How much – or, how little – do we need? How much do we want?

How much (of anything) is ‘enough’?

Last year I wrote about the UK Channel 4 programme ‘Life Stripped Bare’Simplifying and de-cluttering are topics that crop up fairly regularly these days and we might think they’re a recent phenomenon fuelled by trends inspired by TV programmes and self-help books.

But not so – I found this in ‘On the Shortness of Life’ by Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman (c.5BC-AD65) translated by C.D.N. Costa:

“… there is no evil in poverty, as anyone knows who has not yet arrived at the lunatic state of greed and luxury, which ruin everything.

For how little is needed to support a man! …

The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment;

if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.”

Just to be clear, here, I’m not advocating poverty as a desirable state, but I do think there’s a difference between what we need, what we sometimes think we need and what we want.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French lawyer and historian, who travelled around the USA in the 1830s found that:

“… Americans had much, but this affluence did not stop them from wanting ever more and from suffering whenever they saw someone else with assets they lacked…”

From ‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain de Botton

And William Morris, the English 19th century writer, designer, pioneering socialist and environmental activist who wrote poetry, essays, and historical romances famously said:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Pareto’s Law, explained very well by Richard Koch in his book ‘The 80/20 Principle: the Secret of Achieving More with Less’, holds that most of us wear only 20% of our clothes 80% of the time, that most businesses derive 80% of their income from 20% of their customer base, and that I will have spent 20% of my time writing 80% of this blog – and then 80% of the remaining time tweaking it around the edges (the final 20%) before publication…

Living a truly minimalistic existence may be a step too far for most of us, but thinking occasionally about what we do actually need, and just how much is ‘enough’, seems highly worthwhile to me.

In my own experience, the more things we own the more they seem to own us. Looking after ‘stuff’ takes time, money and effort.

Finally, two more thoughts on the subject that particularly resonate with me:

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Let us learn to live simply, so that others may simply live.”

Mahatma Ghandi