The decision to be more intentional about material possessions and the way our family lived was not an easy one. It took many years of trial and error. It took doing things to pursue what we thought was the American dream. It took accumulating years of clutter. We realized that what made us happiest was freedom. Freedom from things. Freedom to have the time to experience life. Freedom to do the things we always wanted to do.
In a recent Cornell University study on happiness, “To Do or to Have? That Is the Question”, researchers Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich pose the following question about what makes us happy:
“We live in a world of unprecedented abundance. Although few of us can live up to the advertising slogan that invites us to “have it all,” a growing swath of the population in developed countries has more discretionary income than ever before. We devote a considerable portion of our resources to the pursuit of “the good life”—one of contentment, pleasure, and happiness. For many of us, deciding how to invest our resources to maximize happiness is a challenge: We wonder whether we are as happy as we might be, given the resources at our disposal. We wonder whether more money, more leisure, or more stuff would make us happier. These queries may not apply to everyone, of course; individuals with severely limited resources may (rightfully) worry more about satisfying basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing (Maslow, 1943). But for the fortunate majority in developed countries who enjoy a substantial measure of discretionary income, one can ask whether there is a simple, empirically grounded strategy to guide the allocation of resources in the pursuit of happiness. The thesis examined in this article is that happiness is advanced more by allocating discretionary income toward the acquisition of life experiences than toward the acquisition of material possessions. “The good life,” in other words, may be better lived by doing things than by having things.. . . Bigger houses and faster cars, it seems, don’t make us any happier” (p. 6). -Van Boven and Gilovich, Excerpted “To do or To have”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,Vol. 85, No. 6, 1193–1202
I will start this blog by admitting that we are well aware this decision may seem aloof in some ways; we do realize that people are struggling for basic necessities of food and water around the world. But actually, our desire to reduce the resources we use and help the world by freeing up our time to volunteer and give back, meshes with the mindset of minimalism. As we delve more into what minimalism means, we realize that we want to be better world citizens in the process and waste less of the world’s resources. As such, minimalism is a bit against the grain still of many societies, and it is only recently gaining attention, perhaps because society is seeing that the promise of more does not bring happiness. Perhaps because we have moved to a world where consumption is easier than ever before, and the manufacture of goods has become increasingly available, and see some of the downfalls.
A lot of people ask me, but what are you doing this? Here are few reasons why:
- The clutter in my life kept me from pursuing the things I loved. I often blamed my lack of organization for not having a better family schedule or not having time to pursue my passions, like writing and going back to school. But the reality is, you only have so much time in a day. I was being too hard on myself to think that I could really manage to keep things organized the way I wanted them, with the amount of stuff we had accumulated over the years. We moved recently a few times, and while we were living in a temporary apartment with only the basics we had a big realization about owning less. What we realized is that we did not miss our “stuff”. Having less stuff in the way, gave us more time; we had more to time to work out, spend time with the kids on the weekend, and start to get involved in our new community.
- It takes less time to maintain a home. The amount of time it takes me to clean keeps getting smaller, as I reduce more and more clutter from our lives. Having less actually opens up more time to do other things that we have been putting off for years.
- Material things made me feel trapped. The more things I accumulated over the years and kept, the more a sense of unhappiness settled in. Weekends became a time to organize and reorganize, and no storage solution seemed to help. I realized that the things that were supposed to make me happy, actually ate away at my time with my family and deterred my personal development.
- A big home didn’t bring happiness with it. As part of this journey, we realized we didn’t need to have an enormous house to be happy. In Texas, where the cost of living was a lot lower, we owned an almost 4,000 square foot home, and it was still cluttered and never seemed to really make us happy. Actually, the bigger the home was, the more time we had to spend keeping it up. When we moved, we decided against buying a big house again. We decided that is not the life we wanted. With our journey beginning into minimalism, our decision to downsize came at a great time, and we made the decision to buy a smaller home. We recently bought to a townhome, and I am noticing that the smaller space is much more efficient for our family’s needs. We don’t even use our lower level, which next time we move, we may decide to go even smaller.
- Financial freedom. The burden of a large mortgage and property taxes never allowed us to save up for travel or other activities we wanted to do as a family. We missed many trips with relatives and friends, and many events we wanted to attend. Having less, we are able to save up for college funds for our children and also save money to give them experiences, instead of more material things that give momentary joy.
- No longer caring about The Joneses. I always said when I was young that I would never care about The Joneses. But as life settled in, we realized that a home was a display of the success we had achieved; we were proud of it. Over the years, our attitudes have changed on this. The decisions we make have more to do on what we desire for our own lives, versus what other people think. Thinking of life this way is freeing. When we moved into a townhome, we faced some questions from people on why we would want to make this decision to give up our yard and have a our kids share a room. What we realized is that what works for our family is what matters. What other people think really doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. The less we cared about The Joneses, the more clear we became about what worked for our family and what we wanted in life. We no longer had to pursue this illusion of success based on material things.
- Scientific research supports many of the ideas of minimalism. I love science, and all things related to research. And as I continue this blog, I will share some of the interesting research findings about living clutter-free and minimalism. Recently published psychological studies at my alma matter, Cornell University, suggest that experiences rather than material things produce the most happiness for people. According to Professor Tom Gilovich,
“People often think spending money on an experience is not as wise an investment as spending it on a material possession,” Gilovich says. “They think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they’ll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession.” -Professor Gilovich, Cornell University.
The study, “To do or To have that is the question” suggests that experiences produced more positive feelings than material things. Van Boven and Gilovich go on to conclude that individuals who invest money in experiences, rather than material things display higher levels of happiness, and further, suggest that communities should more towards providing people opportunities for experiences.
- I want to lead a healthier life, and clutter-free environments may enable this. A recent study at Cornell called, “Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mindset in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments” suggests that cluttered kitchens actually influenced eating patterns. In the “chaotic kitchens” as they called it, participants over-consumed more unhealthy foods. The study suggests that our environment can influence the choices we make related to eating. I can personally attest, that when we lived in a temporary apartment, free of clutter, we were working out 4-5 times a week. After we moved into our new home and our stuff arrived, we are still trying to get things cleared out to have enough time.
Overall, this experience has been very positive, but it is a learning process. I am still making my way through years of things and it isn’t always pretty. There are external and internal changes, and they are messy, a topic I will write about in the next post. But all in all, this process is changing our family in ways we never thought possible. We are gaining a new perspective on life.