Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Much Stuff Does It Take to Be Happy?

Recently, my young friend Lori wrote about paring down her possessions so she can move to the east coast and attend a writing program. In her post, she lists five benefits of owning less, including
  • saving money,
  • gaining appreciation of the stuff you decide to keep,
  • traveling and relocating more easily,
  • making other people happy by giving them your castoff things, and
  • reducing the urge to buy more stuff and thereby overspend.
To Lori's list, I'd add this bullet:
  • feeling great about "treading more lightly on the earth," counteracting the trend seen in this terrific, and terrifying, video:

Anyway, the subject of stuff is one I've been thinking about for years. It started with a study I read in Utne Reader about 15 or so years ago. It reported that the happiest people on earth were living in a tiny town in India, where a person with a stool to sit on was considered rich. In spite of the dearth of physical possessions, the people in this village managed to educate their children from a communal library, maintain good health, and have strong social bonds. 

This shocked me. I haven't been able to find it on the web to share it with you, and it may not still be valid, but the point is, it got me thinking. Up until then, like many people around me, I'd measured success in monetary terms. For example, one of my goals was to earn enough money to buy a pair of gold hoop earrings. When I finally had enough extra money for them, I judged I'd really "made it."

BUT -- what was next? What would really make me and the kids happier? (We were already happy, I should add.) More stuff to follow the earrings?? Accumulating possessions seems to be the goal of many of us in this country. I kept thinking about this. And buying more stuff.

I found it difficult, if not impossible, to go against the flow, to take a different direction than the larger society, regardless of any intentions otherwise. As time went on, though, I began feeling weighed down. Possessions were supposed bring happiness, but the pleasure was short-lived, and then I had to worry about housing, cleaning around, and moving an ever-increasing amount of stuff.

When the kids left home for college about a decade ago, I started paring down, hoping to lighten this burden. About halfway through that process, Bill and I met, married, and merged households, so I got to weed out even more stuff. Then the kids needed us to store "just a few boxes" for them. During that time, I felt like I'd acquired some very bad "garage karma" because no sooner did I get it cleaned out, than it would magically fill up again, with no help from me.

Now, a few years later, I'm in the final stages of what turned into a gigantic effort. Last year, Bill and I moved into the city to be closer to his work and cultural activities. Because homes here cost nearly twice as much per square foot as the suburban home we'd left, and we wanted to tread more lightly on the earth, we bought a small house, small enough, in fact, to be considered a "cottage." However, in spite of my efforts up to now, we still had way too much stuff to fit in it. Now, after another whole year of weeding out, and with some things still to give away, we can finally walk around the house  without tripping over too many things.

We fit everything into our cottage, almost.
While it's been a big adjustment to live in such as small space, by today's American standards anyway, I'm pleased to report being much, much happier here than when living in a far larger house with lots and lots more stuff.

In sum, if I had it to do all over again, this would be my theme, as gorgeously performed by Ella Fitzgerald:

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Random Road Revelations said...

Megan, I love your writing. I laughed when I read the line about how your kids "needed us to store 'just a few boxes' for them." My dad recently demanded that we kids rid his house of our boxes. Currently, everything of mine fits in one large box in my dad's garage which I can not fit into my car and will have to be taken back to Roanoke after Christmas. ...I also loved your reassurance that you are much happier now than when you lived in a larger house with more possessions. That gives me hope:)

Megan Seagren said...

Thanks, Lori! You know I love your writing, too. When you're passionate about something, the page vibrates with it.