the personal level: we eat one piece chocolate cake and stop there; we know more would result in negative consequences, namely, a stomach ache. At the global level, sufficiency has broader implications for living within real ecological constraints. Thomas Princen, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, has written at length on how sufficiency as a principle for social organization can help us grapple with our current critical environmental threats. In Logic of Sufficiency, Princen explains:

In the context of primary concern, namely, human resource appropriation under ecological constraint, the effective decision maker is precisely the one who has the wits to engage the interrelatedness [of all things], to avoid excess, to take long-term impacts and displaced costs into account, and to avert irretrievable diminution of ecological integrity.

Just as we exhibit personal restraint when it comes to that second piece of cake, so too must we exert social restraint, particularly when our activities pose grave risks to our very survival. The trick is finding that sweet spot of sufficiency.

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