On the Shortness of Life – Part IV – Learning

by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

This is the fourth part of a five part series on Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.

Read Part I – FinitenessPart II – Protecting time and living in the presentPart III – Desire and life goals.

Of all the things that we spend time on, learning is arguably one of the most important. It contributes to our knowledge of everything around and within us, makes us better people, and therefore the world a better place to live in.

We are so lucky to live in an age where there is more information out there than we can possibly consume in a single lifetime. Never before in human history have we been so connected to each others’ thoughts, teachings and discoveries.

This freedom, to be able to learn about whatever we want, is one of the most precious gifts we have.

we are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all

Seneca emphasized the importance of learning from great masters, whose teachings were once exclusive to certain people is now free for everyone.

“None of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die. None of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours.”

Lessons that otherwise would have taken a lifetime to learn are now accessible to us at our fingertips. The only obstacle we face now is whether or not we are ready to receive them.

Of course, we’re still free to make out own mistakes. But for those who don’t want to, or can’t afford to, we can always learn from the past.

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own.”

If there’s one thing that living a minimalist lifestyle is good for, it’s to take away distractions so that we can spend more time on the things that matter.

Without the distraction of chasing material gain, we can devote our energies towards continuous learning – whether that means to travel, or to stay at home to read, or reflect on ourselves, or anything in between. Ultimately, learning all comes down to expanding our horizons and opening up to what this beautiful world has to offer.

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Appreciating absence – A key to happiness

by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

In our everyday lives, we tend to notice when something is off. Like when we’re feeling stressed because of work, or tired because there aren’t enough hours in the day, or that we don’t have enough money in our bank accounts to do all the things we want to do.

It’s easy to spot when we’re lacking something. When things aren’t going well, we tend to zoom in on all the good things that we want and don’t have, like fortune or fame, rather than all the things we don’t want, and don’t have.

When was the last time you stopped to appreciate that you’re not in pain? Or that you’re not terminally ill? Or that you don’t live in a war-torn country? Or that you’re not living on the streets? Or starving to death? Or any one of the million types of suffering that life can throw at us.

How often do we take time to notice when we’re not lacking something?

We crave for good things to happen to us, that’s natural. But much of the time, no news is actually good news. A life without much drama is actually a pretty good life.

taking the time to be grateful – for the bad and the good

It’s one of the secrets to happiness – to appreciate the absence of bad things as much as the presence of good things.

We can’t always get what we want, and many of us never will. But instead of concentrating on those few things, why not feel grateful for the almost infinite amount of things we don’t want in our lives, and are still lucky enough not to have, at least for now.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re living in a country with access to a computer, and the internet, which means that you are lucky enough to be living with a roof over your head, enough food to eat, and access to medical care, hopefully. If not, even without looking too hard, I’m sure there are still many things to be grateful for.

Things could change in the future. Who knows what will happen. But for now, let’s enjoy the present moment, when we’re lucky enough to have our health, or youth, or people who love us, or all three and more.

The ability to see, and appreciate, even just a few of the good things we have in life is key to being happy. The ability to still do that when life has dealt a mediocre hand, that’s a testament to our character.

 

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P.S. On the Shortness of Life series to continue soon!

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On the Shortness of Life – Part III – Desire and life goals

by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

This is the third part of a five part series on Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. Read Part I – FinitenessPart II – Protecting time and living in the present.

 

3. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire

What do we want in life? How do we balance what we want to have and what we want to do in life? Are desires and goals the same thing, or are they opposite from each other?

My attempt to answer these questions could last a lifetime. There are plenty of things that I want to have, and many more things that I want to do. Thinking deeply about them is a good start.

“So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”

It takes a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual effort to get what we want. We daydream about buying the hottest new thing, and if we’re lucky, and work hard enough, we can afford to buy it. But by the time we get around to it, we’ve already moved on to desiring the next biggest thing, and the enjoyment that we were supposed to get from getting the things we want never lives up to the fantasy.

That’s why I have committed to a minimalist lifestyle (as much as I can). The list of things I want to own is a little different from most people. I don’t want a huge house, brand name clothes or an expensive car (I don’t even like to drive). So I don’t work to earn money for these things.

Yes, I want to live a fairly comfortable lifestyle, but I would feel guilty about indulging in too many luxuries. It feels wasteful and selfish to me. I decided a long time ago that I want to spend my life on things that are important to me, not what my culture, society, or neighbours think is important.

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire

There are things that almost everyone is scared of – disease, old age, and death to name a few. We are human after all, it’s perfectly normal to not want to think about suffering, to block out a future of which we cannot change, and to fear the unknown.

But in our desires, we act like everything can last forever. If all of us wanted the biggest, latest, fastest stuff, we would end up destroying our environment (more quickly than we are now) and the cruel irony is that everyone will wind up with nothing.

Just because someone has a lot of things, it doesn’t mean that they’ve lived. Indeed, if the cost of obtaining a huge house, lots of money and a fancy sports car was one’s health, relationships and spiritual fulfilment, you could argue that they haven’t really lived at all.

So when it comes to things I want to have, it isn’t too difficult to see the easiest way to be happy is to not desire too much, or at least, desire things we can’t have.

But, when it comes to things I want to do, that’s a whole different story. There is just so much that I want to do in one lifetime I can hardly see myself being able to accomplish it all. And what if I don’t? Will I be unhappy about it? Will I regret it?

“So you must not think that a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not  have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.”

You can even travel the world, but unless you’ve learned things about people, about other cultures, lessons that made you a better person, more understanding and open, then you may as well have stayed at home.

In the same way, you can achieve a lot of things in life – it seems almost anyone can earn a million dollars these days – but if they don’t have any meaning, if they don’t make us, or anyone else happy, then what’s the point? If you’re going to spend your precious time on doing stuff, well then it better be bloody worth it.

So what have we learned? Wanting too much leads to unhappiness because we can’t have everything. Trying to do too much can also lead to unhappiness because there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to.

But there is a way. If we pick and choose our desires and goals carefully, then surely happiness can be found where they align the most. Can it not?

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On the Shortness of Life – Part II – Protecting time and living in the present

-by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

This Part II of a five part series about the stoic philosopher Seneca’s work, On the Shortness of Life, read Part I – Finiteness.

2. the whole future lies in uncertainty live immediately

Of all the things we have, time is arguably the most precious.

There is nothing else in which we are only given a set amount of it. However much we have, we  would never know until the end, and no matter what we do or who we are, we can never earn, gain or buy a single second more of it.

And yet, within this mysterious amount of time that we given, we’re supposed to achieve so much. Or, at least, so we want to. Which is understandable – what kind of life would we have if we didn’t aspire to travel the world, write a novel, fall in love, raise a family, do fulfilling work, learn a language, run, dance, sing, paint, or do any one of the amazing opportunities life has to offer us?

But how much of your time is really yours? How much of it is spent doing the things that you want, that mean a lot to you, as opposed to what other people want you to do, or worse still, what you think others expect of you?

In other words, are you spending enough time pleasing yourself, instead of others? For me, I know I have a lot to work on here. Seneca points out what we all ought to know:

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which is right to be stingy.”

Of all the things we are possessive about – money, land, partners, status, possessions… the one thing we hardly think twice about – time – is what we should be most protective of.

We let others encroach on our schedules, making us do things that we don’t want to do, or making us feel ‘obliged’ to do it, as if we don’t have a choice.

“Call to mind when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you had planned; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face wore a natural expression; when your mind was undisturbed.”

I admit I haven’t had many days like this, but they sound ideal to me. There are a lot of tough questions being asked here, and it’s easy to consider them and then not do anything about it. Most people might think it’s fine to spend time winding down watching three hours of TV after a long day of work, but if that means that we don’t have time to do the things we really care about, then maybe it’s the amount of time we spend at work we need to fix.

I’m certainly not perfect, so I don’t have all of the answers. I still can’t believe it’s my birthday in just two weeks – where did the time go? It feels like I’ve let an entire year slip by me. How many do I have left? No idea. How much time in the last year did I spend doing the kind of things I wanted to do? Not enough.

If there’s one resolution I want to make for the rest of this year, or for the rest of my life for that matter, it would be to better protect my time.

the whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately

So let’s say we learn to guard our time better – now what? This isn’t just about other people. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Yes, we should spend time on ourselves, but how much of the time we’re lucky to have for ourselves (or for the people and things we love) is wasted?

How much of it was spent procrastinating, putting off things that would have otherwise been fulfilling, for the sake of ‘relaxing’ or just out of pure laziness? Seneca said,

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future”

Procrastination isn’t just de-prioritising the task you have in mind, it’s de-prioritising your whole life.

On top of that, we humans tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the past and the future. It’s natural for us to go over our regrets, or worry about things to come. But each minute wasted thinking about the things you have or haven’t done, or things that may or may not happen yet, is a minute squandered.

“Life is divided into three periods, past present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. [..] In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time.”

Life is too short to mourn over things that cannot be changed. As long as you did your best at the time, then you can’t have any regrets about it. And every minute spent worrying about the future, which by nature is unpredictable, is just using up what precious time and energy you have left to actually do something about it.

Whenever I’m in danger of worrying too much, I repeat to myself, Time is the most valuable thing I have – live in the present moment and savour every moment of it.” In good times or bad, it’s a reminder of how lucky I am to be alive.

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On the Shortness of Life – Part I – Finiteness

by Jessica Dang rss | t f | g+

On the Shortness of Life is a moral essay written by Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher who lived between 4BC – 65AD. In his letter to his friend Paulinus, he lays out Stoic principles that have lasted centuries in teaching us about the value of life itself.

1. life is long if you know how to use it

 

Inspired by this essay, I have written a series of posts on my interpretations on the different themes that occur in his writing (Parts II-V to be published). Even if you haven’t heard of the Stoics before, in just a few short pages, a lifetime of lessons can be learned.

life is long if you know how to use it

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”

Seneca introduces the contradictory life lead by most men, in that it is a common belief that the human lifespan isn’t long enough to achieve everything we want to do. Yet, we squander so much of it on things that don’t matter, or don’t contribute to the things that we want to achieve in the first place.

If only we could learn how to use time more appropriately, perhaps then we wouldn’t feel that it is too short, but instead it is a brilliant miracle that we have even the few years that we are given.

“Just as there is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle.”

There will never be enough time. We will always find ways to fill up whatever we were given. Even on a daily basis, whether we have an hour to do something, or 30 minutes, we are very capable of using up whatever time we’re given to achieve the same thing.

From my own experience, I can easily find ways to put something off for entire weeks or months, and yet when it comes to the deadline, I manage to do finish it all in one day. Why did I not just take a single day to do it?

Because, despite knowing that my time is finite, for some reason I choose to live as if it’ll last forever. Much of my time is spent at my desk job not being present in the moment, or spent being idle, and ultimately not contributing to my one amazing thing.

Like most people, I have a bucket list, which I’m working on, but I still see myself putting things off way into the future, even though I don’t even know if I’ll be alive five or ten years from now.

I’m not the only one. Life can be a difficult thing to figure out. Seneca thought so too.

“Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man, yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.”

When we’re asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” we tend to answer with our job titles. Hundreds of years of social conditioning has taught us to. But our one chance to walk this earth isn’t for working.

Distracted by the mundane interruptions of daily life, we forget our main purpose. It’s simply to live.

We don’t have to do something huge and exciting every day to ‘live’. We all have commitments and we’re constrained to an extent by society and the reality of having to earn a living, or take care of those who rely on us. But the very least one could do is to enjoy each and every day that we are still breathing, each day that we have above ground, where we can smell the delicious scent of coffee and feel the sunlight on our cheeks.

The biggest regret I could have is to reach the end of my life, whenever that may be, and felt that I had not lived it fully.

Even if it takes a lifetime to learn how to live, the best (and only) thing you could do is to spend it trying.

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Zen in a lotus flower

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1. A beautiful lotus flower blooms from a muddy pond. 

2. A gardener who wants to grow flowers must also tend to weeds.

Lotus in Mud | Jessica Dang

 

These are lessons we can learn about cycles of suffering and happiness in our lives.

1. We usually think of mud and weeds as something to be discarded, dirty, a waste. But looks can be deceiving.

Yes, mud can be ugly. But from it something as beautiful as a lotus flower can grow.

In the same way, suffering gives birth to happiness.

Without suffering, we can’t realise how happy we are, or can be.

If we’re lucky to go through our whole lives without an ounce pain, we would never know how blessed we are.

Far from being a waste, just like how mud is a source of life, suffering is a source of happiness.

2. You are the gardener of your mind and body.

To take care of yourself, you need to pay as much attention to the weeds as you do the flowers. It isn’t enough to indulge yourself in what you know and like, you must work hard to get rid of the poisons and bad habits that creep into your life.

The things that make you unhappy, you need to tend to those weeds too.

Somehow you’ll find a way to put them back into the dirt, and let them become the mud from which your happiness blooms.

 
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Zen in a toothache

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Kenchō-ji Gardens | Jessica Dang | Minimal Student

What good can come from a mere toothache?

As I have recently experienced, there are a few life lessons to be learned from a small (yet extremely painful) toothache.

 

A few summers back, when I stayed in Plum Village, the monastary of the famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh, there was one day when he made us imagine that we had woken up in the middle of the night with a very painful toothache.
 

Since the dentist wouldn’t be open until the morning, most people would be counting down the hours until it could be treated, all the while hoping that the pain would go down, or go away.

 

We live most of our lives without physical pain like this. Even right now, unless you have a broken arm or leg, or any other major chronic aches or pains, you spend most of your life in relatively good physical health.

 

At the time, I listened carefully to the lesson, but never did I dream that this scenario would actually happen to me.

 

About two weeks ago, I woke up one night from a sharp pain in my head. It wasn’t a migrane, as I had thought, but instead the premolar on the left side of my top jaw was throbbing pretty hard. I tried to sleep it off, but the pain didn’t go away. I tried to ignore it, but the pain was so sharp, and constant, that it couldn’t stop thinking about it.

 

During the last few weeks, I walked, worked, and slept with a winced expression on my face as I tried to put up with this horrible and constant physical pain. I booked an appointment to see a dentist, but the nearest available appointment isn’t for a few weeks yet. In the meantime, I just have to take some painkillers and deal with it.

 

The good news is that there is a bright side to all of this. Well, at least I searched long and hard for one because I absolutely forbid myself to go through something like this without gaining anything good from it. One day, I remembered Thay’s lesson on learning from my pain.

 

An important lesson about pain

The experience of having a pain that is strong enough to take over your life, and distract you from doing anything else is not something that can be easily understood until you go through it yourself.

 

I learned this lesson the hard way, but since doing so, I could imagine that the hard way is one of the only ways to learn it.

 

I genuninely hope that most people do not experience a pain like that, but the bright side for those who do is that, in the end, you will know how to be so damn grateful for not having any pain.

 

Kenchō-ji Gardens | Jessica Dang | Minimal Student

 

Thich Nhat Hanh taught me that sometimes we need some pain in our lives to give us a basis to compare against, so that we may be grateful for what we have right now.

 

People who never go through any pain don’t know any different, and so may not appreciate what they have as much as somebody who lost their health. If you are lucky enough to gain it back, then you feel like you’re given a second chance to appreciate what you have.

 

When we are mindful of the good things we have in life, we are aware of how lucky we are, and we feel good about ourselves. In this case, happiness is born from pain. So pain isn’t always a bad thing.

 

Now, I’m not saying that a toothache really compares to some of the really bad things that can happen to your health. But now that I’ve experienced something as painful as this, I’m reminded that even if there are some difficult things going on in life, at least when I am not in pain, I can be grateful for that.

Balancing Work Life With A Minimalist Life

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One of the biggest life questions that I’ve been battling with lately is how to balance work life – and everything that it comes with – with a minimalist lifestyle.

Can you have it all?

Since I was a kid, I have been extremely ambitious. I daydreamed about having a successful career. I would climb the corporate ladder, and the only glass I would encounter wouldn’t be a metaphorical celiing, but the full length windows to my corner office overlooking the city.

I imagined myself making ridiculous amounts of cash, buying a big house and getting VIP access to the coolest places.

The ambitious person inside of me still wants that.

The minimalist in me sees how fruitless it all is in the end.

The world of work feeds our desires, always making us want more. More money, more stuff, more status.

Since starting my corporate career a few months ago, I’ve found myself falling into this trap. It’s contagious, and I’m only human. Now that I have my own apartment and more stuff than I need, am I really happy?

A big part of me misses the time when I used to travel the world with my trusty suitcase which held all of my life possessions. Every day was an adventure. Now, every day is the same as yesterday.

Over the last few months, I’ve been so damn close to packing it all in and getting back onto the road, forgetting all of the reasons why I got off it in the first place.

There were so many times on the road that I would go back to my old daydreams. I decided that it was time to put my aimless wanderings on hold and finally settle down with a challenging job that would pay for my own apartment. For the longest time, I wanted a place that I could call home.

Is there a way to balance our ambitions, to have a ‘successful’ career, without losing our contentment with what we already have and getting sucked into a materialist lifestyle?

Part of the answer is finding a job that you love, that you’re good at, and that pays well. Unfortunately, this is a bit too idealistic for most people.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who have well paying jobs that they love, and don’t squander their money on useless stuff. The main problem is that when work is such a drag, saving up to buy something nice is all that you have to look forward to. A treat for all your hard work…

…and we’re going in circles, back to square one.

I don’t have the answers to this one. Yet.

This is something I’m going to have to learn the hard way. Any suggestions?

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What I learned from 365 days of doing the 7 minute workout

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oct13

On October 2nd 2013, I downloaded an app on my iPhone called ‘Seven‘. It was a free app that guides you to doing a workout that lasts approximately seven minutes, which includes exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, squats, and lunges, amongst others, without the use of any equipment, except a wall and a chair.

The exercises make you use most of your core muscles of your entire body within just a few minutes. The aim is to do the workout at least once per day, every day.

7-minute-workout

If you miss a day, you lose a ‘life’ (represented by a heart in this app) and you only get three of them per calendar month. The point in this is to keep a high level consistency by doing it almost every day throughout the month.

Apps like these were featured in The New York Times and have since become a dime a dozen from their popularity. It started out as a fad, but it became something I took quite seriously after a few weeks.

If you ask me why I started doing this, I wouldn’t really be able to go give you a good answer. I suppose it was because, like most apps, I just wanted to give it a go. But, if you asked me why I kept it up for 365 days, I can give you a much better answer.

photo 5

It’s only seven minutes a day. Seven minutes. It’s not much if you really think about it. It’s probably the amount of time you take to scroll through Facebook, wait in line at the supermarket, or make a cup of tea.

There are 1,440 minutes in a day. Seven of those make up less than half of one per cent of it.

The argument is that if you can’t even find that much time to do a short workout, and keep your body in shape, then you’ve got your priorities mixed up.

When I first started, I didn’t think I could keep it up for a month, let alone for a year. However, I’ve always believed that my body and health is one of the most important things to me because without it I wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

So, it was that thought that kept me going. What else could be so important that I couldn’t give <0.5% of my day to keeping fit?

I had no excuses.

365+ days

365+ days

In the year that I’ve started this workout, I’ve moved several times across the world. I started it in Kochi, Japan, where I lived at my other half’s house, then moved to my own apartment in Tokyo for a few months, then back to Kochi, then back to my parent’s house in Kent in England, then I stayed in my brother’s dorm in Leeds, then moved to my own place in Manchester. In between, I’ve stayed in quite a few different hotels and hostels as well.

I can proudly say, even after all of this moving around, I never missed a single workout.

After about a month, it became a staple part of my day. I simply couldn’t not do it. It was the only part of my day that was consistent during this tumultuous year with all of the moving around I did.

I usually did it in the morning, straight after waking up and splashing my face with water. It woke my body up and prepared me mentally for the day. I would either do it mindfully in silence, or play loud music and get myself pumped up for whatever I had to get done that day.

On the days I didn’t have time to do it in the morning, or when I had flights etc. that messed up my schedule, I would find another time to do it during the day, but I could feel the difference having missed it in the morning. I would be much more sluggish, and achy in some places.

I wish I could include some sort of dramatic ‘before and after’ photos of myself a year ago compared to now, but I don’t have any. I’ve never really had a problem with my weight, and the truth is, I’m sorry to say, this is not a weight loss app. Seven minutes is still only seven minutes, not a magic formula to lose weight. It has never advertised itself as such, so don’t be disappointed if you try it out for that reason.

What it is for is to ensure that for most days, you’ve done at least one thing good for your health. Even if you didn’t find time to go to the gym that day, or you ate an extra piece of chocolate, at least you can go to bed that day knowing that you did one thing good for you.

It’s been a long journey. There were days when I could barely pull myself together to do it, and there were days when I was ready to go by 6am. It hasn’t been easy, but I don’t plan to stop anytime soon.

Why don’t you try giving it a go?

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Let go of your most toxic habit

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Dandelion-Seeding-2560x1600

Whether it’s money, possessions, body type, career, status, fame or fortune, most of us find ourselves doing it almost everyday – comparing ourselves to others.

We see someone else with more or better X, or Y than us, and we feel less of a person because compared to them, we don’t stack up.

It’s something that we don’t usually think of as a ‘toxic habit’, but it fits all the definitions. It’s something that you do continuously, usually without thinking, and is bad for you.

Why? Because while we’re busy looking at how much better someone else has done, we’re not seeing our own accomplishments. We forget to be content with what we already have. It’s one of the most poisonous things you can do to yourself.

Living a minimalist lifestyle isn’t just about decluttering your house, or how to roll your clothes up efficiently so that you can backpack around the world, it’s about so much more than that.

It’s a way of living a life where you are happy with what you have. A big part of this minimalist philosophy is to try to not compare yourself to other people’s measure of success, and find a way to live that means you are happy.

I emphasise try because nobody is perfect. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves, and sometimes comparing ourselves to people who we admire might help us become better people.

Seeing good traits in others and aspiring to be more like them, such as being more honest, or more adventurous, or having a healthier lifestyle is fine. It’s comparing material possessions that is the most toxic, because this is the universal truth:

There will always be someone with more than you.

Even the richest person on Earth lacks something you have. Always reaching out for more stuff that is ultimately meaningless will only lead to constant dissatisfaction. You will never have enough. So stop comparing your life to other people’s, and start living your own.

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