The Utopian Impact of Desiring Less

“There are two ways to make a man richer: Give him more money or curb his desires.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Consider for a moment the question: How would our world look different if people wanted less rather than more? The impact on society would be shocking:

  • Less Hunger – Currently, world agriculture produces enough food for every one of the six billion people alive on planet earth. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 850 million people worldwide are malnourished, while 1.6 billion are overweight. A world where people wanted less would result in a world where food was distributed more equally.
  • Less Poverty – Similarly, the world’s resources are unequally distributed. According to the World Bank, the richest 20% consume 76.6% of the world’s resources, while the world’s poorest 20% consume only 1.5%. A world where people wanted less would result in a world where our resources are distributed more equally.
  • Less War – While not every war throughout history has been fought for material gain, most of them have been waged for the purpose of gaining money/gold, territory, resources, or imperialism.
  • Less Environmental Pillaging.
  • Less Crime. Most of the high crimes committed today are based in greed, selfishness, or jealousy.

Unfortunately, however, we live in a world that is inhabited by people. And people are ingrained with a desire for more. From the time we can comprehend the nature of stuff, we desire more of it and that is never going to change on a world-wide scale. The list above is going to continue because humanity is going to continue.

But, even if we can’t change the rest of the world, we can still change our own life. What if we could learn to truly desire less rather than more? What would be the affects? How would our personal lives look different if we wanted less rather than more?

  • More Happiness. If we stopped wanting more, we would become more satisfied with our lives. And if we became more satisfied with our lives, we would become happier people.
  • More Peace. One of the greatest steps to realizing peace in our lives is to simply desire less rather than more.
  • More Gratitude. If we would stop focusing on the things that we don’t have and start focusing more on the things that we already do, we would become far more grateful for the good things in our lives. This gratitude would extend beyond material possessions into the things that really matter: love, hope, and peace.
  • More Friendships. Consider how our friendships would be impacted if we could rid ourselves of the desire for more. We would become more generous, more willing to help, and more honest in our dealings with others. Our friendships would become better, stronger, and deeper.
  • Less Stress. Our desire for more causes most of the stress in our life (not all of it, but most of it). We work in high-stress careers so that we can earn more money to buy more things or just make the monthly payments on our homes and cars. We have been enslaved by credit card companies because of the purchases we have made. If we could replace our desire for more with a desire for less, we would remove much of the stress in our lives.
  • Less Jealousy. Our desire for more causes us to envy the neighbor’s car, clothes, and jewelry. We become jealous that they own more stuff than us and soon our jealousy leads to resentment and bitterness.

While we may never fully enjoy the advantages of a world that desires less, the personal benefits above are freely available. Imagine your life happier and more peaceful with less stress and jealousy. Now, if we could only shake this nasty desire for more…

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    I would disagree with the idea that we are ingrained with a desire for more. I would premise that we are ingrained with a desire for love and happiness, and we often by into the false trap of presuming more (stuff, extravagance, etc.) will bring us love or happiness.

    The problems with Rousseau’s comment is that 1) giving a man wealth only makes him weaker, and 2) often people/governments choose to attempt to force a person into wanting less instead of enticing a person to want less because “carry a big stick” is easier than connecting with a person and educating them.

    • Noel says

      And I will disagree with you,and say that what we want is worth, self worth. The problem we have is that once we find some worth, we will find another measure of worth. Some people can find a measure of their worth without having to have a means that others can use validate that worth. A big house is a visible measure of worth, as is other objects. We live in a society that recognizes worth by objects, or by accomplishments. If you have neither, how do you derive your worth?

  2. Ilham Hafizovic says

    I would agree that man is born with the desire for love and happiness, but I also think that we are born with the desire for more things. We learned long ago that to gain love and happiness trading more things brought that to us, and that because of it we met more people. Today, we have evolved into a different society one in which trading is not any more personal, rather more enslaving.

    People only work to make more, and they want more because they get a sort of high off of having bought something. This happiness though is only short-lived and so we buy more and more. What this article is saying, is that we need to break this dependence on short-lived happiness and turn to more concrete long term solutions.

  3. Elizabeth Gabhart says

    I love the idea of having less and living a more minimalist lifestyle, but the worlds’ hungry are not hungry because others are eating their portion of food. There is more than enough food produced every day for ALL of us, everyone in the world, to be overweight.

    Look at the numbers with me. US food companies alone produces 3,900 calories per citizen per day. This means that just with all the extra calories the US produces (most of which go unused, since the average American eats 2,700 calories a day) we could afford to feed 1/3 of the malnourished people in the world without changing anything about our food production. Notice, this is only US food production, and this is still allowing US citizens to eat 1,900 calories a day, which is more than children, the elderly, or inactive people need.

    What’s the upshot? Even if we are gluttonous, there is more than enough food to go around already. The cause for malnourishment isn’t lack of food; it is tyrannical governments, embargoes that starve citizens instead of governments, ideologies that prohibit aid to poor people (bootstrap mentality), and sometimes, transportation issues.

    For example, in the past year, Robert Mugabe refused to allow Zimbabwean citizens to have the bags of relief rice they were accustomed to unless they voted for him in the “election”. There was plenty of rice to go around, but a tyrannical dictator stood between starving people and their food.

  4. says

    david – while i don’t disagree that people are ingrained with a desire for love and acceptance that they seek to satisfy elsewhere, i also believe that people seem to be born with a natural inclination to acquire more and more. my three-year old daughter who was just lamenting the fact that her four-year old friend owns more “dolls” than her would be exhibit #1.

    elizabeth – i agree that there are larger issues at play in the world’s economy than just gluttony in a few advantaged societies that lead to the number of malnourished in our world. but i also contend that many of those tyrannical governments are led by men and women who “desire more.” my contention was that if our world as a whole desired less… many of those problems listed above would be lessened or eliminated.

  5. says

    Yes, we’re born with a desire for “love and happiness”, we’re also born with this messy thing called a sinful nature that perverts all we do. It’d be great if we all woke up tomorrow with truly altruistic goals and ambitions, to see our hungry neighbor well fed, to share from the wealth of our blessings, but that won’t happen unless the root cause of our neglect for the orphan, widow, homeless, etc. is removed. While well intentioned, redistribution efforts and social justice campaigns all ultimately fall short because they fail to address this deepest need.

    C.S. Lewis talks about (a related discourse) in terms of “first things first, and second things second” – we can spend all the time we want fighting for the second things (which are great things) but end up without the first or the second. It’s only by focusing on the first (our sin and the ultimate cure) that we can have either. To continue C.S. Lewis, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying social justice and access to food, shelter, etc. is unimportant – I’m saying on an ultimate level, wealth is benign – a fact which should motivate us to be lose with our wallets and resources, not hoard them. I think it’s lamentable that we have so much and those around us have so little; I actually think it’s even worse because we know that fact but are too apathetic and selfish to care.

    It sounds nice but it’s not simply a matter of greed, there’s something deeper and messier going on. It’s too easy to state we simply need to stop desiring more and give what we have and everything we’ll end up in a utopia; it misses the root problem. In the desire to correct the extreme of one error, greed, we end up on the other, just as futile extreme of thinking that if everyone only lived less greedy, things would work themselves out. We’ve become a drunk man trying to get on a horse, we keep falling off the other side.

  6. says

    Everett Bogue wrote this cool post on Shareable “Imagine a Minimalist Reality” where he talks about cloud-living, where you live with under 100 things and rent or borrow what you need when you need it. There’s no need to have desire or get rid of it in a world where services and things are available in the cloud, where access is preferred over ownership, where freedom is not having or desiring but having the option to have if you need it.

    • M. Matthews says

      Regarding Everett Bogue’s post mentioned here, assuming the reference to it is accurate (I didn’t read the original)…the trouble with this idea is that if everyone abandoned ownership of the “thing”, lets say in this case, a car, eventually nobody that ever needs a car for some reason will have one. Then, cars will become a commodity and if you should ever require a car, it will become prohibitively expensive to access one. (because if minds don’t change…and face it, not everyone is going to abandon the idea of selling us something at ridiculous profit, then somebody is going to exploit the carless community)
      Case in point, the rototiller. My wife and I maintain a large garden and grow lots of our own veggies. Each year we need to till the garden but we don’t have a tiller. We rent one, because buying one large enough to meet our need is expensive. Lots of people have them and routinely loan them out…so renting one is cheap…but, if everybody had a garden but nobody had a tiller except that one guy with the capitalist mindset…he’s gonna make a fortune. (unless everything in “the cloud” is free)
      We should all keep in mind that minimalism can take many forms and not everyone can be happy living in the urban cloud. Our idea of minimalism involves minimal neighbors, minimal buses, minimal light pollution, and maximum crickets.

  7. says

    Great post Jean,

    This is true and is something that resonates with me. It really makes me think about what I want in life. All though there’s nothing wrong with setting goals and wanting more, it’s makes question the true reason behind what I’m trying to accomplish my goals. Is it because of more money, more peace, better way of living? (<— question to myself)

    What happens when achieve our ultimate goal? Will we want more and then more? Okay so when we achieve that goal what happens next…hmmm you guessed it probably more. There's no stopping to it.

    Great stuff,

  8. says

    humans are vulnerable to desiring more. if that was not the case, our young children would not be suckers for advertising. there are birds who collect shiny objects to impress a potential mate. but through mindfulness, right action, and a raised consciousness, we should be able to lift ourselves from this primeval state of mind to something less antisocial.

    the only way for this to impact on a larger scale is if this higher mindset were a lot more common, widely shared across continents and cultures. each one of us who has made this choice is another grain of sand in a steadily growing mountain.

  9. says

    I do agree that modern humans have an ingrained desire for more. It depends on your culture as well, the native people of my country, the San, are the most minimalist people imaginable, to this day they are hunter gatherers with a beautiful knowledge of the earth and a natural desire to sustain it. Modern times have all but wiped out the San and there are very few communities left:(

    I’m guilty of obsessing over more, it is only recently, after discovering blogs like yours, that I’ve taken the steps to a better life.

  10. says

    I believe that humanity is born to evolve. But that is no necessity to focus on the things we do not have yet. Like you’ve considered very well, there is the possibility to gain more while having less.

    First, you become aware of everything you already own. That’s mostly more than we had imagined. This could lead to a feeling of abundance. But if we feel overwhelmed, it’s time to consider become minimalist. We start to focus on the greatest and most important things, throwing away the other stuff.

    Then you start asking yourself if your desired possessions are really worth buying them. You start to filter out the false desires and you become more happy with the new things you own.

    What makes your happier? One great new possession or ten average ones that do not fulfill all of your expectations? You know what I want to say..

    All you need is awareness.

    • di says

      Evolve? What we don’t have is intangible.

      We’re immorale, irresponsible and without logic or common sense.

      We’re self-centered, jealous, neurotic, and callous.

  11. Meira says

    I think we have been ingrained with the desire for more things through commercials and advertisements. Every where you look in the U.S. there are thousands of advertisements for things that you wouldn’t normally want.

  12. says

    Well we should also be “spiritual” minimalists, I think you should just go all out and be an atheist. But if thats too hard for you go with minimalist. Either way usually when people are on a minimalist crusade they are also spiritual nuts, nobody needs that.

  13. says

    It really goes back to what we learned in kindergarten doesn’t it? If we could all learn those simple rules of sharing, how would the world change? If we all acted in the world’s best interest and not our own, how would the world change? I for one try to live that way and teach my 3 boys the same thing. Let’s start the movement today one step at a time.

  14. Robert says

    We certainly are programmed to want more by our genes, it makes perfect evolutionary sense. More wealth, status, relationships, power, etc means higher chance of successful reproduction. The desire for happiness is a dirty trick our genes play on us, because they makes us believe we need certain things to make ourself happy, but when we have them it turn out those things do not make us happy. Do only thing they do is make us more likely to successfully reproduce. Hence the desire for more money doesn’t make you happy, but it does insure higher social status with all it’s benefits and ultimately more likely that you will successfully reproduce. (i.e. you will be more desirable to the opposite sex, your children will have the best health care, schooling, food, clothes, security etc.)

  15. says

    The excess in our lives is amazing The material possessions we “need” so badly end up weighing us down because of all they require from us (money, time, care, transport, storage, etc.). I am amazed at how we, as humans, can accumulate so much in our lives over time. We work our lives to build our own prisons. The brick and mortar are the things we thought we couldn’t do without.

    I currently work in business, and the marketer’s job is to figure out how to make us, as consumers, feel incomplete without their product. And most of have bought that lie. I have been working on becoming a minimalist for about a year now, and I just now discovered this online community committed to the cause. All of you give me encouragement. We get bombarded by the advertisers trying to sell us hedonism; so being here, and talking about it helps remind me of what’s important. I need good reminders.

  16. tracysimplylivinginspain says

    I agree that it is a basic human desire to want more, but don’t you think what you desire is culturally influenced? We in the U.S. (and many first world countries) are, as you say, greatly influenced by advertising, peer pressure and even societal expectations. I remember reading a beautiful novel, La Romana by Alberto Moravia, the story of a prostitute in Rome. Her dream, which she repeated to herself often, was that her tiny, humble apartment be orderly and spotless. That was all she required to be happy, despite her rather sordid profession. When I read this, over 20 years ago, I was struck by the simplicity of her dream and how we Americans seem to be pressured to have bigger, at times unattainable dreams — that if only we believe in ourselves and work hard we will attain them, and if we don’t, we are somehow a failure, a loser. We don’t all want to be millionaires, we don’t all want to be famous. We should cultivate and value those small ideas of success. I think we would all be a little happier.

  17. Maezie says

    the richest 20% consume 76.6% of the world’s resources, while the world’s poorest 20% consume only 1.5%.???

    I agree with you on the majority except this which does nothing but incite class envy. So a poor person who goes to eat lunch at McDonalds is going to consume less resources than a rich person who eats at the local organic restaurant? Just because a wealthier person can afford the more expensive lunch is not a fair assesment in that they consume more. Poor people are more likely to consume disposables, some would consider that to be thrown away resources. And I get that maybe a wealthier person would have a larger home and therefore more resources are needed to keep it maintained. Just saying that there is a fine line here and to lump people into a category of how much they comsume by level of wealth is ridiculous. Geographically would be a better scale. A family in a 3rd world country is certainly going to comsume less than a family in any city US, no matter what that US family makes.

    • di says

      I was poor, but took good care of everything I had. I became very resourceful by sewing our own clothes and making do without. Nothing was disposable and all was passed on to others.

  18. Samantha says

    This post reminds me of the quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead. Though unlikely, it’s best not to lose complete faith in a global revolution “one day”. So many individuals feel the same moral ethics which truly could transform the world, but few ever gain the absolute & unconditional courage, strength or mobility to stand up for what they believe in, or necessarily possess the freedoms without life altering consequence to do so. A government, like any large group or apparent commanding post only has the power that it’s people/ members give to it.

  19. Andrew says

    If you don’t use it once a week sell it or pass it on, read a book then give it away, sell it, swap it or get used to iBooks and online borrowing. The last of your things will probably not be worth insuring so it’s more money for enjoying life. And if it’s not worth insuring you won’t worry about thieves.

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