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Where Abundance Comes From

abundant tree

Everyone who was once a schoolkid knows the two different phases of Summer holidays.

Waking up on the first Monday of summer holidays is a feeling of unparalleled abundance. School seems light years away. It really feels like you have unlimited time.

This feeling continues until one morning in August, when you look at the calendar and have the opposite feeling, because there are only ten days left before school starts.

These two feelings, abundance and scarcity, are ever-present forces in our lives. Often whole weeks, or months, or even years take the general tone of one or the other. But we also swing back and forth between them throughout each day.

You look at the clock, expecting it to be six-something, and it’s 7:48. A feeling of scarcity descends immediately.

You remember this coming Monday is a holiday. A whoosh of abundance.

You arrive at the show and there’s a huge lineup for tickets. You catch a news report about a sluggish economy. Your girlfriend says she doesn’t want fries but will just “Have some of yours.” Scarcity.

Your boss tells you a deadline has been pushed back. Netflix adds a whole second season of Happy Valley. You’ve done every bit of laundry in the house and it’s all clean and folded. Abundance.

Abundance is the feeling of “All I need right now, and more”. It is the feeling that you can rely on your future, on your personal world, to provide for you.

Scarcity is the sense that it’s uncertain that what you need will be available. It activates the parts of the brain that deal with competition, urgency and despair. 

Put simply, abundance feels great and scarcity feels bad. If we could live our whole lives feeling abundance, we would. You might even say that it’s the primary feeling we seek in life, because it represents the things we want most fundamentally: security, gratification and freedom.

What’s interesting is that our current feeling doesn’t necessarily mirror our actual situation. Rich people can feel scarcity about money, while penniless monks can feel like they have everything they need and more. It really seems to be the feeling of abundance that’s most important to us, not the material reality we normally fixate on—if you think about it, we want an abundance of money and time because of how we believe it would feel to have those resources. What good would they do if we still felt the same?

After all, having the next ten days off school is an objectively better state of affairs than having only the next seven days off, yet as a kid I’m sure you felt a much greater sense of abundance on the Friday before a seven-day Spring break than on the tenth-last day of Summer holidays.

Our feelings of abundance and scarcity seem to depend much more on our moment-to-moment emotional reflexes than on an objective assessment of our actual situations. Discovering less of something than we expected pretty reliably brings on scarcity. Discovering more triggers abundance. And that seems true regardless of where we started.

A typical middle-class American salary reportedly puts a person in the top 1 or 2 per cent of income worldwide. But that level of wealth doesn’t necessarily confer a feeling of material abundance, of “all I need right now and more”, yet the prospect of a twenty-five per cent raise, from whatever salary, always seems like it would be enough to do that.

The Ice Cream Principle

A simple example of how our perspectives dominate our actual reality is something I call the Ice Cream Principle:

Imagine that out of the blue, you tell your child you’re going to go for ice cream. Five minutes later, tell them you’ve changed your mind and you’ll go some other time.

The state of affairs is no different than it was from the start, yet everything has changed. The kid went from no ice cream to no ice cream, yet now somehow things are much worse.

We get attached really easily. As adults we’re a little better than kids at adjusting our expectations on the fly, or at least we’ve given up on the idea that a tantrum will change the situation. But our disappointment is real, and it hurts.

Over a lifetime, we start protecting ourselves from this kind of pain by lowering expectations across the board. We steer away from the belief that maybe there is more love, or wealth or freedom ultimately available to us than we need.

Out of self-defense, many of us easily settle into scarcity thinking, finding a paradoxical sort of comfort in the idea that there’s never going to be quite enough of anything. We apply this basic idea to all the areas of our lives that matter: Doing what you love for a living is a pipe dream! All the good men are married already! This world is going straight to hell! The good jobs go to people with connections!

We’re always going to be dealing with real limitations in life, but we create a lot of suspiciously absolute beliefs to prevent ourselves from actually bumping up against these limitations. The fearful part of the mind knows you don’t have to have the experience of failure or disappointment as long as you believe trying is a waste of time.

Having spent much of my life totally caught up in this kind of thinking, I know of two things that consistently make a big difference:

The first is meditation, which I mention here constantly. Among other things, it trains you to adjust to reality on the fly, without overreacting. Without being so prone to clinginess and neediness, you can see possibilities you’re normally blind to. You become less paralyzed by the future and less hung up on the past, and you get more interested in what we can do rather than what we can’t.

The other thing is generosity. We all know it feels good to give, it feels good to help. But it does a lot more than generate short-term good feelings. Generosity calls scarcity’s bluff. Giving something you aren’t required to give proves to yourself that you do have enough, and a little more even, at least of this one thing. It erodes any prevailing belief of “There’s just never enough, is there?”

And by generosity I don’t mean charity. I’m talking about being generous in the broader sense of offering value to others without being asked—building something useful, offering your time and patience, or solving even a tiny problem for someone, including yourself.

Generosity cuts through the powerlessness and paralysis of scarcity thinking, both the general and specific kinds. Just listening generously to what someone else needs to say, for example, dispels any thought you have that nobody has time for anyone else.

Again, there are real limitations in life. But our attitude towards what we have and don’t have has a much greater and more pervasive effect on how it actually feels to live. How good our lives are really amounts to how it feels to be living those lives. You could have all you need and more, and never know it.


Photo by Joe del Tufo

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Aditya Prasad August 23, 2016 at 2:14 am

Brilliant post, as always! A couple things I noticed:

> yet as a kid I’m sure you felt a much greater sense of abundance on the Friday before a seven-day Spring break than on the tenth-last day of Summer holidays.

For me, it’s because changing from school to vacation is a big relief, whereas during the final days of a long vacation, it is school that becomes the interesting change.

> The state of affairs is no different than it was from the start, yet everything has changed.

Except that I’ve learned that I can’t trust my parent, which really hurts.

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 8:26 am

Thanks Aditya. The emotions are strong around the last days of summer. I actually did always get a bit excited about the first day of school, but it was always overshadowed by the sense of loss over the summer holidays ending.

Zoe August 23, 2016 at 2:55 am

I think it’s good to be reminded of this once in a while.
Last night I was playing around with designing a temporary cover for my novel. I spent over two hours doing it and was feeling pretty pleased with the result. Eager to put it online, I rushed through the whole saving process and didn’t really look at what I was doing. I ended up deleting it completely.
As I sat there pointlessly trying to recover it, I realised I had a choice. I could get upset and be in a foul mood for the rest of the evening, or I could learn from my mistake and start again. My husband was upset for me and I think he expected me to be too, but instead I went and made dinner, then gave it another go. Because I’d already done it once, it went a lot quicker this time and I was even happier with the result… and most importantly, I didn’t waste time feeling miserable about it.
I’ve been noticing these kinds of things more and more since Camp Calm, so thank you, David. :-) It really helps.

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 8:29 am

That’s some real maturity there, well done. It’s funny how the rational thing to do in that situation is just to start again, but the sense of loss is so great that it’s hard to accept it and get back to work. Although the other day I was really proud of myself when I dropped, and smashed a whole 2L bottle of ginger ale on my floor and did not spend a moment getting angry about it. I just got some towels.

John Norris August 23, 2016 at 4:09 am

Thanks David. You’re reminding me of a book: “How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence”. Not sure I’d recommend it, but I love the title!

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 8:30 am

Title sounds great. Maybe it’s worth a skim?

Peter Howells August 23, 2016 at 4:54 am

Nice article David.
By the way I don’t need Netflix to add a whole second season of Happy Valley – I *live* in Happy Valley (if it’s the one in Yorkshire UK you mean).

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 8:30 am

Oh cool! I hope it is happier than the Happy Valley depicted in the show :)

Sophia Ciocca August 23, 2016 at 7:24 am

I’ve been thinking about this concept of abundance vs scarcity mindset a LOT lately, as I navigate a job search — one of my least favorite tasks in the world, for all the scarcity mindset I fall into. I hate shooting out emails and applications every day out of fear, constantly feeling like “please please please, maybe this one will work out.” I’ve been trying to foster abundance mindset with my gratitude journal (definitely recommend as a tool to build abundance) and meditation, but it’s so tough. It feels like my body’s stuck in fight-or-flight mode in response to my current life-circumstance… Thanks for writing and addressing this topic!

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 8:33 am

Yeah, for me too, job searching is a situation where I feel extreme levels of scarcity. I found it helped to remember that the people doing the hiring also feel scarcity. Having been on the interviewer side of the table, there is always this sinking feeling that you won’t find anyone decent and will have to settle. So don’t forget that you’re the one providing the abundance to them.

Heather August 23, 2016 at 8:00 am

“Generosity calls scarcity’s bluff.”
What a great line!
The ice cream principle reminds me of Handbook to Higher Consciousness, which I’ve been slowly digesting after finding it here on this site. Thanks for the recommendation :)

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 8:34 am

I should give HtHC another read, it’s been quite a few years now. He really does come up with a system for living from abundance that is actionable.

Erika August 23, 2016 at 9:02 am

EXCELLENT article! Thank you so much for all you share! My favorite line you wrote and SO impactful to me, “How good our lives are really amounts to how it feels to live those lives.”
Choosing a perspective that serves us and aids us in “feeling good.”
For me, being thankful and being generous are great tools to help change my perspective to “feeling good” in this life I have. Thank you again.

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm

I wanted to expand on that point but I think it probably deserves its own post. What really matters is what we feel about what we have, not what we have. That should be self-evident but I can also see it being controversial.

In any case, it means that the perspective we have towards our lot in life is positively huge, and that means it’s worth cultivating healthier and more productive perspectives.

Michael August 23, 2016 at 10:45 am

I’ve had the same feeling of abundance and scarcity with shorter vacations /trips as well. You spend so much time planning, anticipating, buying tickets, daydreaming about that week spent somewhere else, or at least away from work. Then, before you know it, it’s gone, and what seemed like such a momentous event beforehand becomes just another memory in your past.

As I get older (I’m 38) and time moves faster and faster, this has been both harder and easier for me to accept – harder because knowing how quickly a moment will pass makes it difficult to feel the same in-the-moment joy I felt when I was younger; but easier because my expectations have been aligning more closely with the reality of my experiences, and reminding myself how quickly the moment will pass is slowly bringing back that ability to live in the moment. I’d like to think my meditation has something to do with this, but it could just be a natural result of aging and (sigh) maturing.

Anyway, thanks for yet another great post.

David Cain August 23, 2016 at 1:47 pm

Same here. On a trip, you I feel the “after” creep into the trip in the last few days of the “during”, which creates a feeling of scarcity, even though you’re still on the trip. But it’s all just thinking, and meditation is a huge help for being there without being preoccupied with the thought of no longer being there.

LeeOnn Tan August 24, 2016 at 1:57 am

‘Scarcity Drives Motivation’

Would you consider the thought that “scarcity” isn’t all that bad, and that it could potentially set the foundation for ‘motivation’?

Following on from your post “Two Ways to Move Through Life” when one decides to move towards what they want instead of away from what they don’t want, what then drives this behaviour?

If one feels scarce, then they have the constant reminder that unless something happens and change occurs, then they will flounder and stay scarce. Though I understand the need to feel content with abundance, perhaps the feeling of scarcity can be used for a better world.

An example would be the scarcity of fossil fuels. You could argue that this is what drives Elon Musk to standardise electric vehicles. However if he was simply content with the current state of vehicles allowing us to get from A to B, then…

Once again good stuff David, great article!

Barb August 24, 2016 at 2:30 am

It ‘s like when things go from bad to worse then back to bad it seems good. All in your perspective I guess.

Jacob Zoller August 24, 2016 at 9:19 am

Hi David, I’ve been reading for a while and I have to say all of your articles are super valuable. Thanks so much, you’ve helped me a lot!
I especially love the relatable, concrete images in this one.
I’ve been meditating using Headspace for about a year and it’s changed me life. Could Camp Calm help me go further or is it more for those just getting started?

Burak Şahin August 25, 2016 at 3:05 am

“…if the time of man’s death had been specified, the first half of his life would be passed in absolute heedlessness and the second, in terror, like going step by step to the gallows.”

Your points certainly are parts of a lot more that are going on in my mind about this topic. Honestly, though, the fact that “generosity calls scarcity’s bluff” was something I’ve never thought of. A priceless gain for the day…
“Is there any reward for good other than good?”

Kelleen Porter August 26, 2016 at 11:45 am

No I am not a spammer.

Jo August 27, 2016 at 1:08 pm

Special thank you for this one, David! Very helpful awareness this brings!
Reading it is like a visualization-meditation. Enjoying it every day since you posted! Very good for an old person with disabilities and chronic pain, much limitation, struggling with much scarcity feeling, which this helped me see I was doing. Reminded me to practice gratitude too.

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