“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” -Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
In researching happiness I keep coming back to a particular concept which seems to turn up in every happiness research study, project or conversation. It also shows up as a major theme in one of my favorite author’s books, Fight Club. If that’s not enough, it will one day be a necessity when we begin traveling.
Consumerism makes people unhappy. Spending money on experiences instead of stuff promotes happiness. Hanging out with people instead of things makes life better. Buying more things and being materialistic makes us miserable. All of these scientifically backed statements point to the same door: minimalism.
Less clutter supposedly makes it easier to keep your house clean, keeps you healthier, frees up your time and money, you know, generally makes things happier for you. If my own research wasn’t enough, the scale was tipped in favor of cleaning out the house while reading The Happiness Project by Gretchin Rubin. This is exactly where I got the idea for a happiness project of my own and as she goes through the process, making various goals and efforts each month towards achieving greater happiness I’ve been haphazardly following along, with my own little goals. Not surprisingly, one of the first steps Rubin takes is reducing the clutter in her life and she loves it! Any travel blog (which this blog will hopefully grow up into) will advocate for minimalism, often simply by virtue of the fact that when you’re always on the move you cannot have more than you can carry. So when I began to feel like life was smashing me over the head with minimalism, I said to myself over a cup of tea, “Hey self, it’s time for you to minimize a little.”
I like to imagine my life as a big, green maze, with lots of different doors set into the hedge in various places. This helps me feel better about being permanently lost, as one is supposed to be lost in a maze, and to remind me to throw open some doors once in a while. If you want to get above your baseline happiness level, it appears minimalism is the heavy oak door you need to walk through on your right. For me this translates to: Get rid of the extra unnecessary things that you keep around either just-in-case, or for sentimental reasons and also stop buying junk. I threw open the door pretty enthusiastically and ran straight in to clean out my closet, discarding the many things I don’t wear. I dropped off three huge garbage bags of clothing at my local Goodwill and Matt included a bag of his own, I returned home to my no-longer-bulging-but-still-full closets and waited for the relief and happiness to wash over me. In its place came remorse, creeping in around my ankles and crawling up my skin. I was ashamed I had spent thousands of dollars on shoes and clothing, and this shame was not alleviated by the fact that I had just given them away.
I resolutely pushed through these feelings, decided to let this go, forgive myself and I reassured myself I had made the right decision. I meditated and read and after a long period of moping I thought I had moved on and really was feeling better about the new minimalist me! I was feeling so good I needed to reward myself with a bunch of fruits and vegetables and go on a juice cleanse, which I was certain would also improve my life. I went out and spent $200 on a juicer and then purchased some art supplies from Amazon. The juice cleanse gave me a headache for three days and when I started eating again I realized I had gone on a minimalism crash diet and like any good crash dieter, I was now bingeing with new purchases. I had done this before when I tried to stop buying clothing to save some money for trip, everything was going fine for about 4 months, until I needed shorts for my swimsuit or a longer skirt to hike in and suddenly I had bought seven new articles of clothing that I probably didn’t actually need. I guess I’m not a cold turkey kind of girl. I was going to have to very gently, carefully and slowly cut material things out of my flesh if I wasn’t going to accidentally amputate my entire leg, and then go buy a few new limbs.
Turns out there were a few things I was going to need to address: the endowment effect and my overactive imagination. The endowment effect is an economics term which basically says that once you own something it means more to you. So my old shoe in my closet is more valuable to me than the same old shoe on the side of the road. Well of course it is! I know exactly who puked in my shoe and I know which streets it walked and laughed down. This is compounded by my imagination which protests getting rid of things with statements such as: what if you need that formal dress because some day you might lose your job and have no money but get invited to a ball with The Rock? I keep a lot of things for what if’s (I lose 15 pounds and that fits again? I need to stroll along a boardwalk? I get invited to a 1920’s themed Halloween party?) Which is another form of: someday I might need that. Here’s the cherry on top of my minimalism-sucks-sundae, I don’t want to buy new things! If I do get invited to something (unlikely) I want my wardrobe to be able to deal with that. If I feel like sitting down and working with watercolor crayons for the first time in 4 years I want to be able to do that. I wanted to be able to look at all 37 of my sweatshirts before putting on the same one I always wear, it made me feel good but having too many choices can be paralyzing. Maybe if I got rid of 32 sweatshirts I would wear all of the remaining five.
“My sense is that over the course of human history there have been many ways to demonstrate that one is a successful person… our social economic system channelizes that so the way to demonstrate it is to show you’re wealthy,” he [Knox College psychology professor Tim Kasser] says. “The scorecard for success is about money.” In our consumer-driven culture, the system itself depends on people telling themselves they need those truck tires or that pair of shoes or whatever else Madison Avenue convinces us we need. The connection between our stuff and our self-esteem is a two-way street: If we become less materialistic, our well-being will improve. If our well-being improves, we tend to be less materialistic.
I decided I needed a new approach. Even after all my thinking and reading, I was having trouble parting with my things and I suspected that was in no small part because I was still equating stuff with success. I stumbled across a book called Unstuff Your Life by Andrew Mellen which was full of tips for organization and de-cluttering. He talked about approaching the stuff in your life like a math problem. Is it helping me or not? If not, just get rid of it and leave the imagination and emotions out of it. I’m getting rid of that puke shoe because I will never wear it again, its not helping me and the shoe doesn’t hold the memory of my birthday. This also helped remind me that it is a decision. A decision to equate success with stuff and one that I didn’t have to make, one I could decide against.
I needed to go through my whole house less emotionally and find my stuff equilibrium. Now this concept really appealed to me. My stuff equilibrium could be different than everyone else’s, I could keep some goofy knick-knacks and not feel bad about it! In order to find that balance I needed to prioritize things: I’m not getting rid of these art supplies because I want to do more art, so I have worked in my art journal almost daily. I’m keeping my dumbbells because I want to exercise at home, so I have been. This is something I can handle, every time I buy something it must be to replace something and something which really needs to be replaced. Another discovery came after I went through the closet multiple times, each time I was able to get rid of things I thought I needed before but realized I didn’t.
In this Time article above, Kesser suggests that it is possible to change but it is difficult for adults. Matt and I are already focused on saving money, perhaps we also needed to focus on donating money rather than spending it on things. This week my closet cleaning was coupled with some small donations to pig charities, in a little experiment to see if spending money on donations would make me feel less like buying things. I think it’s working! I spoke to several sanctuaries for “tea cup” pigs, who take in the pigs that were promised to stay tiny and when they grew up to 130-200 pounds were given up by their owners. I donated money to three this month and it felt wonderful, they were grateful, I could see the pigs on Facebook and I felt better about not buying the item I had my eye on. I felt justified.
I paired this with my focus on doing the things I wanted to but weren’t a priority, such as art and exercise and writing. I feel a little sad about my stuff still, all my precious stuff, but I also feel better about making room in my life for other things. The house hasn’t exactly gotten tidier, but I have high hopes for the future. I still need to go through some rooms in our house, and I’m still struggling to be more mindful and less materialistic. But I have a feeling that next year when we jettison the remainder of our things it won’t be painful, it will be a relief.0