Three days and 6€ for peace of mind and happiness
I came across the 18th Letter of The Moral Letters to Lucius from Seneca. In the Moral Letters, the stoic philosopher Seneca advises the younger Lucius on different worldly matters. In the 18th letter, Seneca suggests we should periodically give up our comforts and possessions for no less than three days at a time to practice frugality and poverty. The reasoning is that by doing so you will lessen your dependence on those luxury goods and be a) more happy and content with owning them and b) happier and content without them if you had to give them up for some reason. The point is not that you shouldn’t have things you enjoy in your life, but that your tranquility and joy of life isn’t dependent on them.
So I decided to create an experiment: Three days of extreme frugality.
The frugality simulates a situation where you lost everything and are left with only the bare minimum; so even less than what you would initially feel happy and content with.
The basics of the experiments
Eat nothing but cheapest rice, oatmeal, beans, and head of cabbage as a luxury product (also the cheapest by weight). No spices are allowed to add to blandness during the experiment and expected appreciation afterward.
Drink only water, the cheapest coffee or the cheapest chamomile tea (for evenings).
For preparing foods, I only use one pan, and for eating only one plate, one spoon and one drinking glass for everything. The dishwasher is obviously out of the question.
I will be wearing a cheap plain t-shirt and the same jeans, without shaving the whole experiment.
The point is to be content with even less than what a convict or someone on welfare would be able to afford, remembering that there is nothing special about you or your experiment since millions (billions?) of people already live in such conditions.
Seneca suggests that you should frequently repeat to yourself “Is this the condition I so feared” so I will write it down on a little piece of paper and carry the paper around with me to remind myself.
To make sure I follow through on the experiment I made a bet with my money on the line on stickK.com. If I eat or drink outside the rules of the trial, I will lose the money, and it goes to an organization I don’t want to support. StickK provides valuable leverage to follow through.
By exposing myself to a meager diet of cheap and repetitive meals I can see how I can deal with them. The logic is that if you take luxury items for granted, you won’t derive the pleasure and happiness from them that you otherwise would if you paid them due respect and acknowledged them as something valuable and hard to get. That goes for things like always eating different, exotic foods, drinking excellent coffee, eating out, using a dishwasher, fine utensils, living indoors, sleeping in a bed. The list of luxuries you probably have that we take as granted and don’t recognize for luxuries could go on and on.
Since this is my first voluntary poverty experiment, I will keep living and sleeping in my apartment, sleeping in a bed and using a laptop and a smartphone. I will be experimenting with giving those things up also, but that is something to do for the next experiment. Like with exposure therapy for someone afraid of snakes, you gradually increase the stimulus, but you don’t lock them up in a snake habitat as the very first thing.
The experiment will probably seem harder than it is since our minds tend to look for the catastrophes and barriers for survival in everything. Once the resolve to go through with the experiment has been established, the task is doable. The question “is this the condition I so feared” is helpful, since it reminds of everything that is right with the situation, as opposed to desires.
Before the experiment, I expected temptations, boredom, and disgust with the repetitive, bland meals as well as dips in energy and performance levels. I decided to maintain exercise routines, except for high-intensity strength training or cardio.
The set-up for the experiment cost me less than 10€ with leftovers after completing the experiment.
During the experiment
During the experiment, I felt weirdly energetic. Many possible explanations can’t be pinned down to finding the ultimate diet or lifestyle. Potential factors could be:
- My first day of the experiment was a day off, and thus I had time to make significant progress on important personal projects.
- Minimising Internet and gadget use diminishes the decision-fatigue during the experiment.
- Reducing the need to decide what to eat when hungry, and no cravings for food, since the options are severely limited.
- The sense of control over outside circumstances because of ease of experiment.
- Eating regularly, and more often, since oats, rice or beans don’t provide as much energy as eating meat, for example.
- Or it could be the easily digested food providing me with the needed energy for the day.
I had no problems concentrating during the day, which I expected might be an issue, but I did experience trouble winding down for a sleep at night.
Concerning physical performance, I didn’t experience notable aches or pains from training or increased fatigue.
The taste of the foods was boring, but since there was nothing to do about it, it was easy to accept. I was able to identify that raw cabbage didn’t make me feel good, quite the opposite. So I decided to ditch it on the second day.
The most prominent effect of the experiment is the feeling of gratefulness that comes out as a result. The gratefulness and feeling of control over your life are tangible. Knowing that you can get by with the scantiest fare gives you confidence because even if you lost everything, it isn’t a catastrophe. It might be inconvenient, but you’ll be able to handle yourself gracefully.
You will find a renewed sense of awareness and appreciation for all the delicious food options you have at your fingertips, like baked sweet potatoes, as well as cool possessions you’ve been detachedfrom, like having and using several different utensils, frying pan or the dishwasher. The first thing I prepared for myself after the experiment was finished was a delicious cup of coffee and several thick slices of a cucumber.
There are several other methods for increasing one’s gratefulness (meditation as most potent but not the fastest or easiest skill to master) for things you already have in your life, but none that I know of are as quick and potent as the voluntary poverty experiment. Also, the expenses in time or money are minimal. You don’t have to devote any extra time during the three days of any structured exercise, and I consumed about 6 euros worth of foods in total.
As an added benefit you might find yourself having more compassion for people forced to live with the bare minimum. There are millions (billions?) of people forced to live with less and still live happy and fulfilled lives. Not all of them, probably, but neither do those who eat 10 times more and lead much richer lifestyles. It’s not about the money or the food, as long as you can afford the food, but it’s about something bigger. Removing luxury food and other non-essentials clarifies the point.
I experienced few adverse effects, namely some minor stomach problems (not surprising since the drastic change in diet) and dry lips, which could also be due to the weather.
I intend to repeat the experiment annually, coupled with a longer annual fast. Next poverty experiment will probably include sleeping on the ground, maybe even outside and limiting gadgets. Next challenge is probably going to involve a full fast from the internet, but more about that later. I already do limit my internet, you can find ways here, but a full block would probably serve as a welcomed break.
I know that only eating beans, oats, and rice is not a situation I would like to live in for the rest of my life. I also know that if I lost everything I would be okay and even thriving. The poverty experiment removes excess fear and substitutes it with confidence. I can encourage you to conduct your experiment, since what do you have to lose?