“There is no greater sin than desire, No greater curse than discontent, No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself. Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” – Lao Tzu
Is it possible that the traditional American value of consuming, amassing possessions, and constantly trying to one-up yourself with bigger and better things might not be making you as happy as you think?
There are many ways that having too much is hazardous to a healthy way of life. The more you own, the more time and mental energy you spend keeping track of it, and the more you worry about breaking or losing what you worked so hard to get. A cluttered environment causes stress, conscious or not, every time you come home and look at it. And the more stuff you need to maintain your lifestyle, the harder and longer you need to work to pay for it. The cycle is endless. You think once you have something, “then I’ll be happy”- but once you have it you just want something else. It’s best not to get caught up in the whole thing.
Stuff has a way of tying us down instead of freeing us. How many of your possessions bring you happiness and joy, and how many, at best, needlessly clutter your environment, and at worst, create worry, fear and anxiety? The more expensive or complicated your stuff is, the more you fret about all the things that could go wrong with it, or how you’re not using it enough, or how difficult it will be to maintain. The more you need to keep track of, the more headaches you have.
Accumulating possessions we don’t need or can’t afford, though, is what our culture trains us to do. It controls how we work and collect debt- forcing us to work long beyond what we find enjoyable and productive. You work hard in college so you can get a good job with a good salary and work harder. You use your spare income to get a car, but instead of buying something you can afford, you lease something flashier than you need. Now you’re stuck working so you can keep making those payments. In the meantime, you use your credit card to buy more stuff you don’t have the cash for (note: I’m not talking about responsible credit card use here, where you pay off the balance every month, which is necessary to built credit)- maybe a new TV, or fancy furniture, or expensive clothes so you can impress the people around you, etc, and now you’ve got more monthly payments you need to make. A few years later you get a big promotion, and instead of paying off your debt, you use the extra money to put a down payment on a house. And now you’re really screwed, since you’ll be working the rest of your life to pay off that house (and we all now know housing prices don’t always go up). If you’re lucky, when you’re 65 you’ll get to retire and actually start enjoying your life.
What if, instead, you could learn to be happy with less? The world opens up to you. You don’t need to work so long and hard to pay for a bunch of stuff you don’t need. You can spend your time with the people you love and pursuing hobbies that make you happy. You reduce the clutter and distraction in your environment so your mind is free to spend dreaming about bigger and better things. You can make radical changes in lifestyle. It’s those people who overconsume who wistfully think, if only I could quit my job, if only I could take off for South America, if only I could spent my days playing cello/learning to cook/doing japanese woodworking like I’ve always wanted to. Don’t be one of those people. It’s attachment to material things that keeps you locked down, that forces you to work when you don’t want to, and that stifles your creativity and spirit.
If the status quo seems like a scam to you too, then here are some tips you can use to shift to a healthier relationship with material possessions:
1. Declutter. Go through your house/apartment/work areas and look at your counters, tabletops, desk and dresser surfaces. One space at a time, clear everything off and put it into a pile. Take each object, and consider how useful or necessary it is. Can you trash it? Give it away? If you’re asking yourself, “Can I really get rid of this?” the answer is yes. Consider getting rid of purposeless/decorative knick knaks. If there are things you want to keep, put them away instead of leaving them littering your countertops. Reducing visible clutter is an important step in reducing the distraction and stress too much stuff can create, and introducing you to the idea of getting rid of things.
2. Dig a little deeper. Go through your closets, drawers, cabinets and other non-visible spaces, and get rid of the stuff you don’t need, don’t enjoy, or don’t use regularly. One space at a time, empty everything out and put each item in one of three piles: trash, donate and keep. Be ruthless. Don’t skip stuff- make a decision and put it into a pile. If think you may need it someday, and are worried to get rid of it, put it in a box and tape it up. If after six months you haven’t thought about the box, you know what to do. If you haven’t used something in a long time, ask yourself, why am I holding on to it? What does it symbolize for me? Remember that people and memories are not synonymous with possessions. Just because you want to donate the sweater your aunt gave you doesn’t mean you don’t love you aunt. If there’s something you don’t use but that holds sentimental value, why not take a digital photo and then give it away, guilt-free? You’ll be amazed at how much freer and lighter you feel after doing this, and how much of your stuff you wont mind being gone. Just the simple act of clearing your environment can clear your thoughts and make you feel less stressed and burdened.
3. Consider the big stuff. Really look at the big purchases you’ve made. Which do you need, which make you happy, and which create headaches and stress? Where is your debt? A mortgage, car payments, credit card bills? Are there areas you could downsize? Maybe a simpler car, a smaller house, less furniture? What would downsizing in these areas get you? Less clutter, more simplicity, more freedom? Would it give you the chance to reduce your work hours and follow a passion you’ve been wanting to for a long time? Consider areas would you could edit large, expensive and potentially burdensome things out of your life, and take action when you’re ready and when its feasible.
4. Try a radical 30-day experiment of minimalist consumerism. Now that you’ve rid yourself of unnecessary or excessive possessions, it’s time to start buying less in the first place. For the next month buy ONLY what you NEED. I’m talking about the absolute essentials of daily living- food, toilet paper, gas, etc. It’s extreme, but it will show you how much money you waste on meaningless stuff you don’t need and that doesn’t bring you happiness- at least not in the long run. After the month, you can start buying things again, but do so more mindfully and thoughtfully.
5. Consider alternatives to buying. When you need or want something, is there a way you can get it other than buying new? Can you borrow it? Buy it used from a thrift shore or garage sale? Find it on craigslist? Get a hand-me-down from a friend or family member? Make it? Can you postpone getting it until you find it one of these other ways?
6. Practice delayed gratification. When you see something you want, instead of buying it right away, write it down and think about it. Thirty days later, look at your list. If you still want the item, then you can get it. Practice interrupting the process of “want” turning directly and immediately into “buy.” I do this, and it saves me from buying big ticket items mindlessly or impulsively. Try it and you might be surprised how often your desire for something wanes over just a few weeks. We’re bombarded by signals of “Buy! Buy!” all the time- in billboards, store windowsills, TV commercials, that coworker who always looks so stylish- your job is to ignore these signals. Simply deferring the period of time between “wanting” and “buying” for at least thirty days will likely drastically cut the amount of stuff you collect. As a bonus, you’re more likely to enjoy your purchases if you have to wait a little to get them.
7. Spend money where it counts. I read an article in the New York Times that explains this concept a lot better than me, but to summarize, money spent on hobbies and experiences is a lot more likely to bring happiness than money spent on stuff. Instead of buying a fancy car, get a more modest one and take a trip to Europe. Instead of a 60 inch plasma TV, get some golf clubs so you can play with you friends. But don’t let this be an excuse to go out and buy the most high tech equipment- you can still get those golf clubs used. Wait until your still level exceeds the quality of your gear before you decide to upgrade.
8. Open your mind to new possibilities. This is the end goal, in my mind, of why its worthwhile to radically change your relationship with material possessions. I think a lot of people may think they’re happy, but it’s because they don’t take the time to consider anything better, or they assume its not possible, or they’re afraid to make a change. ANYTHING is possible. It’s not just luck, or natural talent, or advantage that leads people to achieve prolific and authentic lives- it’s a decision they make to pursue something with reckless abandon.
9. Consider a radical change in lifestyle. Have you always wanted to quit your job and open a restaurant? Move to the French Riviera? Start a business? What would you want if every option in the world were open to you? All these things are possible. When you have less, and need less, the energy of activation to make a change is much lower. There’s no debt hanging over your head, fewer things you need to lug on your jaunt around the world, no ridiculous lifestyle that needs to be maintained. You’re free.
10. That’s pretty much all I have. I just wanted to round it out to 10 tips.