Curating our digital influences

When I was 16, I got paid £3.33 an hour in my first job. And it felt great. I was the envy of my friends at school – they all got paid at least 10p an hour less. I could save up for computer games quicker. I was rich… RICH!

I mean… obviously I wasn’t objectively rich. But I did feel pretty good about myself. I was comparing myself to those in my frame of reference – my friends – and coming out on top. I could have aspired to more, but my social network (an ‘IRL’ social network, way before Facebook) set my expectations and ideas around what I could and should be aspiring to. For better or for worse, earning more than them made me feel good about myself. They were my reference group, and I was top dog.

The idea that those around us act as a motivator for our goals is nothing new. The phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ reflects this. It’s thought that the phrase comes from the title of a comic strip from The New York World, that told the long-standing struggle of a family to match the lifestyle of their neighbours, who were often discussed but never seen. In this example, the neighbours act as the reference group.

The economist Juliet Schor refers to these reference groups in her article, ‘Why Americans want so much more than they need.’ She points out that in the distant past, our reference groups were small and neighbourhood-based. We could only compare ourselves to others in our physical proximity, such as our own village or group of streets.

As urbanisation increased, we began to mix more with people from different classes – at work, and in the street – making the lives of others more visible to everyone, and thus increasing our reference groups, and levels of desire. Even then, though, our frame of reference would likely be mostly influenced by our neighbours, family, co-workers and boss.

In the last century, our reference groups exploded as a result of our exposure to media – television, and more recently, social media. Now we live with instant and pervasive access to a vast digital reference group, who may be living a life vastly different to our own. They can be in a different country, culture, context that is only vaguely comparable to each other, or have a level of privilege that we don’t. And not only that, but the way that social media works means that their life can be edited to a level of unattainable perfection, passed off as their daily reality.

An explosion of comparison

Schor uses the phrase ‘competitive consumption’ to outline the phenomena of buying things because of social pressures, but the implications for networked digital reference groups go much further than what we buy. Nowadays, we can compare our homes, our clothes, our cars, our lifestyles, but also our experiences, our bodies, our sexiness, and our happiness to millions of people without even leaving our home. Rather than just ‘competitive consumption’, networked reference groups have in fact amplified our level of competitiveness and comparison in all aspects of our life. And this very connectedness increases our awareness of what we don’t have, bringing it into our hands and into our homes, leaving a trail of warped aspirations and increased dissatisfaction as it goes.

Anecdotally, many of us can identify with social media making us feel frustrated and discontented. Stories about this appear in the press from time to time, discussing Instagram’s effect on mental health, for example. But research backs up the ‘why’ behind it: past a point where our needs are covered, it’s actually our level of aspiration that affects our level of happiness, rather than what we actually have. In other words – we won’t become automatically happier if we become richer, fitter or more successful; we will only become happier if we eventually stop wanting even more. 

Admittedly, another way to look at this issue would be to argue in favour of aspiration as a driving factor in our progress – as something that results in us setting goals that take us forward. That’s true, but there are two things to take into account here: 1) the goals need to be set mindfully, with intention, and regularly reassessed and 2) they need to be achievable, because goals that are unrealistic result in negative feelings of stress and anxiety without the pay-off of a reward. But as experiences in the digital world can so easily lead us from one place to another in just a few clicks, if we aren’t careful about the media we are consuming, we can quickly get caught up in a space that doesn’t work for us.

So what can we do about it? 

Mindful browsing

One way is to be more conscious about the digital reference group we want to create. Although we need to be able to accept that some people will have more than us in life, it’s not healthy for us to be bombarded with things that are out of our reach on a regular basis. Taking some steps to reduce the number of unreachable aspirational cues around us will never completely eliminate them from our lives, but it might be able to reduce them to a level that feels like less of a daily onslaught. And if we take the time to develop a digital world that actually helps us to create the life we want to create in a way that is realistic, attainable and supportive; it can be an asset.

I’ve recently given my own digital space a tidy up. For me, that meant taking stock of the app that I use most – Instagram – and supplementing it with other browsable content that works better for me, such as on Reddit. This has meant steering away from Instagram’s suggestions for me, and choosing my own direction instead. 

For this, I took out a pen and paper, and thought about the things I’d like to nurture in my life, and how to support that with my digital stimuli. That’s lead to me following accounts and groups talking about topics like minimalism, degrowth, and anti-work; yoga accounts focused on body positivity rather than ‘wow’ photos; and local cultural and community ventures. For me, this has removed an extended and unproductive reference group from my life, and replaced it with a range of digital content that sets my mind off in a very different direction when I come across it. 

So – what’s the digital world that can support your real life? 

Shh! Don’t talk about degrowth

As COP26 draws to a close, politicians from around the world continue to push their own agendas. From the UK government’s doubtful claims about huge successes, to the Australian government’s lacklustre attempt to greenwash their way through, the aim to show climate action whilst not taking anywhere near enough of a radical approach is widespread. To paraphrase Greta Thunberg, the ‘blah blah blah’ continues apace.

All of this is underpinned by a distinct lack of desire to face up to what we might need – a significant overhaul of the way our entire economic system is based.

Although used copiously, the idea of ‘sustainable growth’ is, in itself, an oxymoron. In a planet of limited resources, growth can simply not continue forevermore. Although there are plenty of economists backing this up, it doesn’t take an expert opinion to understand it. In fact, anyone should be able to understand that the more we take, the more we make, and the more we consume; the less of a chance we have of survival.

Degrowth is a concept that is gaining ground amongst those deeply-embedded in our planet’s future, but it’s still not broken through sufficiently into the public consciousness as a desirable way forward. 

The basic concept behind degrowth is that we can actually reduce the size of our economy (and environmental impact in the process) while increasing human wellbeing. In other words, instead of having to increase the size of the economic ‘pie’, if we were to share that pie more fairly – even if it were smaller than it is now – we’d be able to all live better. At the moment, too much of said pie is rotting away in huge stashes owned by the richest among us. In fact, according to Oxfam, 1% of people have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people.

There is a huge amount of research demonstrating that GDP is not a good proxy for human wellbeing, especially past a certain point. And the reasoning behind that is simple – the gross product of a country might show the entirety of the economic activity, but it doesn’t mean it’s spent well. Examples from around the world abound whereby huge GDP does not translate into better living standards – think of the classic example of the US without healthcare or welfare, for example; compared to countries like Spain and Portugal which have a lower GDP but perform better on human wellbeing indices. You can hear more about degrowth in this fascinating podcast featuring economist Jason Hickel.

The problem is, as a society, we are still conditioned to see growth as good. Open any newspaper – even left-leaning ‘progressives’ like The Guardian, and you’ll see economic growth still offered up as an indicator of government success. The simplicity of a number – positive is good, negative is bad – continues to pervade. Therefore governments strive to deliver economic growth endlessly, purporting that it is possible to do so in a sustainable way, without ever being able to specify how that sustainability will logically be possible.

Why is this? Here are a couple of major reasons.

One is that the opposite of capitalist economic growth is, in our minds, a recession. A recession implies an absence of growth (or a loss of activity) in an economy that is only set up to work when growth is happening. There is then a logic that runs in the mind of the citizen that economic shrinkage will lead to lower living standards for all because the money is going to ‘run out’. Therefore economic growth, in the mind of the public, continues to be a hallmark of whether a government is working or not. And yet if the Covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that governments actually do have the opportunity to suddenly conjure up money they said they didn’t have in order to deliver public spending (think furlough), even when growth is not happening. 

Another reason is the fear around the idea of redistribution – which sounds specifically like communism, in other words, something many people have roundly decided does not work. Redistribution in this circumstance also, by default, means taxes for the rich; a social justice issue which is hard to fight for when the rich have so much control over whether governments can rise or fall. In other words, a government that aims for degrowth is putting themselves right in the firing line of those with vested interests in maintaining their wealth.

But it is time for the degrowth agenda to start seeping its way into the public consciousness. Without it, the flawed idea of infinite growth that is somehow sustainable and equitable for all will continue to spread. The question is, when will we find a politician with the balls to stand up for it?

What is ‘growthism’?

‘Growthism’ is a term for society’s pervading belief that growth – primarily economic growth – is essential. This is problematic because our planetary resources are not growing, and yet growthist attitudes mean that we are still planning on plundering it forever. Until we recognise the inherent flaws in our society – the impossibility of never-ending growth – we’ll never be able to change it. Articulating this in words is the first step.

Never-ending growth – an easy sell

Every few years in a democracy, we come together to decide who will lead our country into the future. 

It’s a mix of looking back on people’s track records, and looking forwards by judging candidates on the trustworthiness of their promises. And, underlying all these promises, lies growthism.

At the heart of most elections is the economy. And at the heart of how we measure its success is one factor – growth.

‘Growth’ is perfect fodder for news outlets. Headlines proclaiming that ‘the economy grew by 5%’ or ‘GDP crashed by 7%’ quantify performance in ways that are easy to understand. Instead of a complex analysis of complex systems, we can take an almost childlike approach to economics by saying that more is good and less is bad. Easy. Simple. Obvious. Unquestionable.

And yet, the simplicity of GDP is precisely its downfall. It belies the complexity of the economic systems we live in. Although the idea that national economic growth will help to solve all our societal problems is ingrained in our collective consciousness, it is full of flaws. 

As attractive as it is to think that we don’t need to raise taxes, we simply need to create more wealth in order to fix everything, it is almost utopian. The pervasiveness of growthism is so counter-intuitive that we don’t even consider how a country could possibly be happier or healthier without an ever-growing economy.

But we need to.

Kate Raworth, in her book ‘Doughnut Economics’, paints a stark picture of this:

‘Over the past three decades, the majority of workers across high-income countries have seen their wages barely increase, flatline, or even fall while executive pay has ballooned. In the UK, GDP has grown far faster than the average worker’s wages since 1980, and the wage gap has widened too, resulting in the average worker earning 25% less than they otherwise would have done by 2010.61 In the US, the years 2002–12 have been dubbed ‘the lost decade for wages’: while the economy’s productivity grew by 30%, wages for the bottom 70% of workers were stagnant or in decline.’

How can this happen? There are many answers – but they all come down to one conclusion: national economic growth does not automatically result in more wealth for all. That, of course, comes down to taxation and redistribution policies. The fallacy that we’ll all get more pie if we simply have a bigger pie is easily refuted when you show that someone else is just taking a bigger slice every time. 

The growthist fallacy

This fallacy is exactly what the term ‘growthism’ sets out to highlight. The idea that growth is the answer to all our problems, alongside the idea that it is possible to grow constantly and indefinitely without any repercussions on people or planet.

Fortunately, there are people who are starting to change this narrative, and it’s about time. Kate Raworth, the economist quoted above, being one; sharing models for alternatives to a constant upwards trajectory with her Doughnut Economy model. Andrew Yang, democratic politician, who is fighting for anti-growthist policies to become mainstream US politics. Organisations like Greenpeace, who are promoting alternatives to growth economies – such as circular economies where recycling and reuse take centre stage – are disrupting growthist narratives and showing another way.

These examples are important because they are slowly working to change the narrative around growth. Only by telling a different story will we be able to create the systemic change we need to build a better future for people and planet. For decades, growth has been unquestioned. But finally, the time to question it has come.

I’ll be following up with more posts on ‘growthism’ in the future so please share any comments below. 

The stories we’ve had enough of – Part 1

Stories have power. They help us to understand our world, simplifying complex concepts and assigning meaning to events in ways that help us make sense of the human condition. 

Key moments of a good story stand proud, working their way into our consciousness, indelibly marking themselves in our minds as memories of events we never even lived. As such, they become intertwined with our real memories, shaping the way we think and the decisions we make as we learn life lessons from what they tell us.

But we also tell stories to ourselves about our own life.

We are the narrators of the events that actually happen to us.

Even if what actually happened is factual, the way we choose to narrate it to ourselves is up to us. We choose the highs and lows we want to focus on, and formulate the moral lessons we can learn from them, too.

We can see this in the different ways that two people can have completely different perspectives on an event, a conversation, an argument. What actually happened is a fact. But the fact that one person can remember a conversation one way, and the other another, shows us the powers of internal narrative in action.

And then we have stories that are simply not good for us.

When I got divorced a year ago, I went under. I struggled to make any meaning from what had happened. How could someone treat me the way they did? How could they do the things they did? And – just as importantly – why did it all happen? 

Without answers, my mind couldn’t cope. I began drinking more and I became depressed. I felt bad about myself, rejected and unworthy. It crept into other areas of my life. I felt completely adrift, unable to make sense of what was happening in my life and why.

But perhaps most of all, I felt like a victim of circumstance. A person who had become haplessly intertwined in someone else’s messy and controlling behaviour. 

Eventually, I started searching for answers. I read books. I went to talks. I meditated. I asked friends for advice. I started looking for answers to my internal struggle outside of myself.

Suddenly, something clicked into place.

I finally recognised that I had actually been an active participant in the relationship, and that the sense of being simply ‘caught up’ in it could not be true – because I had been free to leave. I recognised that I could recognise my part in what happened without taking the blame for everything.

I was creating a new narrative for the story that had been playing in my mind. And it was changing my mood for the better.

For me, it was important to be able to recognise that I had, in fact, had a level of control over what had happened in my life at that point. I admitted to myself that I had been actively choosing to stay in that relationship even at a point where – deep down – I knew it was way past its sell-by-date. Looking at it in this way removed the sense of total victimisation I had been feeling, and enabled me to recast the story for myself as a learning experience – ‘remember, Adam, that you have the option to leave’.

The events hadn’t changed, but the story I told myself about it had.

Seeing it from a new perspective helped me to feel a sense of control over what had happened during that period of my life. It helped by calming my feeling that life could just sweep me along without any warning, and by instilling a feeling that I did, in fact, bear some responsibility. I wasn’t a victim of circumstance. I was someone who had made choices that could have been better – and will be next time around.

So what has this experience of retelling my story taught me?

That how we narrate our story can change not only how we see our past, but also how we’ll experience our future.

I’m going to keep working on this topic of ‘the stories we’ve had enough of’, so if you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

Easy steps to ethical shopping

‘Spend each pound as if it were a vote’. I saw a tweet (from @AnslowGwen) saying this the other day, and I loved it.

I thought it really brought to life the power that our spending decisions can have on shaping the world, especially in an era where many companies have more power over us than governments themselves.

But even though I enjoyed the immediacy of the idea, on reflection I realised that trying to make every decision an ethical one is exactly what made me switch off from the ethical shopping movement in the first place. Because frankly, it just seemed like an impossible task… so I’d give up before I started.

It’s extremely difficult to make consistently ethical shopping decisions whilst living in a system that is highly favourable to unethical business practices, such as low-paying factory work to keep prices low. Day-to-day, you might need to pick up some food from your local supermarket, and won’t always have access to the information you need to make ethical decisions. Hell, even buying shower gel can be a minefield when it comes to damaging the planet.

It’s a lot. 

There was a time in the past where this line of thinking stopped me from making any real effort to make sustainable shopping decisions. I’m naturally an ‘all or nothing’ kinda guy, and I thought it was just too difficult to shop ethically all the time, so I might as well not bother at all. I’d see some butt-ugly vegan boots and go back to the Nike store instead because my desire to have something that looked cool was greater than my desire to make a change to the system.

These days, my approach has kind of changed. And, I suppose, it reflects a bit more maturity in my thinking.

First up, although it can be appealing to go ‘all in’ on your principles, sometimes it’s enough to just take realistic and achievable steps.

Instead of making an ‘ethical rule’ – for example, to always buy sustainable fashion – perhaps it’s an ‘ethical target’ to try and buy sustainable fashion whenever it’s practical for you to do so.

The ‘past me’ would have said that’s a cop-out. My current me says hey – it’s a start. And by approaching it this way, I’ve found that the proportion of clothes I’m buying from ethical sellers is increasing over time. It’s becoming more natural for me. It’s becoming easier. I’m finding places I like over time. I’m finding apps I like (‘Good On You’ is my fave) that help me check a brand’s ethical credentials at the press of a button. I’m taking my favourite Levi’s to get patched up and saving the impact of a new pair of jeans being made. I’m buying my fruit and veg from the local greengrocer instead of a corporation. Basically, I don’t have to be so drastic and fit into the stereotypical ‘dreadlocked tie-dyed hippy’ mould to be more conscious about what I’m buying – I just take easier steps instead. And whilst some people might think that that’s not enough, it’s enough for me right now because it’s a way of life that I can realistically keep up in the long-term without constantly beating myself up at every turn.

Second comes ‘Enough Thinking’. When it comes to ethical consumerism, oftentimes the most ethical decision is to just buy less. That applies to planning your food shopping better, buying less clothes, taking less flights – all sorts of things. So if you’re struggling to find sustainable brands you want to buy, perhaps an easier way to make change happen is to simply check whether you need to buy so much stuff in the first place. Instead of automatically looking to buy new stuff just because I can, I’m starting with the thought, “Do I have enough already?”. Even better, my bank balance is thanking me for it, too.

Overall, it does still mean that I don’t ‘spend every pound like it’s a vote’, as honourable as that would be. But I’m certainly casting more positive votes than I used to – and that’s a start.

Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

Making meaning

There is so much we can distract ourselves with.

Quick fixes, temporary happiness, consumption in all of its forms.

Eating, drinking, buying, social media, sex. Easy pleasure, a temporary high, a chemical rush, a physical stimulus.

But they won’t provide meaning. And at the end of the day, that is what we’re left with when the high has died.

Exploring Enough in the new normality

Although I started this blog over a year ago, Coronavirus lockdown has been the catalyst for writing much more regularly. It makes sense, I had plenty of time on my hands – but still, I’m happy that I was able to put it to productive use.

But that begs the question – will I continue writing as much now that things are returning to normal (at least for the time being)? 

Well, so far the signs have been pointing to ‘no’. The last post I wrote was almost two weeks ago, and time’s flown. Since then, I’ve been easily filling all my spare time with activities – seeing friends, chilling in the park, yoga class, dates, walking. And it’s been wonderful. The return to social contact has been too much of a draw, and has trumped any desire to sit down and write. 

Until now, of course. 

For the last two weeks, just enjoying the return to social contact has been ‘enough’. It’s kept me entertained, laughing, thinking, and moving. And frankly, although it’s a cliché, those simple pleasures have been even more enjoyable than normal, because I’ve missed them so much. 

To a degree, I’ve experienced a real sense of apathy towards writing over this period. It’s a combination of having other immediately rewarding things to do, and the gorgeous warm weather that I love but always makes me sluggish. But I’ve also felt a niggling sense that writing the blog was just pointless – or, perhaps not as dramatic as that, but it was just not that worthwhile.

But over the last few days, something has started to creep in again. And it’s coming back to a theme that I think is right at the crux of this blog – purpose. Both in the sense of ‘the purpose of the blog’ and also ‘giving me a sense of purpose’. So here are some thoughts on why I write:

  • This blog really helps me think about what’s important to me in life. It gives me a space to be mindful of what I’m working towards and to sit back and reflect on why.
  • It also helps me produce something that – I hope – might make others think. And so, as well as the sense of purpose I get from work, the act of sharing my writing makes me feel like I’m making a contribution to our currently very messed-up world.

  • I really believe that we – as in, humans – are going to have to radically change our behaviour if we are going to stop the massive destruction of our planet. And that by focusing on ‘enough’, we can dramatically reduce our consumption.

  • I also believe that we can become happier by doing so – by shifting our targets towards ‘enough’ instead of a constant sense of wanting more. I definitely think that I personally have benefited from the pressure that’s been lifted once I started to shift my aspirations away from neverending accumulation. And it takes a shift in our thinking, to see living with less as an aspiration – not deprivation.

  • As I say regularly to people – I like to share the posts, but ultimately I get a lot out of writing my thoughts down, whether I share them or not.

So, I won’t beat myself up for taking time off – after all, this is something I do for enjoyment – but I will take a moment to reinforce to myself that writing this blog is good for me, and hopefully, by developing my thinking over time, good for others too. And the sense of purpose that brings makes it worth the effort, every time.

A little final note here, for accountability to myself – from now on, I will post twice a week. Once during the week, and once at the weekend. 

Facing up to my privilege

My friend Emily is one of those special people who can give constructive feedback without making you feel like shit.

We were WhatsApp-ing, and I was asking her what she thought of my posts. Amongst lots of feedback, was this:

“I don’t know the relevance of this, but I read something interesting about minimalism as an aesthetic being ‘a privilege’, and how only people who have money can afford to have minimal living spaces and declutter by getting rid of things they don’t use a lot – poor people hang onto things because they fear they might need it and won’t be able to buy it when they do.”

Of course, she did know the relevance, she was just softening the blow.

Bringing up privilege was something I needed. Of course, writing a blog about ‘learning to live with less’ is privileged – it comes from a starting point of having the option to have more than enough in the first place. 

Facing up to this privilege could make me squirm. What a self-indulgent pastime. Not only can I afford the time to write about my thoughts, but I’m writing about having too much. How the heart bleeds!

But face up to it I will.

It’s taken me a long time to start recognising my privilege. All four of my grandparents were refugees, and I always took a certain level of pride in my identity as someone who was ‘middle class but not really’. Someone who, despite having a financially comfortable upbringing, didn’t rely on inherited wealth and worked hard themselves to earn their own money. Someone who had the luxury of private education with the local elite, but was ‘grounded’ by parents who were ‘self-made’. 

So when the idea of ‘white privilege’ began to stream into the common consciousness, I railed against it – albeit privately. “How can people say I was privileged when I worked so hard to become successful?” I thought. “And anyway, my grandparents were white, but they were refugees, and my parents grew up with nothing.”

I think several things (at least) were happening here – all misguided. 

First up, I was scared that recognising my privilege would undermine my own achievements and – in a world where we are judged on our success – automatically detract from my own feelings of pride and self-worth. Not only is this misunderstanding the concept of privilege, but it’s also – somewhat egotistically – turning the focus back to me. Now I realise that recognising my privilege does not detract from my achievements, it’s simply part of the story, like it or not.

Second, I was seeing privilege as a binary concept – you either have it or you don’t – and failing to see that different types of privilege can exist at the same time, and that the existence of one does not automatically negate each other. I wasn’t recognising that white privilege can exist as well as the lack of privilege afforded to migrants of any colour, and many other types of power structures. And recognising my privilege doesn’t mean that others don’t have even more, either.

Third, I was partly co-opting my grandparents’ life experiences based on bloodline alone (like this guy is trying to do), when I really had an upbringing entirely unaffected by their refugee experience.

So what changed in my thinking? 

In the years since I have had the opportunity to widen the diversity of voices I interact with, and to see, read and hear things that have broadened my understanding. I’ve lived in different countries and seen how systems are in place that celebrate some and oppress others. I’ve begun to see a little more of the bigger picture. I’ve begun to better understand how we don’t actually live in a meritocracy, but in a world where the odds are stacked firmly in your favour, or against you. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it’s a start. 

So with that in mind, I’ll go back to Emily’s comment that Exploring Enough could be a blog with a privileged perspective. 

She is 100% right.

In many ways, Exploring Enough is ultimately a blog about privilege, and aimed at people with privilege. 

This isn’t something to deny, or to be ashamed of – it’s something to build on. Because in a world where resources are finite, we need to get better at sharing fairly. And if we want to avoid never-ending conflict, the people who currently hold privilege, power and resources need to learn to live happily with less. 

And that’s people just like me.

Photo: Bradford Grammar School – where I studied from 8-18

Reminding myself why I’m exploring enough

Recently I’ve had some doubts about this blog.

I’ve had some feedback that it’s all just obvious. Why would people want more than enough? Do we really need to tell people to stop overdoing things? Isn’t that a bit condescending?

It’s been plaguing me a bit. I was thinking about it just last night. Yeah, maybe it is a bit condescending. Maybe people are actually completely able to identify when they’ve done something enough, and stop before it tips into excess.

And then it hit me. If that were the case, the world would be a seriously different place.

Everywhere you look you can find examples of people not identifying ‘enough’ – and, as a result, not stopping when they reach it. We find it in people who damage their health through food, through drink, through too much sitting, or too much exercise. People who damage their mental health through too much social media, too much work, too much time in a bad marriage, or too much isolation. People who have so much stuff that they can no longer feel ‘at peace’ at home and need someone to come help them chuck it all out. And pretty much all of us are living in ways where we are consuming more stuff than our home – Earth – can sustain. I mean seriously, if everyone were able to live to ‘enough’ instead of being driven by a desire for more, we wouldn’t see war, greed or poverty. And if people were happy with having enough, we wouldn’t see such warped attempts to dominate and overpower, like we’ve seen these last few days.

The message is relevant.

So what is driving us to lose sight of enough? 

Well, for starters, a nagging little voice in our head, whispering to us that we haven’t got enough as we browse Amazon, decide to watch just one more episode on Netflix, or look in the fridge for another snack. And it can be tricksy. 

I think it’s driven by two things – fear of running out of something we need, and the pleasure we feel from obtaining what we’ve been craving. This isn’t a new idea, it’s Freud’s Pleasure Principle – that we are all driven by the instinct to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. 

But how does this apply when we’re pursuing things that actually aren’t good for us or the world around us? Or, as tends to be the case, when we are pursuing things that give us some pleasure but also have negative impacts that need to be factored in?

Well, in the case of studied addictions – such as alcohol – it’s thought that we have conditioned our brains to find pleasure in something (in this case drinking), and then that conditioned response becomes so strong that it is able to override other, rational desires to stop doing that thing that is harming us. 

This is a pretty simple example – after all, it’s pretty widely accepted that people with alcoholism aren’t in a great place. But when it comes to things that are less black and white, we simply aren’t good at stepping back and seeing our own behaviour for what it often is: learned behaviour, following patterns to which we’ve been conditioned, and often on autopilot. The pleasure that made us feel good when we first started to buy clothes we liked, for example, is still there even when we’ve already got more than enough clothes and it’s ruining our bank balance and our planet.

These are instinctive drives. They developed when humans lived in an age of scarcity, not an age of abundance. Where it was necessary to keep eating as much as possible because you didn’t know when more food would appear. But now humans – at least the privileged amongst us – aren’t living in an age of scarcity anymore. Many of us in the developed world are living in an age of abundance and convenience, but with that primitive human mindset deep down. It’s like our whole operating system has been updated, but we’ve only got apps that worked on the old one.

Because I’m working on this blog, I’m starting to catch myself more and more as I tend towards these ‘more than enough’ instincts. And it’s crazy how often it comes up. When I’m shopping for groceries. When I’m thinking about the clothes I want. When I think about posting on social media. It’s basically… all the time.

When I first started thinking about this, I thought – OK, so it seems right to start living with less, but that sounds kind of joyless – like a constant sense of deprivation. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to see what living towards ‘enough’ actually is – and it’s simply living with greater intention. Instead of feeling deprived, I feel more fulfilled because I’m increasingly less likely to look for something external to fill an emotional void. In identifying enough, I’m actually finding more joy. And yet, still, I need to keep reminding myself of that consciously in order to fight my tricksy subconscious.

So is it obvious that we should be stopping when we’ve got enough? Yeah, maybe.

But could we do with a reminder? Well, I certainly could, for one. 

So, for now, I’ll keep on exploring.

Photo by Jason Strull on Unsplash

Calling all idealists – it’s time to be proud

When Martin Luther King fought for racial equality, he was being idealistic.

When Florence Nightingale worked for better medical care, she was being idealistic.

When Malala Yousafzai protested against her education being taken, she was being idealistic.

But in the end, it turned out that these idealists were realists too. Because they all made change happen.

They all had their fair share of detractors. Hell, two of them were shot. And at the time, they were all ridiculed for ‘unrealistic’ views that were simply never going to happen.

Fast forward to 2020, and idealists are still objects of derision. 

Idealists are naive. Probably even a bit stupid. And those who have already given up on their ideals see them as self-important, holier-than-thou pricks; and call them out as ‘virtue-signallers’.

These insults are devastatingly effective, especially when paired with the standard takedown of “I’m not an idealist, I’m a realist” – a takedown that’s usually shorthand for “I’m doing something ethically questionable because it’s easier/it’s the done thing/it makes me rich.”

But idealism-realism is a false dichotomy, because the opposite of ‘ideal’ isn’t ‘real’. The opposite of ‘ideal’ is ‘bad’.

Taking it further, the opposite of having ideals is having a lack of ideals.

And a society without ideals is a society without aspirations beyond maintaining the status quo, however messed up it might be.

It’s time to reclaim idealism

Few idealists will make the level of change that Martin Luther King, Malala or Florence Nightingale made. But that doesn’t make their idealism any less important. It’s still vital, even on a small scale.

But it’s hard to stay idealistic. We get it beaten out of us, by a combination of disappointment with the world and judgment from others. It’s happened to me. I’ve used the phrase, ‘when I was young and idealistic’ on many occasions. It happens. I’m 36. I got weary.

But I’m going to stop using that phrase. Now. 

For now on, I’m proud to say I’m idealistic, because I still have ideals I believe in. 

I’m proud to say I’m idealistic, even if people think it makes me a ‘virtue-signalling’, holier-than-thou, self-important prick.

And I’m proud to say I’m idealistic because I’m not ready to give up on things I believe in just yet.

And if someone ‘accuses’ me of being idealistic, I’ll know what to say. I’ll ask,

“Yes I have ideals. Why the hell don’t you?”

And if that sounds idealistic, well… I guess it is.

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash