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The burden of stuff: why less could make you happier

No one warns us about entering into a relationship with an unsuitable bathing suit or bicycle as they would with a unsuitable partner, but I think someone should. 

Think, for a moment, about the things in your closet/garage/kitchen/basement/study, how much of it would you really choose to have in your life. If you could put a sticker on everything in your home that you’ve actually used in the past week/month/year, how much would remain sticker-free? I’d be willing to guess more than 50% for many of us.

This is a problem, not just from an economic or environmental perspective, but for our quality of life. It’s so easy to see a cheap shirt/sofa/silverware and think why not just bring it home, it doesn’t cost me much, but we’re fooling ourselves.

Our stuff has weight, whether because it simply blocks our view of the more important things in our lives, or because like some parasite, it begins to suck up our time and attention. Almost everything we have in our lives affects us in some way: the extra clothes in our closets just get in the way of what we really want to wear; the extra furniture takes up space; it’s extra stuff to dust, to rearrange, to store, to lose things in.

Seeking a simpler life in the Rockies

I recently received an email from a couple (who had read my query What Makes You Happy? on Hacker News) who moved cities in order to escape the weight of their stuff. Anda and Brad Lincoln had been living where “newer cars or bigger houses or these types of things… is the thing to do” (Phoenix, Arizona) so they sold their house with a pool and trip and then settled in a place where you didn’t have to have two cars to live: Fort Collins, Colorado.

They escaped everything from their backyard pool (Anda explained it wasn’t worth the hassle of maintenance) to their extra furniture and clothes (glass tables and extra t-shirts) as they began to unload a lot of unwanted things on Craigslist and eBay (For more on their story see video The burden of stuff: seeking the simple life in the Rockies).

They continue to downsize their things and are slowly working their way toward owning just those things that really make them happy: a comfortable couch, a comfortable bed, computers and kitchen stuff (they like to cook and eat well).

“I look at every item I own as a burden,” explains Brad, “and if I am going to keep an item the happiness it gives me must be worth the burden. The burdens include: cleaning, maintaining, moving, insuring, or just worrying about an item. These all seem like small things, but they add up.”

They’ve gotten rid of both the “flashy” stuff like their BMW M3 (“It had really pretty paint and I always felt like I needed to get it washed”) and more basics like a mountain bike, but Brad says material things are still important to him, it’s just his perspective that has changed. “In the past I valued equipment and hobbies over basic items like a comfortable place to sit and sleep or good food to eat.” 

A simple life of shared luxury

There’s nothing new about a move toward voluntary simplicity, but neither Brad nor his wife Anda are trying to make an environmental or political statement with their change of life, and they certainly haven’t renounced the good life. 

“I like nice things”, explained Brad during a video chat the other day, “I don’t want to own nice things, but I want to use nice things. For example I like the idea of going and renting, although And a makes fun of me on this, a Porsche and driving up US Highway 1 from San Francisco to Portland. I think that would be great, but I don’t want to own a Porsche.” 

His attitude actually jibes perfectly with the movements toward shared libraries of stuff, like carsharing, bikesharing or toolsharing. (see article Inconspicuous Consumption). Brad also added that he wouldn’t want a second home to take care of, but would love to rent nice homes for vacations.

Saying no to freebies

For many years, I paid the price for not recognizing the weight cheap, or free, stuff. Mediocre clothes overran my closet and less-than-mediocre swag (all those free totebags and electronics from media events) cluttered my drawers and tabletops. Today, I generally say no to free giveaways (except one totebag from Skunkfunk I used daily for over a year until it wore out last month) and I try to think before I shop for clothes (see Slow Shopping in Italy, France and Spain).

The idea that more- especially when free- isn’t necessarily better may run counter to our more impulsive instincts (even billionaire heiress Paris Hilton swipes more than her share of freebies), but I think it syncs perfectly with a more basic long-term, even infantile, instinct we have against clutter.

Our infantile instinct for minimalism

If you watch children play you’ll recognize this proclivity toward more spare surroundings. There’s an unwritten rule among many mothers I know that you would never leave all of a child’s toys within their reach. By putting away at least half in storage somewhere, the child doesn’t suffer from overload of inputs and actually tends to enjoy the few things within his reach substantially more. 

I’m not sure it’s because fewer toys force them to be more creative and actually invent games of play rather than simply become distracted by a large pile of playthings, but I’m convinced less stuff means greater satisfaction for your kids (and you, if you enjoy the moments when your kids are absorbed in play).

What’s in your childhood backpack?

It’s so easy to allow yourself to become lured in by cheap goods or the thought that one more kitchen appliance or sporting good will finally turn you into Jamie Oliver or Lance Armstrong, but maybe this is when we need to remember our favorite playthings of childhood. 

How many toys do you remember? I remember just one: my stuffed monkey Curious George. The rest just got in the way of our relationship.