Quotations Explained: Marcus Aurelius on Appreciation and Desire


The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. We have believed this since childhood. But this view is not particularly healthy. The former Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius already knew that:

"Think of what you have rather than what you lack."

Marcus Aurelius

The reason is normally known to us: looking at what you don't have, but others may have, often makes you extremely dissatisfied.

Evolutionarily, this behavior may make sense, but actually, in most cases, we live in abundance these days (even though it may not seem that way to us). Therefore, this behavior is actually no longer necessary. If only there wasn't the human urge for recognition, which is exploited by marketing experts:

  • One small TV is not enough (or maybe one TV is not enough)
  • Must be your own car. In the best case it must be an expensive one and new of course.
  • Designer clothes are above normal functional or sustainably produced.
  • etc.

This creates a setup in which we actually never have the chance to own enough.

And that makes you dissatisfied.

First and foremost, this is because our focus is directed to these outstanding and seemingly necessary things. So we don't even notice how privileged we actually already are.

I do not want to profile myself here as a hermit without possessions who no longer knows these needs.

I have weak moments just like you.

But over the years I've managed to create an awareness through which I catch on when these thoughts creep back in (which aren't actually my own).

If you succeed in this, you get the opportunity to actively do something against these thought patterns. And that is usually easier than you think.

You will surely find your own ways and your own mechanisms to straighten out your thinking in such situations.

However, I typically do it this way:

As soon as I realize that it is actually just an artificially created need, I look at what I have and this usually quickly makes it clear that I don't need the other, the new thing.

Since this is not sufficient in all cases, I also make myself aware of the effort I save by not having something. 

This may sound a bit strange at first, but with an example it should become quite clear to you:

If I don't buy a car, not only do I save a bunch of money, but I don't have to worry about a lot of things that come with having a car:

  • Dates in the workshop
  • Parking lot search
  • Road traffic nuisances
  • Fear of damage to the vehicle
  • Sharp rise in fuel prices

All this is nothing I need to worry about.

And that is enormously liberating.

If I become aware of such things, in most cases it becomes frighteningly easy to enjoy what I have and also what I don't have.

How did Bilbo Baggins put it so well?

"It is not the worst thing to enjoy the simple life." - J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings

As I said, I don't always succeed and there are situations where I buy things I don't really need, but I think that's okay.

For the most part, I'm successful and don't beat myself up when I don't make it.

The supreme discipline, however, is to apply these principles when more than material things are at stake. 

I mean, for example, in times of health problems or the loss of people who were important to you.

It is much more difficult in such situations to ignore what you are missing and to appreciate what you have. But I am sure that with enough exercises you will be able to do that.

Various philosophical approaches have helped me a lot in such times. Feel free to read some other articles if you need appropriate assistance.

You're also welcome to contact Lukas and me on Instagram if you'd like to exchange ideas.

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