"A man's wealth is measured by what he doesn't need." -Thoreau
The longest that I have ever spent in the woods was an entire week back in college. My best friend and I decided to hike the 77 miles of the Foothills Trail in South Carolina without a resupply. We had only the gear that we could carry on our backs and any food or water that we brought or could gather along the way. The experience was rewarding in the most unexpected of ways. Without distractions like cell phones, TVs, social gatherings, or computers, time seemed to slow down and the natural world opened up. By forgoing so called 'material pleasures' we had opened a portal into the richest treasure trove available to humanity--imagination and observation.
At one point or another we have all had to do without, whether that was during a long backpacking trip or on an extended vacation. A period of time where you made less money or intentionally went without something. Sometimes these periods felt agonizing, but other times they felt liberating. Paradoxically, people often reflect on their younger years as the most enchanted times of their lives, when they had the least amount of material possessions and the most amount of free time.
As I write this I can see my infant daughter on the floor of our living room, spending countless hours entertained by one or two simple toys. Yet, as we age, we tend to get more and more voracious for material things. Even more specifically, for the things that other people possess and we do not. I can already see it in my daughter as she constantly reaches for the objects that I have in my own hands in favor of the ones in her own.
Humans have probably always been a little object-obsessed. We are, after all, the great crafters of tools needed for our survival and pleasure. But not all cultures are as obsessed as our own. This is in large part due to the importance that we place on material wealth and the ease with which things can be attained (Thanks, Amazon!). The result is a breeding ground of comparing ourselves to others, wanting what they have, and then promptly getting bored once we have it. The English language seems to have evolved to favor objects as well. Six out of every seven words in the dictionary is a noun. Contrast that to the Navajo (originally a group of nomadic herders) whose language is made entirely of verbs.
While there is no direct correlation between happiness and wealth, it seems obvious that by simplifying our needs we can free ourselves from the cognitive burdens that usually accompany material gain. The Greek and Roman Stoics had an ingenious way of accomplishing this. The Stoics were in no way 'anti-wealth' (The Stoic Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome and the Stoic Marcus Aurelius was the freaking Emperor!) but they made a regular habit of 'practicing' poverty. For one week every month they would live on the cheapest of fare and dress in the simplest of clothes, all the while asking themselves 'is this the condition that I so feared?' Essentially, by giving up their wealth they inoculated themselves from its hold on their psyche and its influence on their comfort and happiness.
I would suggest that now, more than ever, we should also practice poverty and simplicity. We could all work on being happier with less. Putting our intent on the internal motivators that bring us life, free from the external demands of our culture. When we simplify our needs, we actually expand our world. Not the other way around. A wealthy life is one lived free from the artificial constraints that we have allowed to bind us. We all possess the key to unlock them.