The “Scarcity Mentality”: Why We’re Programmed To Accumulate Things And How To Change The Pattern

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Scarcity mentality measures out life by the ounce; it always concludes that the needs outweigh the resources.” Erin M. Straza

You’ve probably heard of the whole scarcity versus abundance mentality thing at this point. If not, the basic gist is that people who live in relative comfort are slowly clueing into the fact that they don’t necessarily have to be stressed out about everything they don’t have, and the fear of losing what they do have, all the time (scarcity mentality). People are also realizing that no matter what your situation having an outlook on life that’s focused on potential and positive affirmation is much more likely to help you get ahead and to simply appreciate life! Shifting from a scarcity mentality to one of abundance is essential to maintaining a sustainable minimalist lifestyle.

It’s not always that easy to make the switch however. There are some really logical historical and evolutionary reasons why humans tend towards scarcity mentality. Let’s take a look at what those reasons are and how you can uproot that way of thinking from your psyche!

31.1 From Surviving to Thriving

“Poverty is a mindset: It creates that sense of scarcity. You then become accustomed to it such that your life is hinged on protecting the scarce resources that you have.” Oscar Bimpong

The primary reason scarcity mentality “makes sense” in a lot of ways is that for the majority of human life on earth we have lived with uncertain access to our basic needs – food, water, shelter. From the hit-or-miss nature of hunting and gathering to the challenges of early agriculture, our constant vulnerability to climate and weather variables, predators and war, most of our predecessors experienced a fair amount of precarity as far as meeting their basic needs. And this is still the case for many people across the globe today. It makes sense that we would feel an urge to accumulate things “just in case…”. It’s just that this drive to accumulate needs to be put in check lest it devolve into a life led by fear and mild neuroses!

Humans may be highly adaptable creatures, but we haven’t all adapted out of the subconscious impulse to hoard things for those possible future hard times. There’s a very noticeable tendency of people who lived through the world wars, on whatever side, for example, to stockpile food. They may not be aware that it’s because they adapted to the reality that from one day to the next they may not be able to go out and buy basic goods. But that’s pretty much the psychology behind, conscious or unconscious.

Possibly you or your parents grew up in tough enough circumstances that making ends meet was a daily preoccupation. Maybe it was “nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel” or the boat’s going to sink. Growing up in families or societies where scarcity is the norm has an undeniable impact on the way we perceive life and what we think we “need” in order to be okay. The point is that it’s crucial to make these things conscious so that you can then choose to either continue living a life based on the worldview you grew up with, or shift into something that serves you better.

Even when you truly are struggling to get basic needs met, the outlook you take on things makes all the difference… not only the outcome of your situation, but the way you feel about and experience life’s challenges. It can even tint the way you remember different situations! There is significant research out there showing that positivity, or believing things will work out for the best/in your favor has an immense impact on your physical and mental health and resilience, and thus your ability to overcome obstacles.

According to sources cited in the New York Times “Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels. Even when faced with an incurable illness, positive feelings and thoughts can greatly improve one’s quality of life.”[1] All that to say, no matter what mentality you were programmed with by your family or social context, switching to a positive outlook focused on abundance and gratitude can radically transform your life. And there are proven techniques that can help you develop this new perspective!

31.2 Positive Emotion Development – The 8 Skills Method

“Never surrender your hopes and dreams to the fateful limitations others have placed on their own lives.” Anthony St Maarten

One of the most frequently cited methods in the health science world when it comes to fostering positive outlook is the set of eight skills developed by Judith T. Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. While seemingly simplistic, when integrated into your daily life these 8 skills can have a huge impact. As Moskowitz puts it, “[t]he skills themselves are not challenging or difficult to learn, but you need to make them a habit. Like any behavior change, it’s difficult to make that happen.” The 8 skills she puts forward are described as follows:

  1. Recognize a positive event each day.
  2. Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.
  3. Start a daily gratitude journal.
  4. List a personal strength and note how you used it.
  5. Set an attainable goal and note your progress.
  6. Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.
  7. Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.
  8. Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.[2]

As you can see, all these habits are focused entirely on developing positive outlook through tangible acts you can take to cultivate that outlook on a daily basis. In order to successfully make them into habits (as opposed to things you struggle to remember to fit into your otherwise busy days!) it’s important to create some kind of routine, or to use them to replace other, less positive habits you already practice regularly. For example, instead of checking your phone first thing in the morning (which probably jumpstarts you into stress mode as you see things to do and respond to accumulating on your screen…), replace that habit with your daily gratitude journaling. Starting your day off thinking about things you’re grateful for is a great way to start really shifting your outlook. Bookending your day with positive emotional practices is really ideal. Right when you wake up and right before you go to sleep are key patterning moments of your day. If you can start shifting the habits you start and end your day you’ll be surprised at how quickly you may see concrete results.

32.3 Shifting Your Inner Conversation

Another way of framing the shift to positive outlook is that you’re aiming to become highly aware of your inner monologue. Some people refer to the AM/FM frequency, or “Against Me vs. For Me.” This can be an easy way to categorize and identify your different ways or “frequencies” of thought. When you notice yourself having AM thoughts you know you need to switch to FM. What this could look like is, for example, noticing yourself thinking about how you wish you could afford a bigger apartment or home (or whatever else you may wish you had that you don’t!) and instead of continuing on this negative train of dissatisfied thinking you could switch to thinking about the things you do have which you’re grateful for (such as the fact that you have a decent roof over your head, warmth, food, etc. etc.).

This doesn’t mean ceasing to have goals or aim high in life. On the contrary. It simply means creating a more positive and healthy foundation from which to identify and work towards goals that you decide on from a place of positivity and wellbeing. When you work towards goals from a place of fear of scarcity you’re much more likely to self-sabotage and create obstacles at every step of your way.

The AM vs. FM concept can also be applied to self-destructive, insecure or self-abasing thoughts. You can notice yourself going down the AM road and shift to thinking about any little thing you find awesome about yourself and why. Learning how to think positively about yourself is as much a part of abundance mentality, or positive outlook, as practicing being grateful for what you have instead of wishing you had what you don’t. It’s the same thing on a different level. Both contribute to general wellbeing and the ability to be a successful minimalist in the long run. Why? Because if you’re constantly dissatisfied with your life or yourself you’re clearly going to try and compensate by acquiring more things that make you feel “better” in whatever temporary way!

32.4 Circles of Influence

“Abundance is not the absence of scarcity; it is the presence of abundance mentality.” Debasish Mridha

As we are influenced by the environment and “mentality” we’re raised with, so we are influenced by the ways of thinking of those close to us later on in life. your family members, close friends and colleagues affect the way you perceive the events that occur in your life. As a result, shifting your thinking from focus on scarcity to focusing on abundance can be made a heck of a lot easier if you surround yourself, or at least spend some of your time with, other people who already have, or are working towards, a healthy relationship with abundance!

Look at it this way. If something happens to you or you’re struggling with something in life and you tell someone about what’s going, on their reaction makes all the difference. It’s like when a toddler falls down and bumps their head…if the parent reacts in a shocked and worried way, the child is likely to burst out crying. If the parent is calm and reassuring, the child is likely to just carry on and bounce right back into whatever they were doing beforehand. Even as adults our emotional reactions are basically that simple! You may be more self-aware than your average toddler, but if someone reinforces the feeling that your situation is a shitty one, it’s going to make it harder for you to see the silver lining.

Choosing to spend more time with people who reinforce the worldview or “mentality” you want to cultivate is a perfectly valid life choice, even if it means shedding certain other friends or social circles. You can choose to go back to spending more time with them, if you really want to, once your own positive outlook feels solid enough to not be totally shifted by too much exposure to negativity and scarcity mentality. Sometimes breaking with old groups of friends can be essential to making space for your personal evolution!

32.5 Action Point Summary – Here’s What You Need to Do Now!

“Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into.” Wayne Dyer

  1. Make your current outlook conscious. Take a retrospective look at your childhood – both in and out of the home – and see how your belief in abundance may either have been encouraged or discouraged. If it was discouraged, acknowledge how that mentality may have “made sense” in those times and context, and give yourself permission to shift into something that serves you better.
  2. Put the 8 positive emotional development skills into practice. Make them into habits by using them to replace less positive habits and integrating them into your daily routine.
  3. Notice your AM and FM self-talk habits. Become hyper-aware of your inner monologue and adjust the conversation in your mind to be on the FM frequency as often as possible!
  4. Hang out with people who reinforce your positive outlook and abundance mentality! Let go of, or give yourself a break from, any relationships that drag you into scarcity mode or encourage negative thinking.
  1. A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health, The New York Times, nytimes.com
  2. 8 Positive Skills for Stress Relief, Nancy Maes, Chicago Health, chicagohealthonline.com

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