Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker’s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.Read more
This week’s selection comes from Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. He believes being poor is a state of mind. One you can control:
Letter II: On discursiveness in reading, line 6.
What It Means
Basically, being “poor” isn’t about what you have, it’s about what you desire in spite of what you already have. The more you want, the poorer you’ll feel, regardless of what you already possess. This quote from Seneca is actually a riff on a line from Epicurus, who said, “Contented poverty is an honourable estate.” Seneca explains that “Indeed, if it be contented, 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 that keeps you from being hopeful of future gains.
What to Take From It
Let’s not confuse what Seneca is saying here. He isn’t saying that poverty isn’t a real thing. People have suffered in real poverty since the dawn of civilisation, desperately in need of something – be it food, water, shelter and so on. What Seneca is talking about here is the general concept of poverty, of assigning ourselves as “poor”. He’s saying it’s the act of wanting, the coveting, that puts you in that state of mind. The more you want, the more you feel like you’re missing, and the poorer you’ll 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 contentedness – what Seneca calls “enough” – is when your glass is filled to the brim with water. The more you want, however, the larger your glass has to be, and that means it will take you more water to fill your glass and achieve happiness. Moreover, you’ll spend your life hating the fact your glass isn’t full, when you could have spent your energy finding ways to actually fill it. On the other hand, if you have a small glass, it takes very little water to fill it, and that makes it much easier to reach that state of contentedness.
At the very least, reevaluate your wants. Trim them down realistically, prioritise them, and define your version of “enough”, the things you really need to be happy. Stop wallowing at your lot in life and focus on how you can get those things. Better yet, to stop feeling so poor, stop wanting so much. After all, if you have nothing and want nothing, you have all you need.
This article has been updated since its original publication.