The Problem of Too Much

The Problem of Too Much
"Abundance Runneth Over" by A. Strakey is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Very few people throughout history have ever had to deal with the problems of having too much. In fact, most of our ancestors had the opposite problem, not having enough. Let that be food, water, shelter, information, etc. Most of the unique problems of our time come not from scarcity but from new forms of easy abundance, an obesity epidemic caused by too much food and sitting, increasing mental health problems (at least partially) caused by too much news and social media and on and on.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t any problems of too much our ancestors had to deal with. Alcoholism and gambling have taken more than their fair share of lives. But you could choose to avoid these classes of problems with the simple (conceptually, not in practice) option of choosing not to partake. Many religions established rules against such things that in effect try to counter the Problem of Too Much on the societal level by using social pressure to counter them.

But the unique aspect of the abundance of today is that it is everywhere and always in your face. You cannot just rely on an external limit for when you need to stop or avoid. It's easy to stop eating when there isn't any food left, or stop consuming new information because you reached the end of the book and had to physically go out to get another. It's quite a different problem when our smartphones have in some ways trapped us in the digital equivalent of the Las Vegas strip.

Many do still try to prescribe absence as the solution to the Problem of Too Much. This does work for some people. But for most of us, if we had to choose between giving up our smartphone and going back to a flip phone in order to avoid social media and all the other smartphone based distractions we wouldn’t take that trade. Much like how diets based on what you can’t eat are made to fail, avoidance can only take you so far.

So we have to learn how to live in a world of abundance. There are worse problem to have to be sure, this world of abundance has given us incredible quality of life benefits and I would much rather live in a world of abundance than a world of scarcity. But progress is solving new problems are the result of our solutions to the previous worse problems. For most of us living in countries with advanced economies, abundance is the problem we are faced with. So what do we do?

What do we do?

I think the basic classes of Too Much problems we most commonly face can be broken down into two basic categories: problems of attention and problems of consumption. Each requires a different solution.

You can find a lot of writing on problems of attention, it’s the more obvious and shiny problem. Cal Newport has done a lot of good writing on how he approaches Digital Minimalism and Deep Work . But while you hear a lot of complaints about “consumerism” in some circles there doesn’t seem to be as many good solutions about how to handle problems of too much consumption. Writing on personal finance, health/wellness, and non-digital minimalism get at aspects of this class of problems but the solutions usually only apply to that niche. Minimalism probably gets closer to an overall philosophy for handling these kind of problems but is only going to appeal to a certain subset of the population.

So I propose rather than focusing on attempts of absence and avoidance that we need to focus on building up the meaningful things in our life. If your life is filled with an abundance of meaningful activities in a day, you won't have time to doom scroll or comfort eat.

What exactly a full meaningful life looks like is something beyond the scope of this post and it's probably too simplistic. But I think it's pointing in the right direction. I'll likely be doing more writing on this topic in the future. But keeping the frame of Problems of Too Much in mind can help us pin point the right way to navigate these new problems of our times.