Two years ago, I quit my job and sold almost all I owned. What little I had left — clothing, dusty laptop, phone, chalk, toiletries and, of course, my books — fit into two small bags.
Since then, I have lived as a country-hopper, staying a few months at a time in countries like Australia, Indonesia and Thailand.
These years were not easy, but they were the best years of my life.
I am not a risk-taker. What was it, then, that convinced me to drop a life of stability and take this journey?
In part, it was because of ideas.
One book that gave me the courage to quit was a volume of letters written by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca. As advisor to the Roman emperor Nero, Seneca was one of the most powerful men of his time. The letters, written as advice to a close friend, contain a wealth of wisdom on the art of living well.
The book changed my views on many things (hardly a week goes by where I do not re-read some of it), but one of the most powerful ideas inside had to do with the conditions for happiness.
If you doubled your income today, how much happier would you be?
Many people would answer, “Twice as happy.” Seneca disagrees. The correct answer might be, “I won’t be happier at all. I might even be worse off.”
In one of his letters, Seneca writes:
“Suppose all the belongings of many rich men were piled upon you. Suppose that fortune were to advance you beyond the means of any private individual, covering you with gold, clothing you with purple, endowing you with luxury and riches, so much that you could cover the very ground with marble — wealth not only in your possession but even under your feet! Let there be statues too, and paintings, and everything any art has devised to indulge your expensive taste. What will you learn from these things? Only how to desire more.”
Riches do not satisfy. They only bring desire for more riches.
In Greek mythology, Tantalus was punished for eternity to stand in a pool of water that sat under a fruit tree. When he tried to pick the fruit, the branches would rise away from his fingers. When he bent down to drink, the waters would descend down out of his reach.
Not matter how much he struggled, he could not find his reward.
Such is the fate of those that fall prey to the lures of wealth, consumerism, power. Happiness is always just out of reach.
In recent years, research has confirmed what the Stoics knew all along. William Irving comments on the research in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:
“The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted, the way they previously took their rusted-out pickup and cramped apartment for granted.”
Modern psychologists gave the Tantalus Problem a name — hedonic adaptation.
They not only found that the suddenly wealthy were no happier, they also found that victims of accidents, despite permanent injury, were soon as happy as they were before. Happiness may be a lot less about what we have and a lot more dependent on what we think.
Exposed to this idea, I realized something powerful: assuming all my basic needs (calories, shelter, clothing, etc.) are met, income matters little for long-term happiness.
Then, I realized something else:
If my income is limited, why not spent $1000 a month instead of $4000 and enjoy the same benefits?
If I took my income and spread it out over four months, I could spend in four months what I used to spend in one — and be just as happy. My money would go four times as far, and I could then take my free time and spend it however I wished.
I did not need a fast computer. I did not need expensive clothes. I did not need any of the hundreds of things we buy each year to satisfy desires that cannot be satisfied.
Instead, what I needed was something else — something that money could not buy.
What was it?
“Would you rather have a large amount, or enough? Those who have a large amount want more, which is a proof that they do not yet have enough. The one who has enough has attained the one thing the rich can never get: a stopping point.”
What I needed, more than anything, was to have enough.