Most of us really need very little to get by on. I am not talking about the minimal to survive. I mean to live a pleasant and fulfilling life. We need healthy food, things for preparing food, a place to live, furniture, toiletries, cleaning supplies, clothes, maybe a computer. We need exercise, but at the very least that costs little more than a pair of running shoes and a piece of floor on which to do calisthenics. It certainly does not require expensive machines that you’ll use twice and forget about.
How is it, then, that people end up with so much stuff? Is it because more stuff makes us happy? Well, beyond basic needs, not really, although people seem to think so. Some people like to collect things. Others keep stuff around in case they might need it later. However, I think a lot of things that people buy, they neither need, nor really want.
Why do we think we need so many things? Advertising. Aggressive, manipulative advertising. Ads that make you think that you’ll be happier, or stronger, or better liked, or sexier, or you’ll be more powerful, or your life will be easy and carefree if only you buy this thing! The odd thing is that even though we brush this off consciously, somewhere in our minds, it sticks.
I quit watching TV when I was about 12. I’ll still catch the occasional show via DVDs from Netflix, but the commercials are just nauseating (and an annoying interruption) when I happen to see them at a bar, passing by someone watching, or whatever. The same goes for Internet ads. I’m astonished when I see them at a cybercafe or on a friend’s computer. I use Adblock, so I pretty much never see them any more. My desire to buy things has decreased enormously because of it. However, outright ads aren’t all of it.
As part of my Zen practice of trying to be more mindful of my, uh, state of mind, I’ve gained a sensitivity to the impulse to buy. When I feel it, it now sets off warning bells in my head. I stop, and think about why I want to buy whatever, and whether that’s really what my rational brain wants. Often, it is not. So, what besides ads triggers this impulse to buy? Blogs that review items. These include (and I won’t actually name or link them) blogs related to my smartphone, those related to useful gadgets to have around the house, etc. Browsing my Amazon.com recommendations is also dangerous. Catalogs and circulars of any kind are a bad idea. I don’t surf certain geek-related tech sites and I don’t browse brick-and-mortar stores to kill time (i.e. while waiting for someone). Basically, I’ve sworn off “tech porn” and “consumer porn” as I call them. It’s amazing how much stuff I don’t know I need until I see it.
There are ways to go a step further than avoiding ads. I use Freecycle periodically. It’s also possible to find things you really need for free or cheap on Craigslist. (Disclosure: I found my apartment, my car, and my wife on Craigslist.) The reverse is also true — it’s easy to get rid of stuff you don’t need on these sites. It’s tempting to sell those things, but ask yourself: is it worth your time to post, sell, and maybe ship those items, or is it worth more just to have them out of your space and your mind? Some things will be worth selling, but most will not. A couple of good sites on living simply and avoiding ads include the unfortunately-named Live Simple and Fravia’s reality cracking section. The latter can be a bit… off at times but it’s still chock full of goodness.