Sustenance and Enrichment—What We Need to Live and What We Live For
What do you need to live?
The question is not “What is comfortable or tastes good or is convenient?” Rather, it concerns those things without which you wouldn’t survive. Many people in the world are faced with this question every day. For those of us who aren’t, it can be interesting to think about it as we eat, shop, or reflect on our lives. It is also interesting to reflect on those things that enrich our lives—that make our lives more meaningful or more fulfilling. There may be a lot of things that we consume or pursue that we think will enrich us but that ultimately don’t add anything of substance.
The essence of what we need and the natural world
When it comes right down to it, the world is a perfect place to live. Nature provides all the things we need to survive—food, water, sunlight, and shelter. Before humans made technological advances that resulted in a separation between what they consumed and its natural source, they lived lives that were very in tune with what they needed to sustain their lives and how it was provided (see Animal). The distinction between sustenance and enrichment was very clear, and there was very little that didn’t fall into one of those two categories. It made life much simpler, if more uncomfortable, dangerous, scary, and uncertain. I wouldn’t want to go back to a life like that, but it is interesting to periodically put ourselves in the place of our early ancestors and reflect on how our lives could be simpler if we thought about what we wanted and needed in those terms.
What we want versus what we need
When we buy our groceries, go to a hardware store, shop for clothes, or acquire our gadgets or toys, we are likely not stopping too long to think about what we actually need, whether or not it is healthy, or if it makes our lives better. With personalized marketing appearing before us all the time, it can be very easy to consume compulsively.
With food, the question can be clearer, but, still, we make impulsive choices. Yes, we need food to survive. Foods that effectively fuel our bodies and brains are the logical choices. These are the foods that we need. There is also a large category of foods that we eat because they are what we want. We eat them because they taste good or because they are a tradition or because they are prepared skillfully. These are the foods that we eat because we want to. They might be healthy, and they might enrich our lives, but we might eat them just because they give us pleasure—without much thought about how they affect us.
When enrichment goes bad
Enrichment is good, but many of us aren’t always mindful of the distinction between actual enrichment and materialism, sloth, and gluttony (let’s call all of these self-indulgence).
There are good ways to tell the difference between enrichment and self-indulgence. The elements that enrich our lives often have the following attributes:
- They take effort—Those things in our lives that provide us with enrichment often take some effort. One may be playing a musical instrument, which takes some practice, or something as simple as paying attention to a beautiful sunset.
- They are enduring—When something enriches our lives, it tends to have a lasting impact. It resonates with us and makes us want more—makes us want to keep it in our lives.
- They have a positive effect—When we experience something enriching, it benefits us in some way. It makes us more thoughtful or knowledgeable or creative or introspective. This is one of the easiest ways to gauge whether or not something in our lives is enriching.
Self-indulgence is usually the opposite of all these elements. It is usually easy and short-lived, and it can have a negative effect or no effect on us. There’s nothing wrong with a little self-indulgence—even with all of these drawbacks, being self-indulgent can be fun. The trick is to not let it get a hold of us, result in significant negative consequences, or crowd out the more meaningful elements in our lives.
Finding meaningful overlap between sustenance and enrichment
Anything that creates an overlap between sustenance and enrichment is a good thing. For example, we need to eat in order to survive. Healthy food that we take care to prepare well and that is good for us and very tasty is enriching. We need to exercise to be healthy. There are many examples of extremely enriching exercise—it should never be a grind. The extent to which we can combine that which we need and that which enriches our lives will make for activities that we feel good about and that are in tune with our mental and physical health.
Look for those things that you need in order to live and that give your life meaning, and make them an enduring part of your life.