Much of the stress we are under is the result of a confusion of wants and needs. Many people believe they need things when really these things are merely wants.
The philosopher Epicurus distinguished these and discussed the problems in confusing them long ago. There are three categories of desires. The first are natural and necessary and include the basics: food, clothing, shelter, as well as friendship, freedom, and thinking. We require these in order to be happy. And, for Epicurus, these are all that we require in order to be happy.
But, there are also natural and unnecessary desires (wants that become confused with needs). These include many of the luxury items in our life; fancy food, clothing, big houses, fancy cars. All of which we desire but do not require to be happy. The problem occurs when we believe we need these things, purchase them, and then find that we have to work to afford them. So, people end up working, not for themselves, but their things.
Third, Epicurus identifies the unnatural and unnecessary desires for power and fame. These may be at the root of our belief that the natural but unnecessary desires are really needs. After all, if you strongly desire fame and power, you will deduce that you need those things that Epicurus classifies as natural but unnecessary.
There is a wonderful quote from Einstein about the perils of fame: "With fame, I have become more and more stupid, which of course, is a very common phenomenon. But you have to take it all with good humor. Charlie Chaplin had it right. When he and I met we were surrounded by people calling our names. 'What does it all mean?' I asked him. 'Nothing.' he replied."
Fame and power are truly unnatural and unnecessary.
Another cause of our stress is our belief that we need to keep up, keep going faster, being more productive. Again, this confuses a want with a need. However, a movement has been growing against this in recent years called the "slowness movement." Carl Honore has published a book titled In Praise of Slowness discussing the benefits of slow work, slow food, slow sex, and a relaxed stress-free approach to life in general.
There is nothing new here really as Henry David Thoreau wrote eloquently on this in his essay "Life Without Principle." In it, he writes "I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for." But, we are all too willing to sell our forenoons and afternoons leaving nothing behind for ourselves or our families and friends. We impose these conditions and requirements on ourselves and then feel stressed when we cannot keep up.
We can only do so much on any given day. Once we do that and do our best we should be satisfied with that and recognize that there are limits to what we can do. This recognition is a good start to living a life of happiness.
Perhaps we should heed the words of William James: "Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a 'tone-poet' and saint. But the thing is simply impossible."
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator