The Less You Want, The More You Have

Imagine that we need one million dollars to be happy. If that’s the case, then as long as we don’t reach this amount, we’re unhappy. If we look at humanity’s poverty and its small percentage of millionaires, we can conclude that happiness is scarce if it requires seven figures in a bank account.

Now, let’s say that we deeply desire to be happy and feel incomplete as long as we don’t reach this mental state. So far, we’ve managed to save a hundred thousand dollars, which might be a lot of money to most of us, but if we take the requirement of happiness we’ve set for ourselves into account, we are nine hundred thousand dollars in debt. It’s not comfortable to be in debt, as it weighs heavily on our shoulders and implies a state of owing something, which, in this case, is a desire left unpaid. Only if we obtain what we want is this debt paid off. If what we need is scarce, it’s challenging to get and easy to lose because everyone wants it. In our experience, then, happiness is in short supply. 

Suppose we let our life satisfaction depend on things challenging to obtain. In that case, we set ourselves up for stress, discontent, and insecurity. We tend to worry a lot about not having what we want, losing what we have, and the future not playing out as we desire. A much better alternative would be a minimalist mindset of abundance. If we experience no shortage in getting our needs met, we’ll quickly achieve a state of contentment. And the quickest way to reach abundance is by downgrading our needs. The less you want, the more you have. And when we have plenty, we care less about gain and loss; we’re less stressed about missing out and less fearful of change.

From scarcity to abundance

When happiness is in short supply, we need to work hard to obtain it. The requirements for happiness we’ve decided for ourselves could be material possessions, money, high social status, a near-perfect partner, or, perhaps, a combination of these factors. Imagine slaving away endlessly to meet these requirements while continually experiencing this nagging sense of dissatisfaction (because as long as our needs aren’t satisfied, we’re not happy). Imagine that when we finally obtain our holy grail, we anxiously hold on to it, as losing what we’ve worked so hard for would mean the end of our happiness. What a demanding life that would be?

The more specific our conditions for happiness are, the more difficult it becomes to be satisfied. Especially when we’ve made our happiness dependent on outside circumstances that are incredibly fickle; even the smallest of changes threaten the foundations of our well-being. An example of this would be a person who desires a (quote-unquote) “perfect life,” which entails a “perfect” house, “perfect” family, “perfect” job, “perfect” social circle, and the list goes on. Satisfaction requires all variables to be fulfilled. But if one of them isn’t “perfect,” then this person’s sense of happiness collapses like a house of cards.

As the backwards law shows us: the more we need to be satisfied, the less satisfied we become; and the more we want, the less we feel we have. So, the less we need from the world, the more we’ll experience abundance. Abundance implies that we have more than enough. But what’s enough? That’s subjective: for some, it’s never enough. For others, very little is enough. Also, our idea of what’s enough tends to change over time. For example, when we’re still in college, having enough money to buy food and going to parties tends to be enough. But when we’re advanced in our careers, we could very well be dissatisfied with salaries that dwarf the income of most students. 

The good news is that we can change our perceptions of what’s enough. And the less we need to have enough, the easier we’re satisfied. We’re also less distressed by the fickleness of the outside world, as a changing environment won’t easily affect what’s plentiful. Just look at the oceans; despite all the changes our planet has gone through during the last four billion years, they’re still around. Imagine someone who’s happy and fulfilled with the essentials, like clothing, food, shelter, and a few people to talk to, now and then, online or offline. This person’s satisfaction depends on abundant things and, thus, is easy to obtain. So, it’s tough to harm this person’s contentment because what’s abundant will always be readily available, contrary to what’s scarce.

So, the less we need, the stronger our position becomes. However, we can’t be without desire entirely. Having needs is part of being human. But we can manage our desires, so we dwell less frequently in a realm of scarcity and lack and predominantly in the domain of abundance. As Epicurus once stated: “If you want to make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.” Here are a couple of ways to channel our desires so that we can shift from scarcity to abundance.

The power of moderation

In a previous video, we’ve explored the philosophy of Epicurus in the context of minimalist living. Epicurus distinguished three kinds of desires: natural and necessary desires (like food, shelter, and rest), natural and unnecessary desires (like luxurious food and expensive clothing), and vain desires (like power, extreme wealth, and fame). In short, Epicurus believed that we should focus on the first (which are necessary and easy to satisfy) and avoid the latter (which are unnecessary and impossible to satisfy).

However, this also leaves a vast grey area of needs that, in the modern world, aren’t necessary for happiness but still abundant and, thus, easy to obtain. For example: listening to music, playing video games, or browsing YouTube. Looking at the amount of music, games, and videos available these days, we could say that these pleasures are abundant. But we tend to overindulge in them. Now, the problem is that overindulgence leads to dissatisfaction despite the abundance because to feel satisfied, we need more and more, as our senses become less sensitive and need more stimulation. And the more we need, the less abundance we’ll experience.

If we’d choose our needs wisely, we might not want to engage with them in ways that disempower us. The Stoics proposed a virtue called ‘moderation’ to curb our desires, so they do not rule us. Moderation includes modesty and self-control. If we master these virtues, then pleasures in abundant supply will not conquer us but serve us only when we choose, so they maintain their quality of being plentiful and enjoyable.

Being thankful for what we have

Humans tend to focus on what they want rather than on what they have. But doing so means we exchange potential sources of contentment for unfulfilled desires and the pain that comes with that. The things we have form a very accessible source of joy. Is there anything easier to obtain than what we already have? Or: is there anything more acutely available than what’s already in our possession? When we fail to cherish what we have, we’ll be dissatisfied, so we need to put in the effort to look for something else. But if we turn away from what we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have, happiness will be a bargain.

Being grateful for what we have increases the value of what we have. For example, many people view the houses they live in as insufficient: too small, too old, too ugly. But they could also see the glass as half-full: they have a roof over their heads, live small but cozily, and old doesn’t always mean unsuitable for living. Even though larger, newer, better-looking houses are available, the places they live in still suit their basic need: shelter. There are many people with worse living spaces, or even without homes. Compared to them, any home is a blessing and something to be grateful for. When we shift the paradigm from dissatisfaction to gratitude, the value of the same house increases; we now value and cherish what we previously devalued. Gratitude, therefore, is not just a free-of-charge ticket to satisfaction; it’s also a way to save money. Had we satisfied the desire for a new house, we would have eventually ended up with the same level of satisfaction, but we also pay most dearly for it.

Contemplating the price of our needs

Our needs come with a price. In general, what’s abundant is cheap and what’s scarce is expensive. And it’s easier to acquire something affordable than something lavish. But still, the level of difficulty depends on our context. Someone wealthy, for example, will have an easy time obtaining a costly watch, which, for a poor person, could take years of saving money. Even though the watch’s price remains the same, it’s relatively cheaper for the rich than for the poor. So, when selecting our needs, it’s wise to contemplate what they truly cost us. American philosopher Henry David Thoreau had a simple rule for this, and I quote: “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” End quote.

Whenever we desire something, we could immediately ask ourselves: what amount of life will I exchange for this? How many hours of work does this purchase require of me? And how much does this work affect my health? Things that need a small amount of life in exchange can be considered cheap. Items that require a large amount of life can be regarded as expensive. If we focus on the needs that are cheap and easy to fulfill, we experience abundance. This abundance is either based on having plenty of resources or the minor requirement of life that it takes to fulfill it. Taking an expensive mortgage may not be such a great idea if this requires us to walk on our toes for it. Even though we might buy a dream house, eventually, the price could outweigh the benefit.

Staying out of long-term debt

Being in debt can be a very stressful experience, as an obligation to pay off what we owe shackles us. Although we associate debt with money, our desires also generate debt to one of the most tormenting, nagging, demanding creditors we can think of: the mind. So, how is the mind a creditor? Well, every time we notice that a desire arouses within us, we’re instantly in debt. We moved from the debt-free experience of contentment, in which we owe ourselves nothing as we have no desires need to be paid off, into the red. The mind demands that we fulfill this desire, and if we don’t, it keeps knocking on our door like a debt collector. To a certain extent, this is inevitable. When we’re hungry, for example, we must satisfy our hunger with food. When we’re tired and in need of rest, we must pay off this debt by sleeping. But in most parts of the world, food and sleep are widely available. So, paying off these natural desires isn’t hard to do. 

Real difficulties start when we immerse ourselves in long-term desires that we must fulfill to feel satisfied. By doing this, we burden ourselves with long-term debt: a feeling of lack that only goes away when this desire is fulfilled, which can leave us feeling incomplete for a long time. An example of such a predicament is how some people handle unrequited love. Imagine having romantic feelings for someone, but this person doesn’t feel the same way about you. If you’re unable to accept this and spend your days hoping that this person someday reciprocates, you’ve set yourself up for long-term dissatisfaction. Your mind has turned the romantic interest of someone who’s not interested into a prerequisite for happiness. So, you’ll be in debt until the mind gets what it wants, which probably never happens. Hope, therefore, is not a good strategy for happiness.


Instead of letting our happiness depend on realizing dreams and desires in the future, especially those that take ages to realize (or we never realize at all), we might want to focus on finding joy in more readily available things. Enjoying the immediate doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have long-term goals, but that we appreciate the small things and don’t let our joie de vivre solely depend on realizing the big. We can generate satisfaction with very little, with what’s abundant. But this often means that instead of conquering the world, we need to conquer our desire for the world. Ultimately, there are two ways of creating abundance. The first one is by accumulating more of what we desire, but by doing so, we become dependent on outside circumstances that we cannot control. The second one is by putting a chain on our desires, so we make the things that are already here, in the present, more satisfying to us. The less we desire from the world, the more abundant the world appears. Thus, the less you want, the more you have.

Thank you for watching.