Understanding Sufficiency: 7 Ways to be Happy with Less

We’ve come to the T in the INTENT 365 project, which stands for Thrifty. 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. Unfortunately many of us who already have enough have been socialized to believe that the more money we have, the happier we’ll be. The flaw in our drive to accumulate is that with out a clear concept of sufficiency, we’ll never be satisfied.

The next 7 wellbeing tips increase understanding about why we aim to accumulate, so we can break our consumer habits and find true wellbeing through sufficiency.

Tip #121: Debunk the money = happiness myth

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.

Digging deeper, research over the last 10 years has shown that buying material goods does not bring as much pleasure as spending money onexperiences. In other studies, our wellbeing increases only if we spend that money on other people or give it to charity.

Tip #122: Check assumptions about accumulation

Neoclassical economic theory holds that individuals make choices to maximize their satisfaction. Maximizing is linear & infinite, meaning we can never be satisfied. Good for the market, but not for us!

Tip #123: Question consumer culture

The American sentiment of “keeping up with the Joneses” is not universal. While we try to surpass neighbors in stuff & status, Buddhists aim to release attachment to the material world. What drives us to accumulate?

Tip #124: Understand the psychology of want

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 satisfaction. Sounds a bit like addiction.

Tip #125: Expose media manipulation

Did you know that the American Santa Clause starting wearing his red & white suit after appearing in a Coca-Cola ad in those trademark colors? How’s that for media manipulation! The media significantly influences consumer culture.

Tip #126: Reflect on sufficiency

Living in an intentional Buddhist community taught me that reducing consumption increases wellbeing. To clarify, the Buddha advised moderation — not too little and not too much, with each person deciding what is “enough”. That’s 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.

Tip #127: Value sufficiency economies

Sufficiency is found in economies all around the world that value frugality—economizing or minimizing the means to a certain end. For example, economic anthropologists observed in Columbia that in contrast with profit-driven capitalists, swidden agriculturalists aim to “sustain” rather than “gain.” Subsistence-based economies strive to achieve a level of production sufficient for the continual reproduction of their system; anything left over (the surplus) is progress.

The question remains: what should be done with that surplus to generate genuine and lasting wellbeing for individuals, society, and nature?

Next week…

So many people around the world are already embracing sufficiency. While sufficiency happens at the lifestyle level, individual action coalesces into social movements for change.

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