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The Minimalists

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 3 million readers. As featured on: ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, TODAY Show, NPR, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.

The Invention of Our Discontent

Chase Night

Let me tell you about the monster who rides on my shoulders.

When Josh asked me to write a guest essay for The Minimalists, I was honored, but my mind totally blanked on ideas. So I decided there was only one thing to do: I would have to tell you about the monster who rides on my shoulders.

I can’t see him, but I know he is there. I sense that he is covered in mauve shag-carpet, has overly goggly eyes, and a gaping black maw with a felt tongue inside. I also sense that his name is Howard, but I could be wrong.

Howard is always on my back wherever I go, helpfully pointing out reasons I have to be unhappy and offering advice on things or experiences I could buy to make me happy again. I used to listen to Howard like a student at the feet of a trusted guru.

Back in 2008 before I moved to Austin, Texas, I took out a small loan to consolidate all my credit card debt into one payment with the intention of immediately chopping up all my credit cards and never buying anything on credit again.

Once I was in Austin though I started to feel sad and lonely. Howard told me I would feel happy again if I spent $1,500 on a Panasonic mini DV camera, a 3 point light kit, and a boom mic. On credit, of course.

I made a short film, and it wasn’t very good. I was sad again. Howard told me what I really needed was an Appaloosa. So I pawned the brand new camera and bought a surly spotted horse who wasn’t even broke to ride.

I can’t lie. Captain did bring me happiness for a while. He did stave off the loneliness. But…a hamster probably would have sufficed. Do you know how much it costs to feed a horse? By April 2010, I had to sell Captain just to pay the rent for one month. As I watched Captain’s new family drive off into the sunset with him, I started to wonder if Howard had ever really had my best interests at heart.

I became more consciously aware of the things Howard was whispering in my ear. I started to think that maybe Howard was just making stuff up. Making up stuff for me to be unhappy about, and making up ludicrous, unrelated solutions for these perceived woes.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you’re a human being, then I’m guessing it does. Howard is a member of a prolific, parasitic species which infects most of the Western World. The common name for this monstrous species is Discontentment.

These monsters attach themselves to us very early in our lives. Even before we can speak, they’ve begun spinning their lies in our ears. You don’t have enough. You are not enough. You need to own more. Do more. Be more. Let’s go shopping. Let’s get wasted. Let’s get laid. You’ll be happy in the morning. I promise.

Yet the promises never materialize. Whatever warm, fuzzy feelings you gain from the acquired object or experience fizzle out once the monster gets bored. The whispers start anew. Try something else. I bet a 62 inch TV would make you happy.

But enough about how lousy Howard and his family make us feel. Let’s talk about how to shut them up and shove them off our shoulders.

It’s easier than it feels. Here’s why:

Monsters don’t exist.

We can’t be controlled by something that isn’t even real. That’s just silly!

We’ve been conditioned to believe that Discontent is a natural human state, or even a necessary factor in human progress. This, I believe, is a manufactured lie to keep us in need of things we never actually needed.

In our lives, we will experience discomfort. We will experience disasters. These are real and unavoidable parts of our existence. They teach us lessons and help us evolve, even when they hurt.

Discontent is a different beast. It offers us nothing we can truly use. It is a false promise of fulfillment around the next corner. Then the next and the next and the next until we find ourselves standing on a ledge with no more corners to turn.

But again, the good news: It’s not real. It’s not natural. It is not inevitable. You can debug your thought code.

The concept of enough is built into the earth. She provides everything we need. You don’t see discontent in the animal kingdom. Wild animals never take more than they need to survive. A healthy wolf that has just eaten will not kill again just because he can, just to prove how powerful or sexy or cool he is. If we would only follow in their footsteps, embrace the enough given to us by the earth, and accept that this is all we truly need—food, water, freedom, companionship—then we have a standard against which to measure the lies of Discontentment being whispered in our ears, and we gain the sanity to recognize them for what they are.

Then we can look Howard in the eye and say, “I can’t listen to you because you don’t exist.”

We usually have to repeat this a few times in a few different situations before Howard gets the point. Sometimes the nonsense they tell us will just be too appealing to resist. We might experience a lapse. Don’t be discouraged; this happens to all of us. We’re fighting hundreds of years of conditioning to be unhappy with our lot in life. But we can overcome it.

With enough time and practice, we can wake up one day with a lightness on our shoulders we didn’t know could exist. Howard has left the building. We can roll our shoulders, let out a big sigh of relief, look around at our lives and say, “Enough.”

Afterword by Joshua Fields Millburn

I first met Chase Night (yes, that is his real name) in Austin, Texas, when I drove to the SXSW conference in March 2011. He was kind enough to be my tour guide around his beautiful city. While in Austin, we ate plenty of fish tacos and talked about our fiction writing and what it means to live a more meaningful life. I encourage you to check out his website, Unbridled Existence, and follow him on Twitter. He is a gifted storyteller and one of the most talented writers on the internet.

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