Everyone who was once a schoolkid knows the two different phases of Summer holidays.
Waking up on the first Monday of summer holidays is a feeling of unparalleled abundance. School seems light years away. It really feels like you have unlimited time.
This feeling continues until one morning in August, when you look at the calendar and have the opposite feeling, because there are only ten days left before school starts.
These two feelings, abundance and scarcity, are ever-present forces in our lives. Often whole weeks, or months, or even years take the general tone of one or the other. But we also swing back and forth between them throughout each day.
You look at the clock, expecting it to be six-something, and it’s 7:48. A feeling of scarcity descends immediately.
You remember this coming Monday is a holiday. A whoosh of abundance.
You arrive at the show and there’s a huge lineup for tickets. You catch a news report about a sluggish economy. Your girlfriend says she doesn’t want fries but will just “Have some of yours.” Scarcity.
Your boss tells you a deadline has been pushed back. Netflix adds a whole second season of Happy Valley. You’ve done every bit of laundry in the house and it’s all clean and folded. Abundance.
Abundance is the feeling of “All I need right now, and more”. It is the feeling that you can rely on your future, on your personal world, to provide for you.
Scarcity is the sense that it’s uncertain that what you need will be available. It activates the parts of the brain that deal with competition, urgency and despair.
Put simply, abundance feels great and scarcity feels bad. If we could live our whole lives feeling abundance, we would. You might even say that it’s the primary feeling we seek in life, because it represents the things we want most fundamentally: security, gratification and freedom.
What’s interesting is that our current feeling doesn’t necessarily mirror our actual situation. Rich people can feel scarcity about money, while penniless monks can feel like they have everything they need and more. It really seems to be the feeling of abundance that’s most important to us, not the material reality we normally fixate on—if you think about it, we want an abundance of money and time because of how we believe it would feel to have those resources. What good would they do if we still felt the same?
After all, having the next ten days off school is an objectively better state of affairs than having only the next seven days off, yet as a kid I’m sure you felt a much greater sense of abundance on the Friday before a seven-day Spring break than on the tenth-last day of Summer holidays.
Our feelings of abundance and scarcity seem to depend much more on our moment-to-moment emotional reflexes than on an objective assessment of our actual situations. Discovering less of something than we expected pretty reliably brings on scarcity. Discovering more triggers abundance. And that seems true regardless of where we started.
A typical middle-class American salary reportedly puts a person in the top 1 or 2 per cent of income worldwide. But that level of wealth doesn’t necessarily confer a feeling of material abundance, of “all I need right now and more”, yet the prospect of a twenty-five per cent raise, from whatever salary, always seems like it would be enough to do that.
The Ice Cream Principle
A simple example of how our perspectives dominate our actual reality is something I call the Ice Cream Principle:
Imagine that out of the blue, you tell your child you’re going to go for ice cream. Five minutes later, tell them you’ve changed your mind and you’ll go some other time.
The state of affairs is no different than it was from the start, yet everything has changed. The kid went from no ice cream to no ice cream, yet now somehow things are much worse.
We get attached really easily. As adults we’re a little better than kids at adjusting our expectations on the fly, or at least we’ve given up on the idea that a tantrum will change the situation. But our disappointment is real, and it hurts.
Over a lifetime, we start protecting ourselves from this kind of pain by lowering expectations across the board. We steer away from the belief that maybe there is more love, or wealth or freedom ultimately available to us than we need.
Out of self-defense, many of us easily settle into scarcity thinking, finding a paradoxical sort of comfort in the idea that there’s never going to be quite enough of anything. We apply this basic idea to all the areas of our lives that matter: Doing what you love for a living is a pipe dream! All the good men are married already! This world is going straight to hell! The good jobs go to people with connections!
We’re always going to be dealing with real limitations in life, but we create a lot of suspiciously absolute beliefs to prevent ourselves from actually bumping up against these limitations. The fearful part of the mind knows you don’t have to have the experience of failure or disappointment as long as you believe trying is a waste of time.
Having spent much of my life totally caught up in this kind of thinking, I know of two things that consistently make a big difference:
The first is meditation, which I mention here constantly. Among other things, it trains you to adjust to reality on the fly, without overreacting. Without being so prone to clinginess and neediness, you can see possibilities you’re normally blind to. You become less paralyzed by the future and less hung up on the past, and you get more interested in what we can do rather than what we can’t.
The other thing is generosity. We all know it feels good to give, it feels good to help. But it does a lot more than generate short-term good feelings. Generosity calls scarcity’s bluff. Giving something you aren’t required to give proves to yourself that you do have enough, and a little more even, at least of this one thing. It erodes any prevailing belief of “There’s just never enough, is there?”
And by generosity I don’t mean charity. I’m talking about being generous in the broader sense of offering value to others without being asked—building something useful, offering your time and patience, or solving even a tiny problem for someone, including yourself.
Generosity cuts through the powerlessness and paralysis of scarcity thinking, both the general and specific kinds. Just listening generously to what someone else needs to say, for example, dispels any thought you have that nobody has time for anyone else.
Again, there are real limitations in life. But our attitude towards what we have and don’t have has a much greater and more pervasive effect on how it actually feels to live. How good our lives are really amounts to how it feels to be living those lives. You could have all you need and more, and never know it.