Why It Pays to Live for Less

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It’s a strange time to be an American.

With a mass shooting happening every other week and a man who got Stone-Cold Stunnered flirting with the presidency, it’s safe to say things are a little… off … in the Land of the Free.

A number of explanations have been proposed for this recent malaise. Truthfully, no one knows what the hell is going on – except that the foundation of everything we used to hold dear is crumbling.

Once upon a time, Americans thought their country was the land of opportunity. With a little grit and elbow grease, any one could rise above his circumstances and achieve whatever his heart desired.

But for young people, this belief in the “American Dream” has declined dramatically over the past generation.

And why shouldn’t it? The average student is taking on $30,000+ in debt to enter a working world where only 1 out of 3 people feel actively engaged. Our once vibrant futures have turned into a monotonous, ego-depleting existence, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out.

Fortunately, I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.

You don’t have to work a job you hate or give up on what you would like to do to live a healthy, fulfilling life. All of the tools are still out there.

But they require a basic deconstruction of what we’ve been taught to believe over the last 100 years or so. Namely, the materialistic preferences of the past few decades are no longer a realistic goal for modern Americans, nor are they key to personal happiness.

In our new world, achieving your dreams requires letting go of previous images of success.

It requires living for less.

A Brief History of How We Got Here

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The biggest hurdle standing between Americans and a fulfilling life isn’t the economy. It’s their preferences.

If you ask a typical American what his dreams look like, he’ll probably describe a scene from the Wolf of Wall Street. He’d have a Ferrari in the garage, Versace in the closet, a Rolex for every outfit and Dom Perignon at every party.

All of these luxury brands signal high status. They let people know you are living the good life and serve as a universal indicator for “success.”

However, these materialistic desires are a relatively new phenomenon. Like, less than 100 years old.

Four or five generations ago, people didn’t crave brand-name products. They didn’t even exist. A trip to the store would involve asking the clerk for what you needed and receiving whatever the hell they had behind the counter.

But then the Industrial Revolution happened. Suddenly, businesses were able to churn out goods at significantly faster rates and lower costs. This process created more jobs, more disposable income and lots and lots of shit to sell.

How did companies learn to capitalize on this newfound abundance? Psychological manipulation.

No. Seriously.

One of the Godfathers of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, also happened to be the nephew of the world’s most famous psychologists, Sigmund Freud.

Bernays applied his uncle’s renderings of the unconscious mind to a new type of propaganda, designed to engineer the consent of the population toward the wills of large corporations.

He called it “public relations.

One of Bernays’ most famous campaigns involved Lucky Strike cigarettes. The brand wanted to increase its sales with women, but a few hurdles existed. As a whole, the group found the color of Lucky Strikes’ box unappealing. Further, a general taboo existed against the idea of women smoking in public.

To combat these naturally-occurring preferences, Lucky Strikes enlisted Bernays’ help. And boy did he help.

To make Lucky Strikes’ shade of green more attractive, Bernays coordinated with higher-ups in the fashion industry who made it a staple of the next season’s style.

Then, he challenged the social stigma by organizing a large-scale demonstration at a feminist rally. After Bernays hired a bunch of attractive women to light up a smoke while protesting the injustices of 1920s America, the cigarette soon became known as the “freedom torch,” allowing females to challenge societal norms, flaunt their independence and increase their likelihood of dying from lung cancer.

All of these tactics targeted women’s subconscious wants. Bernays tricked them into believing that their desire to be a fashionable, independent person could be achieved simply by purchasing a pack of smokes.

And that, my friends, is how most advertising works today. Marketers tap into our basic  emotional wants using carefully orchestrated images, symbols and slogans and train us to associate them with their products.

As a population, we’ve largely bought the message. Our desire to lead a happy and fulfilling life is no longer about our accomplishments, but the type of things we can afford.

Obviously, this trend comes with a few problems.

First, basing your self-worth on the external validation that comes from your physical belongings isn’t a very healthy recipe for self-esteem. Second, these preferences are no longer a realistic goal for Americans in the modern economy.

While our standard of living has steadily increased, the financial health of the average American is hideous. Nearly half of the people surveyed in a recent study by the Federal Reserve said they couldn’t summon $400 dollars if an emergency rose today.

…$400 dollars. That’s probably the cost of the phone or computer you’re reading this on right now. Though we can obtain material comforts with more ease than ever before, we’re throwing ourselves into debt and working jobs we hate just to do it.

Despite what we’ve been manipulated to believe over the past century, we don’t need nearly as much as we think.

Our 4 Basic Psychological Needs

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Have you ever wondered how a supermarket employee can lead a happy and fulfilling life while a wealthy celebrity can be suicidal?

Psychologists have been studying this type of thing for decades, and they’ve basically boiled down the components of well-being to four requirements: security, belonging, self-esteem and control.

No matter where you’re from, how you look, or how much money you have, every single person has those four basic needs. If they’re being met, you’re gonna feel pretty good about your life. If they’re not, you’ll suffer.

That’s why a bagger at a grocery store who can afford his rent and has a few close friends can feel better than a celebrity who is surrounded by sycophants and bases her entire self-worth on her appearance. His psychological needs are being met while hers aren’t.

The key to living a happy life lies in fulfilling these needs. If you’re suffering, you should either try to improve your relationships, self-worth, sense of freedom or security.

But in the present state of affairs, that’s not always the easiest thing to do.

Namely, the individual’s lack of control in the American economy is contributing to our broad sense of disillusionment. To pay for her rent, food, car and material possessions, the average American must find a job which requires her to work 40-50 hours per week for 50 weeks out of the year.

To land one of these jobs, she’s forced to take out loans to fund her education. Then, she’ll need to pimp her resume during job interviews and convince employers that her performance will satisfy their clients. Finally, she’s expected to devote her utmost loyalty to the company in order to get promoted, increase her income and pay off the debt she assumed just to enter the process.

Most of us have to go through this cycle. And it requires us to surrender a large amount of the control we have over our lives.

Want to leave the office at 4 o’clock every day to spend time with your friends or family? You’re not working hard enough and don’t deserve to advance within the company.

Want to take a few months off to hike the Appalachian Trail or explore Southeast Asia? You’ll leave a big gap in your resume and will likely have to start from scratch somewhere else.

The recipe we’ve been given for success requires us to surrender the very sense of freedom that makes us feel successful. We can obtain a bunch of nice shit, but we don’t have any control over the process that lets us get it in the first place, which leads to our collective suffering.

How can you escape this viscous cycle?

You Need to Live for Less

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Fulfilling your basic needs doesn’t actually require that much money.

When you can learn to live for less, you gain the autonomy necessary to achieve what you actually want out of your life, i.e. the American Dream.

Adopting frugal habits like getting a roommate, moving within walking distance of your job, avoiding name-brand products, and cooking your own meals can allow a single person with no debt to live on as little as $1000 per month.

Don’t believe me? Check this guy out.

He and his wife spent around $20,000 annually for 8 years. Meanwhile, they invested the rest of their money in an index fund, which allowed them to retire at the ripe age of 30.

Now, these people had some of the well-paying, freedom-limiting jobs I criticized earlier, but the distinction is that they were working for a purpose. Their goal wasn’t to buy a mansion, eat at lavish restaurants, or own a Ferrari. It was to liberate themselves from the necessity of work altogether through a few years of low spending and high savings.

You don’t have to have these goals. Yours could be entirely different.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be an artist. Or start your own business. Or travel the world. All of these things are possible. But they require you to live for less.

The only problem you need to figure out is how you can make enough money to pay for your food, rent, social activities and miscellaneous fees. Your other needs (self-esteem and autonomy) will be achieved through working for a higher purpose.

Because when you live for less, you can cut back your hours at work to spend more time on that book you’ve always wanted to write. You can save heavily for a few months and spend the rest of your year backpacking through Europe. You can volunteer at a hospital, religious institution, or any social cause that moves you.

It doesn’t matter what the fuck you do. Just make sure you want to do it.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your life. The only one you are ever going to get. Do you want to spend your numbered days working a career you hate to afford the stuff marketers say will complete you? Or would you rather spend your time actually doing things that make you happy?

Fair warning: this mindset requires you to go against the grain. A lot of people may think you’re inferior because you don’t live up to the material standard we’ve been taught to associate with success.

But people are going to judge you no matter what you do. Your goal is to look through that judgement, say fuck it, and arrange your life in a way that brings you the most enjoyment.

As long as you’re happy, you’ll have all the abundance you’ll ever need. When you live for less, you live with more.

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Deconstructing the Ego

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For much of my adult life, I suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem. For much of my adult life, that confused the shit out of me.

On the surface, I knew I had no reason to be insecure. People tell me I’m handsome. People tell me I’m intelligent. I’ve lettered in three sports, gone to two of the US’s best colleges and have generally had experiences that confirm my capability of doing okay in this life.

Yet, while things seemed cool on the exterior, inside it was whole ‘nother bag of beans.

A subtle, unconscious feeling of shame permeated almost everything I did around the ages of 13 to 21. My career choices, relationships, and all around self-concept were largely shaped by an undying feeling that I wasn’t good enough. Clearly, it wasn’t a very fun place to be.

It took years of reading, some therapy and even a little drug exploration (sorry, Mom) to finally reach the conclusion that changed my life:

My problem was my ego.

Now, when one thinks of an egotistical person, this typically ain’t the image that comes to mind. Visions of people like Kanye West and Donald Trump tend to overpower the idea of a dude who’s too scared to ask a chick on a date.

However, the ego comes in all types of shapes and sizes. Some of them are big, bold and narcissistic. Some of them are fearful, ashamed and self-defeating.

In this post, I’m going to  explain what the ego is, why it’s mostly bullshit and how recognizing that fact can be one of the most important things you will ever do.

First, let’s look at some psychology.

The Freudian Sense of the Ego

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In 1923, Sigmund Freud formed an idea of the ego that has since shaped Western psychology. Namely, he proposed that the human psyche consisted of three systems: the ID, the Ego and the Superego.

The first part of the triad – the ID – is the primitive, child-like aspect of the brain that goes after what its wants with no fucks given. Like eating chocolate? Eat all of the chocolate. Wanna take a nap? Do it in the middle of broad daylight.

While it can be fun, the ID’s behavior isn’t necessarily conducive to the demands of adult life. To combat these child-like desires, Freud suggested that an opposing force evolves within the mind: the Superego.

The Superego can be defined as a person’s moral beliefs and ideal standards. As you age, your parents and your culture tend to give you an idea about what you should be. These beliefs get stored in the Superego, which tells you what to do throughout your life and makes you feel guilty if you don’t do it.

Where does the Ego come in? Glad you asked.

The Ego (or “you”) acts as the referee between these two competing forces. Essentially, its job is to satisfy the ID’s wants while taking the Superego’s demands into account.

Your ID still wants to eat a shit-ton of chocolate, but your Superego tells you that being fat and sloppy are bad. So, the Ego acts as the mediator between the two and decides you will only eat chocolate in small and infrequent quantities.

This seems like a useful tool, right? For the most part it is. However, it comes with a big problem:

The Superego is completely dependent on a person’s experiences.

In other words, the environment we grow up in largely shapes our moral beliefs. And unfortunately, our upbringings aren’t always the most helpful.

For instance, imagine a girl whose parents raised her to believe that sex is evil. Throughout her childhood, she was forced to shield her eyes when people kissed on TV. She couldn’t wear clothing that revealed more than her ankles and wrists and was never allowed one-on-one time with a boy.

As a result, this girl will probably feel shame and anxiety when she experiences sexual urges throughout her life. Clearly, that’s not a very helpful mindset.

Our parents, teachers and peers instill all kinds of harmful ideas like these into our subconscious, and the process is completely random! Your authority figures got their standards from their authority figures, who got their standards from their authority figures and so on and so forth.

The things that our Superegos hold dear and true originate from an environment that none of us control. We get to spend our lives feeling guilty and ashamed for reasons that are mostly arbitrary.

How fun!

Think that’s bad? Here’s another little discomforting truth.

Your ego is likely an illusion

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That’s right. That thing you think is “you” probably doesn’t exist; it’s just an image that your brain constructs due to the demands of the external world.

…yeah. I didn’t believe it at first either.

But it’s something Eastern Philosophers have been preaching for years, and new research in neuroscience may actually be starting to back it up.

Us Westerners tend to believe our identities are constant, stable things that exists through time. Yet, the idea of self promoted by people like Siddhartha Gautama (better know as the Buddha) rejects this notion entirely.

In particular, the Buddha taught that every single thing we perceive is merely a label assembled by the mind. Further, he thought that this process is inherently flawed because it removes objects from the causal chain of space and time and gives them a fixed, unchanging identity.

However, nothing truly exists as we know it. Everything is part of a large, continual process, and the present state of things is all that’s truly real.

Now, I know this can sound like some foo-foo hippy shit at first, but the idea is actually pretty consistent with recent discoveries in neuroscience.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet designed an experiment which showed that people’s choices could be accurately predicted by monitoring their neurons. What’s more, the scientists could determine which decisions the subjects would make before they were even aware that they had made them.

Since Freud defines “the ego” as the thing that makes our choices, the results of this study actually support the Buddha’s notion that our egos are merely illusions.

Moreover, aligning oneself with this idea has proven to be extremely beneficial.

Studies on meditation have revealed that a feeling of “ego-death” can dramatically increase a person’s well-being. Experienced meditators have been shown to have lower levels of stress, improved concentration, increased emotional awareness and even more grey-matter in their brains.

What gives? Many argue that meditation works because it gets us closer to what we actually are – a conscience experience without an ego.

When you clear your mind of thought, only the sensations that arise within the present moment remain. Further, regularly experiencing that state slowly causes you to realize you are not the thinker of your thoughts. You are merely the Watcher. All wants, worries, and desires are fleeting illusions that stem from the ego, and all that really exists is a peaceful, eternal emptiness in which all experience emerges.

This might sound a little silly. Hell, it is a little silly. But as the research shows, the idea can significantly increase our well-being and may not be all that far-fetched.

… so, what does all of this mean?

To recap: the external environment (which you don’t control) imposes all of your ideals and moral beliefs, and your ego – i.e. the thing you think is you – is a total illusion.

Real comforting, huh?

However, this realization proved to be one of the happiest of my life. Namely, recognizing my ego for what it is (or.. what it isn’t) allowed me to end years of unnecessary suffering and start doing the things I’d always wanted to do.

It let me speak my mind without feeling like I always had to be right. It let me chase the careers, goals and relationships I wanted without the fear that they’d end in abject failure.

Most importantly, it caused me to realize that no one is better than any one else.  We don’t choose our identities; none of them are even real. Underneath everything, we’re all a part of one shared struggle. The main purpose of our lives is to love each other and have as much fun as possible until we collectively return to that great, eternal void .

There are probably some things in your life that you want to do right now. You may have thought about starting a business, or writing a book or asking out that cute girl in your physics class. Yet you don’t do them, because you feel like you’ve got something to lose.

But friend, you’ve got nothing to lose. Because “you” are nothing.

Your problem is your ego.

Behind the smoke and mirrors, our lives are really just fun little games with the objective being to create our own objectives. Essentially, we’re all our IDs. The Ego illusion should only play a role in reaching the ideals you consciously choose to hold in your Superego.

Yet, you won’t be free to choose them until you look behind the mask and recognize what you truly aren’t.

So get rid of your ego, man, and get busy living.


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A helpful tool for finding happiness

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It’s a message embedded deeply in the heart of Western society: “do what makes you happy.”

It’s the subject of Billboard hits. It’s the fuel that drives the self-help industry. Hell, it’s practically written on the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard for us to tell what happiness actually is, let alone how we can achieve it.

In light of this ignorance, a lot of us spend our lives following a predetermined check-list. We work hard in school. We get an impressive degree. We land a cushy job and hustle up the corporate ladder. We go on lavish trips. We buy expensive cars, clothes, homes, and cell phones.

Of course, these things aren’t inherently bad. After all, it’s pretty hard to frown on Wave Runner.

The problem is that many of us do them without ever questioning them. Our peers, magazines, movies, and advertisements drill it into our heads that these ends are THE inevitable source of happiness. Yet as we achieve them, a subtle, empty feeling often persists – causing us to look in the mirror of our suburban homes and ask: how am I still miserable?

The rational self-help promoter Mark Manson wisely asserts that we all should stop tying to be happy. In his article, Manson draws a distinction between pleasure and contentment.

In the pursuit of happiness, this difference holds the utmost importance.

The biggest, most fundamental problem in our quest to find happiness is that we often associate the feeling with pleasure. We think that the rush of dopamine that comes from buying expensive things, receiving praise from others, or even something as insidious as drug use is what inevitably makes us happy.

At best, this fallacy can lead to a fragile self-esteem. At worst, it can cause life-ruining problems like gambling or drug addictions.

Instead, as Manson points out, happiness should be measured by contentment. Why contentment, you ask? It’s because the term alludes to a deep satisfaction with yourself. It’s being completely comfortable with your circumstances, your successes, your failures, and your own limitations.

It doesn’t come from the short-term, hedonistic gains that bring us Pleasure. Rather, it comes from the sacrifice of them in pursuit of an identity that is consistent with a higher purpose.

Manson refers to this concept as the Ideal Self. In short, it’s the meaning we derive from existence and the concept that our daily actions should be designed to obtain.

Maybe you’re at this point. You’re rolling in the dough, sleeping with models, and reaching all of your life-long goals. Basically, you’re Drake.

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However, many of us have no clue how to become this ideal self or what s/he even looks like. As a result, we spend our days listlessly pursuing some vague, undefined thing, only to reach the finish line and ask: was that it?

Hopefully I haven’t instigated an identity crisis within you yet, but if I have, fear not. I’m about to introduce a very helpful key to finding happiness (i.e., contentment) and an exercise that will allow you to use it.

So, without further ado, here is a real, proven trick to achieving long-term happiness:

*cue drumroll*

Purposeful action.

*crickets*

Yeah, I know. Probably not as sexy as you were hoping for.

However, to achieve contentment, your day-to-day actions should be in line with a long-term vision you have for your future.

This may sound like an idealistic trope out of an Ayn Rand novel, but the concept is based on decades of psychological research. Namely, it plays on the idea that our thoughts, actions, and emotions are highly interconnected.

Let’s face it; in this topsy-turvey life, you’re going to go through a lot of shit. You’ll suffer break-ups. You’ll lose jobs. Loved ones will die. Good TV shows will have crappy endings.

These events and the emotional tsunamis that come along with them also shape our thoughts and actions. And sometimes, if we leave these feelings unchecked, they’ll cause us to waste our precious moments behaving in ways that are detrimental to our well-being.

The key to weathering these inevitable storms is to focus on the two factors we can control: the things we do and the things we think.

Clearly, changing your thoughts can do a lot of good. Learning to look at the positive side of things and practicing gratitude are very helpful habits. However, positive thinking by itself can only go so far. Besides making a person insufferable, a too rosy-tinted outlook can cause one to deny crucial aspects of reality. After all, negative emotions are unavoidable, and trying to suppress them will lead to more harm than good.

These thoughts need to be accompanied by our tool: purposeful action.

By doing this, you optimize your time and take constant steps toward your Ideal Self.

So, let’s get started! Here’s a little exercise designed to put you on the path towards that mythical beast called happiness:

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Step 1.) Make a mental image of the person you would like to be in five years.

How well-off are they financially? What do their relationships look like? Where do they live? What is their career? How is their fitness? Be vivid. Give specific examples. Then, get out a piece of paper and write these thoughts down.

Step 2.) Next, write down the steps someone would realistically need to take to become this person.

Where would this person be in three years? One year? Next month? Next week? Again, the more concrete you are about the details, the better.

Step 3.) Now, look at your own life.

Are you on the path towards becoming this five year person? Because s/he is your Ideal Self. If not, you need to take all of the places you envisioned him or her going in the next week, month, year, etc. and turn them into your own personal goals.

Step 4.) Keep a journal that tracks how well you are doing in pursuit of these goals.

This step is crucial, because the trick to achieving a goal is forming a habit. Keeping a journal allows you to hold yourself accountable through real time and allows you to make sure your actions remain purposeful. Further, this journal will help you identify flaws that are hindering your progress – which is the first step in correcting them.

And, there you have it. Feeling happy, yet?

Now, you’ve had a lot of experience. You may have tried something like this before, or you may be thinking that life’s too short and unpredictable to plan so far ahead in the future. Can’t we just live in the moment, man?

But that’s not the point. Yeah, you’re going to fail a lot. You’re not going to reach many of these goals.  And guess what? It ain’t gonna be easy. Acting with purpose doesn’t magically let you skip the hard times, self-doubt, and failure that comes along the way.

What it does is give you the chance to live a life of your choosing. And I can guarantee, trying and failing to live on your own terms is a helluva lot more satisfactory in the long run than a life full of “what ifs.”

By simply doing this exercise and sticking to it, you WILL constantly be getting closer to your Ideal Self. And that’s the beauty of it. Rather than stagnating in a job, town, relationship, or financial situation you hate, you are consistently putting in the work necessary to achieve the outcomes that you desire.

These outcomes are the chief aim of life, and achieving them is a never-ending climb. As much progress as we make, we’ll never be completely satisfied with where we are. We’ll always want something more. The trick is to keep moving towards it.

Because happiness is  about becoming content with the process. It’s about trying, failing, meeting your own limitations, and becoming comfortable with the effort you’ve put forth toward learning them and fearlessly engaging in this existence.

So, close the computer for a bit and get out there and put some purpose in your action.

In the words of Shia:

 

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