Recently I came across that old proverb “want what you have” and I pored over the words for days. Want. What. You. Have. It’s amazing how profound an effect four words can have. I surmised that in that order… those four little words can solve a lot of headaches and produce the blueprint for a perfectly contented life. It’s the kind of quote that has the power to recalibrate your psyche… But then four thoughts later, you’re right back to “needing” something that you’re convinced will make life simpler and happier.
It was interesting the first night I heard the quote. It inspired me to go home and look at everything I already had. Some of us like to collect ‘stuff’. One thing I always like to look out for is antique world globes, and I’m also a lover of a quirky t-shirt.. which has resulted in a stockpile of them.. slogans from “Warhol is over” to “I love burritos”. I then recalled the flush of adrenalin that accompanied each new purchase at the time. I repeated the exercise with several other items around my home and of course in that moment I realised I had so much. Then I guiltily recalled the number of times I thought I “needed” something that appeared intoxicatingly desirable to add to that already vast collection of new and used goods, loved at first sight then mostly abandoned.
Next stop: my bookshelf. Forget the cat lady… my biggest fear is I’ll be found buried under a mound of books and Vanity Fair magazines in my twilight years and exhumed from the wreckage of toppled book ladders that already inhabit too many corners and spaces of my apartment. I gazed at my book collection and realised not only had I not read everything in it… but within these shelves was contained the democratic and liberal thoughts of thousands of individuals moved to write them in the first place. Some of those books had rewritten history. Some of those books marked points of social change. Some of them inspired us to dream a little bigger and brighter. All of them illuminated our world in some way. I had enough to feast for a lifetime, but still I keep buying more and more, and more to the point, not even consuming all of them. So why is that despite all our many possessions they end up possessing us to want more?
British Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted back in the 1930’s that around about now developed countries would be about four times richer than they were in 1930 – and on that score he was right on the money. But his next forecast was disturbingly way off the path of current reality. He predicted that because developed countries would become richer, their inhabitants (namely us) would work only as quarter as long.. like say fifteen hours a week, rather than fifty or sixty. (it turned out to be around 40). He also said the demand for leisure would increase proportionately with income… so you work more and earn more, and you have more time off?? Well, not exactly it seems. In the book “How much is enough” Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky explore the issue of whether we work to live or live to work. They explore the theme of economic satiability and how the pursuit of money is not only detrimental to happiness but a great big delusion. Isn’t the ‘good life’ measured in values like health and friendship? Yes, financial security plays a significant part, but excessive consumerism and capitalism are driving us, the consumers, worlds away from corporate chiefs who are acquiring more and more of the world’s wealth distribution. Where is the balance? They argue. How much is enough for anyone?.
Since there’s an entire thesis in attempting to answer this, let’s go back to the beginning. Wanting what we have. Not only can this help us realise how much we already have, but it might also help us retain and value those things much more, and maybe stop us from mindlessly consuming more just for the hell of it. I guess you can only try… but it feels like a comforting way to live life. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the secret to the truly contented life.