A model to simplify

April 26, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Exercises, Models, Tips

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Do you ever have more stuff than you need? Do you find yourself susceptible to people selling things that you later realize you don’t need?

When I realized how little stuff improved my life and how much it got in the way, I found myself wanting things.

Today I offer a belief that helps me look at acquiring things skeptically.

A model for simplifying life: We’ve found almost nothing in the past few thousand years to improve our quality of life.

Maybe longer.

I realized this when I reread Aristotle writing about happiness after becoming more curious about emotions and realizing how much he knew then. Not that I think Aristotle knew how to be happy more than anyone else. He was just a data point.

I asked myself what we know today that he didn’t know then that improved our lives. With my science and technology training that took me to the frontier of human knowledge, I thought I’d rattle off a list quickly.

In no time I realized that in the context of thinking about my list of most emotionally rewarding things — relationships with friends and family, enjoying the beauty of nature through all our senses, learning, and being a respected and valued member of your communities — almost nothing else compared.

New technology immediately lost its luster. For example, I thought about how we can listen to any music we want any time. Then I thought about the Walkman, one of the most successful products ever.


If someone offered you this Walkman today you wouldn’t accept it. You’d throw it away. To have to play a cassette?!? At most an hour of music, having to buy batteries all the time, no ability to jump from song to song… totally unacceptable today. Yet some 220 million of them sold less than a lifetime ago.

If you thought its value came from its ability to give you any music any time… well, that original model can still do that today, but no one will buy it.

The only way I can explain how something ostensibly offering so much value on something so eternal — our love for music — losing all its value in less than one lifetime is that it didn’t offer something eternal. It offered something short-term — a mix of novelty and showing off to your neighbors.

Before the Walkman nobody complained about the lack of a Walkman. Now people complain of short battery life on phones that do much more than a Walkman could. Believing these latest-and-greatest products offer enduring emotional reward or happiness became untenable and made my life worse.

I began to believe that before the Walkman people probably played more musical instruments themselves. Or sang. Or directly involved themselves in their friends and family playing music.

Seeing the same pattern in many other products led me to wonder if any of them improved my life over what they replaced. Nearly everything that seemed to save time, money, or other resource seemed to take away from something else. Television, radio, cars, planes, elevators, and so on… none clearly created more happiness or emotional reward, especially compared with just spending time with friends and family, learning, or contributing to my communities.

Television entertains, but numbs and isolates. Cars move you faster but pollute and isolate, dissipating community. Planes make the world smaller but lead to people moving apart. You get the idea.

Meanwhile we’ve lost a lot of the benefits of community. Our media, now globally transmitting messages at the speed of light, seems to be used as much to spread fear and outrage as learning and creative expression. I could go on, but I think you get the idea of the double-edge-ness of things called progress by people promoting them.

The best candidates for things that unquestionably improved  our lives since Aristotle, to me, are

  • The germ theory of disease
  • Knowledge of nutrition

and I’m not sure about the second. Knowing about germs, leading hygiene and cures, improved people’s lives. Nutrition helped overcome some diseases, but people don’t seem to eat that healthily today. I understand before agriculture people lived as long and as healthily as we do today, though I could be wrong on that.

I’m happy for someone to point out other candidates, since I’d love to improve my life, but I’m hard-pressed to find anything else. I’m mixed on the internet, especially after finding leaving Facebook improved my life more than joining it. The output of the industrial revolution doesn’t seem any more valuable than the Walkman, especially considering the costs to the environment etc. Aristotle had democracy, philosophy, and science, and they aren’t clearly improving people’s lives relative to then. Contraception? Maybe.

Common objections

People often ask if I’m suggesting we return to living in caves or hunting and gathering, as if pointing out some flaw or inconsistency I foolishly didn’t realize. Of course, I’m not proposing any change to society or anybody else’s life.

I’m merely suggesting that as much as I love living in the West Village, if you magically transported me to Athens in Aristotle’s time, or any other peaceful community of any time and place, I think I could live just as happy and rewarding a life, especially if the same magic gave everyone knowledge about preventing and curing disease.

Or from another perspective, if we could magically measure everyone’s amount of emotional reward and happiness, I’m not sure today’s average would be greater than many other times’. I see a lot of misery today whose remedy Aristotle knew but that iPods and fast cars distract us from.

Anyway, I’m not trying to change the world. I’m suggesting a model that helped me improve my life in a world I can only change to a limited degree hoping it might help you improve yours.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when someone, usually marketers, try to motivate me to buy their stuff.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces beliefs that stuff will improve my life, especially new stuff, with skepticism and the expectation that I can improve it more with age-old basics

  • Relationships with friends and family
  • Enjoying the beauty of nature through all our senses, including eating
  • Learning and growing
  • Being a respected and valued member of your communities, including work that others value

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to getting less stuff, resilience to others’ influence, and devoting more time, attention, and other resources to those basics.

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