Could Living With Less Make You Happier and Wealthier?

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January 19, 2017 | 181,232 views

Story at-a-glance

  • While there’s no scientific data to show that living with less stuff will increase your happiness, a growing number of people insist that this is in fact part of the equation
  • An estimated 70 percent of American homeowners cannot park their car in the garage due to it being filled with stuff that doesn’t fit inside the house
  • The average credit card debt for Americans who carry a balance is $16,000. Meanwhile, financial hardship and work stress are two significant contributors to depression and anxiety. The answer is to buy less

By Dr. Mercola

Are you happy? Do you feel your life has meaning and purpose? If the answer is not a resounding yes, have you given thought as to what might be blocking your sense of happiness and purpose? Could it be that you have too much STUFF?

I've written a number of articles about the health benefits of happiness and offered many different strategies shown to increase your happiness level, but I've never approached the subject from the angle of re-evaluating your material possessions.

While there's no wealth of scientific data to show that living with less stuff will increase your happiness, a growing number of people insist that this is in fact part of the equation.

Over the past few years, a trend best known as "minimalism" has sprung up, with converts hailing the elimination of excess material trappings as the answer to their growing sense of unhappiness and discontent. "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things," which is available on Netflix, has helped spread that message.

Why Do We Hold on to Things?

Minimizing your belongings is often easier said than done. Even people who are not hoarders tend to struggle when it comes to ditching certain items. In psychology terms, the reason we're so emotionally attached to things is because of the "endowment effect"2 — we tend to value items more highly once we own them. Once something is ours, it becomes "special."

In the video above, this and other psychological underpinnings of emotional attachment to material things are explained. Not only do we learn, from an early age, to equate our own "self" with the things we own, we also have a tendency to view things as being imbued with a certain "essence."

This "magical thinking" is a major reason why it's so difficult to part with family heirlooms in particular. Giving or throwing such items away equates to discarding the person it belonged to — whose "essence" is still considered part of that object. 

Hoarding disorder3 is in part caused by an exaggerated sense of responsibility and protectiveness of these "special" items. The crux is that ALL items become special in the eyes of a hoarder. In essence, hoarding is the endowment effect on steroids, and it may be more common than previously thought. An estimated 15 million Americans have hoarding disorder, which can be hard to treat and overcome, but there's a wide spectrum of over-accumulation.

Americans in general tend to own far more stuff than they need or can even properly care for. According to Sandra Stark, who works with a peer-led hoarding response team at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, 70 percent of Americans who own homes cannot park their car in the garage due to it being filled to the hilt with stuff that doesn't fit inside the house.4

Psychological Trick That May Help You Shed More Stuff

Understanding the psychology behind your attachments may help you declutter your space and let go of some (or a lot) of your excess. As noted by Tom Stafford in a previous BBC article on this topic:5

"Knowing the powerful influence that possession has on our psychology, I take a simple step to counteract it … Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it. Quite reasonably, I would ask myself whether I should throw this away.

At this point, although I didn't have a name for it, the endowment effect would begin to work its magic, leading me to generate all sorts of reasons why I should keep an item based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable I found it. After hours of tidying I would have kept everything, including the 300 hundred rubber bands (they might be useful one day), the birthday card from two years ago (given to me by my mother) and the obscure computer cable (it was expensive).

Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn't have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn't have it, I wouldn't want this. Let this anti-endowment effect technique perform its magic for you, and you too will soon be joyously throwing away things that you only think you want, but actually wouldn't trouble yourself to acquire if you didn't have them."

For sentimental items, Millburn suggest taking photographs of them before you send them on their way. While the item doesn't actually hold your memory, things can trigger memories. But you don't need the actual item. A photo of the item can accomplish this just as well. 

What Can You Gain From Owning Less?

In the two TEDx Talk videos above, Millburn and Nicodemus share many stories of what they've gained by letting go of their stuff and refraining from buying more than they actually need and use. This includes:

Working less yet having more money

Having more time and energy to look after your health

Cultivating and prioritizing personal relationships

Having the time to pursue your passions

Being able to contribute time and money to help others

Less stress

While the idea of owning nothing but the bare necessities will not appeal to everyone, many could probably benefit from taking a closer look at their material possessions and questioning their pursuit of material goods. What are you actually seeking? What do you imagine you'll gain once the item is yours?

Retaining only the items that actually add value to your life can be an excellent way of editing your life down to more manageable levels, decreasing much self-inflicted stress and easing financial woes. As noted by Millburn and Nicodemus, the purpose of minimalism is to get the benefits you experience once all the clutter is gone.

'Love People and Use Things'

Consumption itself is not the problem; unchecked compulsory shopping is. It's like being on a hamster wheel — you keep shopping, thinking happiness and life satisfaction will come with it. Yet it never does. Many times, accumulation of material goods is a symptom that you may be trying to fill a void in your life.

The problem is that void can never be filled by material things. More often than not, the void is silently asking for more love, connection and experiences that bring purpose and passionate engagement.

Part of the answer is to stop trying to find life meaning through the act of shopping and to become a more deliberate consumer. If an item is not going to have a useful purpose or bring you great joy, it will probably only get in the way of your efforts to find purpose and joy. Worthwhile questions you may want to ask yourself as you go about decluttering your space include:

If you fail to address and answer these kinds of questions, you're likely to refill your empty spaces with new things, which defeats the whole purpose of doing it in the first place. Purging without also following through on not buying more stuff will only feed the destructive consumer cycle — a cycle that is currently taking a tremendous toll on the global environment. "Love people and use things, because the opposite never works," the two minimalists say, and that's a motto we could all benefit from.

Also please remember our lead story yesterday on what happens to clothes when you donate them. It discussed the surprising destination of most of the clothes you donate. The ultimate long-term solution is not to keep donating but to tackle the fundamental cause of the problem, apply the principles of this article and not purchase them in the first place.

In my case, I typically purchase clothes every five years or so, but I noticed that I had an abundance of clothes that I never wear. I realized that most of them were gifts from well-intentioned relatives who really did not know what to gift to me other than clothes. So I had to tell them to stop giving me clothes, as most of them I never wear and simply have to get rid of.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Value Penguin, Average Credit Card Debt in America 2016
  • 2 Smithsonian Magazine July 23, 2012
  • 3, 4 Pacific Standard April 29, 2013
  • 5 BBC July 17, 2012