The More You Want, the Poorer You Will Feel

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations , Lifehacker’s weekly dip in the pool of stoic wisdom and a guide to using its waters to meditate and improve your life.

This week’s selection belongs to the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger . He believes that being poor is a state of mind. You can control:

Not the one who has too little, but the one who yearns for more, is poor.

Letter II: On Discursive Reading, line 6.

What does it mean

Basically, being “poor” is not what you have, but what you desire, despite what you already have. The more you want, the poorer you feel, regardless of what you already possess. This quote from Seneca is actually a riff from a line from Epicurus who said, “Content poverty is a noble state.” Seneca explains that “really, if you are content, it is not poverty at all.” He goes on to say that it doesn’t matter how much you have if you spend all your time cursing what you don’t have, especially since it prevents you from hoping for future accomplishments.

What to take from there

Let’s not confuse what Seneca is saying here. He is not saying that poverty is not real. People have suffered in real poverty from the very beginning of civilization, desperately in need of something – be it food, water, shelter. Seneca is talking here about the general concept of poverty, about assigning himself the status of “poor”. He says that it is an act of desire, lust, that puts you in that state. The more you want, the more you feel that you are lacking, and the poorer you will be in your own mind.

I like to think of life as a drinking glass and water as the things you want and need in life. Happiness and satisfaction – what Seneca calls “enough” is when your glass is filled to the brim with water. However, the more you want, the larger your glass should be, which means that you will need more water to fill your glass and achieve happiness. Moreover, you will spend your life hating the fact that your glass is not full, although you could spend your energy looking for ways to fill it. On the other hand, if you have a small glass, very little water is required to fill it, and this makes it much easier to achieve this state of contentment.

At the very least, reevaluate your desires. Crop them realistically, prioritize them, and define your version of “enough,” which is what you really need to be happy. Stop complaining about your fate and focus on how you can get these things. Better yet, stop feeling so poor, stop wanting so much. After all, if you have nothing and need nothing, you have everything you need.

You can read all Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius for free here .


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