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Eight Ways How Less Is More

We often try to improve our lives by adding more. More money. More things. More friends. More entertainment. And so on. But more isn't always better. There is a common saying that goes,

"Too much is just as bad as too little."


According to the principle of The Middle Way, we need the right amount of things. When we have too much, reducing it will bring us benefit. Of course, when we have too little, increasing it will also bring benefit. Since humans tend to have a habit of always wanting more, ancient philosophers emphasized the importance of frugality. For example, Laozi, the founder of Daoism, listed frugality as one of his three treasures.


The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,

"Ask yourself at every moment, 'Is this necessary?'"


Socrates said,

"The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less."


But it's not just ancient philosophers. Benjamin Franklin had a list of 13 virtues that he aimed to achieve his whole life, and frugality was number five. Modern day business legend Jeff Bezos also said,

"Accomplish more with less. Constraint breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense."


Usually when we think of frugality, we just think of saving money. But we can extend this idea to other aspects of life too. Below are eight common examples of how less can be more:


These come from a famous minister of the Qing Dynasty named Ying Zhang (張英). Many people have an excess of these things, hence less is more. Let's look at each in more detail.

1: Less food can benefit the stomach.

In the past, food used to be a scarce resource, and people weren't sure if they would have food the next day. Nowadays, we have easy access to lots of food, and overeating has become a problem for many, especially since there are so many delicious but unhealthy foods around. 72% of American adults were overweight or obese in 2018, and 64% of UK adults were overweight or obese in 2021. Eating too much, especially of unhealthy foods, is definitely a factor.


According to ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, it's best to eat until 70%-80% full. Eating too full not only feels bad, it also damages the stomach and weakens our digestive system. This fact has also been confirmed by research on the Blue Zones, which are areas in the world with the most number of healthy centurions (people who are at least 100 years old). One thing the Blue Zones all have in common is they stop eating at 80% fullness, and their meals are well-balanced with the majority of their calories coming from a wide variety of plant-based foods.


Another aspect of "less food" is to eat three square meals a day and to reduce snacking. That's because the digestive system needs time to rest in between meals, and always snacking doesn't give it time to rest. When our digestive system gets weaker, we become less able to digest food and absorb nutrients, which will hurt our health. Thus, for many of us in this food-abundant society, we should take care to not eat too much and too frequently.

2: Less indulgences can gather our spirit.

Indulgences give us a temporary pleasure high, but afterwards, we feel low, and we start craving them again. The great Stoic philosopher Seneca said,

"It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them once they have become accustomed to them…And so they are the slaves of their pleasures…Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached."


Laozi poetically said:

Excessive sights blind the eyes.
Excessive sounds deafen the ears.
Excessive flavors numb the tongue.
The thrill of hunting makes the mind reckless.
The rarity of treasures harms people's goodness.
Hence, the sage seeks contentment not indulgence;
Thus, eliminates the later and cultivates the former.

Have you met someone, or are you someone, who is addicted to pleasure and indulgences? Perhaps it's addiction to smoking, alcohol, gambling, entertainment, porn, junk food, gaming, etc. When you talk to them, do you feel their spirit (mind) is calm and present? Or is their spirit (mind) very unsettled and unconcentrated?


It's fine to enjoy some pleasures here and there, as long as it's a healthy amount that does not lead to addiction. But if we are always thinking about the next time we can indulge, such that we can't focus and do our daily work properly, then that's a problem.


The thing is, a lot of these substances seem very innocent, and we often tell ourselves we won't get addicted. But once we do it once, it becomes a slippery slope. Before we know it, the craving is back, and we become addicted. Thus, it's very important to be extra cautious, to guard against these addictive things. If we are already addicted, it's important to find motivation to quit at a pace that we can manage. Perhaps we do it for the people we love, or because we want to stop experiencing the pain of cravings, or because we want to make better use of our lives.

3: Less words can improve energy and stop disputes.

Have you ever had to lecture for an hour? Two hours? Most of us don't need to talk for a very long time at once, but as a teacher, I've had to talk for many hours a day. It's tiring! Thus, it's extra important for me to cultivate my speech. Socrates taught a useful idea called The Triple Filter Test: before speaking something, make sure it is true, good, and useful.


Some people don't need to talk so much, they just like to talk a lot. Perhaps they like to gossip or criticize, which would then cause disputes and make enemies. Or perhaps their mind is very unsettled, so when they speak, it feels like their ideas are all over the place; tiring for us, and also tiring for them! Thus, it's important to practice speaking with concision and clarity, and to reduce unnecessary and unhelpful speech.

4: Less friends can increase quality and reduce faults.

Do you know anyone, or are you someone, who likes to make lots of friends, but these are all shallow relationships? Shallow relationships can bring temporary fun, but they don't bring long-term fulfillment. When we truly need help, shallow friends won't come to our rescue. It's more important to have a small number of really good friends who we can truly rely on. In other words, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to relationships.

Increasing the quality of our friends also reduces our faults. Why? Because we all get influenced by the people around us. As motivational speaker Jim Rohn said,

"You are the average of the five people you spend most time with."


For example, a Harvard article talked about research which showed that "a person’s chance of becoming obese increases by 57% if a close friend is obese, 40% if a sibling is obese, and 37% if a spouse is obese." We can infer more examples: if a close friend has any bad habit or trait, we are likely to catch that bad habit or trait. If a close friend has any good habit or trait, we are likely to catch it too.


If we want to attract good friends, the most important thing is to improve ourselves. I once heard someone give this relationship advice:

"List everything you want from your dream partner. Then go be that list."


Think about it: if we want a very kind and honest partner or friend, but we are often selfish and don't keep our word, then if we actually meet a kind and honest person, would that person want to be friends with us? Probably not! As the common saying goes, "birds of a feather flock together."


Just to be clear, we shouldn't suddenly cut ties with long-time friends who have bad habits. That would be quite ungrateful considering they've probably helped us a lot in the past. But if we improve ourselves, they might get inspired to improve themselves too. For example, if we used to be addicted to something, but we were able to overcome that addiction, then our friend who was also addicted might get inspired and think, "If my friend can do it, so can I!" Thus, reducing our faults can also improve the quality of our existing friends. If they refuse to change, then when they notice our interests have changed, that friendship will naturally fade apart.

5: Less social gatherings can nurture health and reduce fatigue

It's great to have some social gatherings and to catch up with friends every now and then. But too much becomes very tiring and can hurt our health (and wallet). Obviously, being tired and not resting enough hurts our health, but also, people tend to drink alcohol, eat unhealthy foods, and talk a lot at social gatherings. Thus, being selective about our friends and which social gatherings we attend can nurture our health and reduce fatigue.

6: Less late nights can calm the spirit and comfort the body.

Sleep is extremely important for our health. When we sleep, our body cleans out garbage, replenishes energy, repairs itself, and fights illnesses.

With the rise of smartphones and unlimited entertainment at our fingertips, more and more people are sleeping late unnecessarily. When we stay up late, our spirit (energy) gets drained and our body gets damaged. Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter knows that you feel terrible afterwards, and it takes many days to recover. If we consistently sleep late, that's very harmful for our health.


People who stay up late not only reduce the quantity of their sleep but also the quality. In the book Sleep Smarter, author Shawn Stevenson explains that 10PM to 2AM is “Money Time Sleep” because between those hours, humans get the most amount of restful recovery sleep. One hour of "Money Time Sleep" is worth twice as much as sleep outside those hours. Ayurvedic medicine also emphasizes 10PM to 2AM as the most important time to sleep.


If you are like me, you might be thinking, "10AM! That's so early!" I have a bit of good news: according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the most important time to sleep is 11PM to 3AM. Obviously, it's best if we can sleep from 10PM to 3AM, but if that's not possible, at least try to sleep by 11PM. In my own experience, my energy levels are much better during the day if I got my "Money Time Sleep".


Unfortunately, the average American goes to sleep at 11:39PM according to a Sleep Cycle article. A poll from The Fine Bedding Company showed that the average adult in Britain sleeps at 10:43PM, and half of them said the last thing they put down before sleep is their phone or computer. Thus, for the majority of us, we should try to sleep earlier. For tips on how to do that, check out this article.

7: Less alcohol can clear the mind and nurture virtues.

Drinking alcohol is common at social gatherings. A bit of alcohol can help us relax and improve blood circulation. But we need to be careful to not drink too much. If we get drunk, our mind will become impaired and muddled, which then leads us to do stupid and sinful things.


Too much alcohol doesn't just impair the brain in the short-term, it also damages the brain in the long-term. According to brain expert Dr. Daniel Amen, alcohol shrinks brain volume, lowers blood flow to the brain, and impairs learning and memory. Here is a SPECT Scan of a healthy brain versus a moderate drinker's brain:


Aside from the brain, alcohol also damages our liver,  which is our body's filtration system, thereby making us age faster. To put it simply, we really need to take care to limit alcohol consumption for the sake of our mental health, physical health, and virtues.

8: Less thinking can reduce irritation and rid worries.

Logical thinking is one of the greatest gifts given to humans. It is very important to plan ahead and use logic to make decisions. But overthinking becomes counter-productive, causing our mind to feel irritated and worried.


As Stoic philosopher Seneca said,

"We suffer more in imagination than in reality."


This is especially true for overthinkers. So what can we do? Well, it's important to figure out why you overthink. For many of us, we are afraid of a certain outcome. In that case, a useful exercise I learned from Tim Ferriss is to do Fear Setting. Basically, we define what we are afraid of, how we can prevent it, and how we can repair the situation if our fear comes true.



For example, let's say I have a test or a presentation coming up. I am very worried, and I can't help but keep thinking about how terrible it'd be if I mess up. First, I write down my fear to get it out of my mind and trap it on paper: "I mess up during my test." But I need to be more specific. Why am I afraid of messing up? "If I mess up on my test, I won't be able to go to my desired university." Is that true? Probably not. But I am still worried. Why? "If I mess up, I'll look bad in front of my peers." OK, then I need to work on not caring so much about what others think, or else I'll live a miserable life. Writing down what exactly we are afraid of helps us to feel calmer already because we are dealing with a known problem as opposed to an unclear problem.


Next, write down how to prevent the problem. For example, I can study 4 hours a day until the test. I can also ask my smart classmate to study with me and give me mock test questions. If I have questions, I can ask the teacher. When we write down a list of things to do, we can channel our nervous energy into productive action.


Finally, we can imagine that our feared result happens, and then write down how to repair the situation. For example, if I don't get my desired grade, I can ask the teacher for a make-up test or a bonus assignment. If I don't get into my dream university, I can apply again the next year, or just select another university. If my peers laugh at me for getting a poor grade, well, they are probably not the type of friends that I want to make anyway. After going through the fear setting exercise, we should feel much more calm and at ease.


The one that resonates most with me is number three: less words can improve energy and stop disputes. As I mentioned before, I have to speak a lot for my job as a teacher, so I need to conserve my breath. Moreover, if I speak too much, students get bored, and I reduce the amount of time students have for activities, which reduces their learning quality. Thus, it's very important for me to practice speaking with concision.


I also noticed that when I am upset at someone and want to argue, I speak a lot. But if at this time, I can just hold my breath and not argue, I can save myself from an unnecessary dispute. Later, when I feel calmer, I usually think "Thank goodness I didn't argue so much. It really isn't that big of a deal. I can just let it go, or use a calm attitude to communicate my feelings and thoughts."


Another one that resonated with me is number one: less food can benefit the stomach. I used to eat until my stomach felt a little pressure. I thought that meant I am full, and I am supposed to eat that much. Later, I learned that I should only eat until 80% full. When I first made the change, I wasn't used to it, and I wanted to eat more. But soon after, I actually felt more comfortable at 80% fullness. I also feared that I might get hungry in between meals, but that fear didn't materialize. I also felt more energetic and alert because my body had less burden to digest so much food, so more blood could be directed to my brain.


One more that really resonated with me is number eight: less thinking can reduce irritation and rid worries. I have a habit of overthinking. Fear setting has really helped me with this problem. If I start overthinking, I tell myself, "Worrying isn't helpful. Go do something about it. Even if the worst case scenario happens, it's not the end of the world. You can still make do."


Lots of people work very hard to gain happiness by adding more to their life. But sometimes, what we really need is to reduce. Ancient philosophers and modern-day legends all emphasize the importance of frugality. But aside from saving money, we can extend frugality to eight other areas:


Which one resonates most with you? How can you work on it?


Weekly Wisdom #267

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