This post is written by our friend Jerome, Founder & Chief Design Officer at Ribot, an awesome digital design studio based a skip and a hop away from the Happy Startup School in Brighton. Follow his medium collection for more articles to inspire you.
How to let go and lead a happier life.
I realised this morning that at its heart, this isn’t a story about what we do or don’t own. It goes far far deeper.
This is a story about deep-seated fear and anxiety.
The challenge of material wealth
After the Second World War, we in the Western world went through a profound and prolonged phase of economic growth. The birth of the American Dream, the rise and fall of the industrial economy, giving way to a more educated and relatively less gender-biased workforce.
Rising affluence brought about wealth for so many. We had increasing amounts of money to spend, and there were so many ways to spend it. The inadvertent pursuit of material wealth was profound, and its captivating power remains to this day, for a number of reasons:
1. It’s attached to our identity
We believe that what we own is who we are; how we are perceived. That one is intrinsically linked to the other.
2. It’s the happiness felt through acquisition
Research shows that when we buy things, they provide a short term rush and along with it, a hope that our future will be better due to our spending.
3. It’s about status
Our material wealth provides a visual, physical and immediately comparable yardstick of relative success next to our peers. Research shows that we tend to use our accumulated trinkets to say “I’m not like you. I’m unique. I’m better.” Recent blog Rich Kids of Instagram shows this effect very well.
4. It’s highly demonstrable in the new boom economies
China provides a great new case study about how rapid, significant economic growth and material gain – albeit highly unequal in its distribution – is dramatically affecting perceptions of importance in society. Recent research by IPSOS shows that Chinese citizens rank highest in a poll on material gain as a means of understanding one’s success.
Percentage who agree with the statement “I measure my success by the things I own.” Compiled from data by Ipsos
The research also shows that Chinese citizens are under the most pressure to conform to this way of living.
Percentage who agree with the statement “I feel under a lot of pressure to be successful and make money.” Compiled from data by Ipsos
So yes, the power, attraction and, perhaps most importantly, the pressure of attaining material wealth is not just still here, but that perhaps, it’s more extreme than ever, given the never-before-seen speed of change in once-dormant economies like China.
But for all their attraction, it would be foolish to think that all these material aspirations, charts and data suggest that the ultimate outcome is an increased level of happiness.
To be clear, in this article, I’m discussing not money, but material wealth. Recent research by Stevenson and Wolfers has shown, surprisingly, that there is a direct linear relationship between money earned and numerous indicators of wellbeing. Crazy but true.
And nor am I focusing too much on the the trade-off between material and experiential expenditure. Nevertheless, it’s worth holding in your mind the following quote by Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich as you read through the more practical advice of how to manage your material life:
“People often make a rational calculation: I have a limited amount of money, and I can either go there, or I can have this,” he says. “If I go there, it’ll be great, but it’ll be done in no time. If I buy this thing, at least I’ll always have it. That is factually true, but not psychologically true. We adapt to our material goods.”
These are uniquely personal spaces. They’re where we keep our possessions, to where we can retreat and feel safe. Our homes are where we tend to believe our identity is strongest, in relation to our work environment or local sports club.
Over time, we make consumer decisions, gather gifts, investments, memories, assumptions on our future desires. All this leads to the slow amassing of objects that we feel reinforce who we are, who we want to be or how we want others to perceive us.
It’s easy to see these things as an extension of who we are. And it’s very very easy to gather. It happens slowly, almost invisibly, like the process of aging. It’s barely noticeable.
And so we have all this stuff. All around us. Building over time. But beyond our identity, what does it mean for our happiness?
The relationship between material ownership and happiness
Simply, research shows that owning more doesn’t lead to greater happiness. Moreover, if you focus less on material gain, you’ll experience:
- Increased well-being
- Heightened awareness of others
- Less loneliness
- A stronger sense of purpose
- Lower levels of depression / mental health issues
As an extension, beyond happiness, our attachment to a lot of the things that gather around us are because we either hold on to anxieties of the past or fear the future. They might be the very thing that make us feel unhappy…
My own wake-up moment
in June 2014, I came back from an inspirational trip to Argentina. I love to cook, and the countless asados and dulce de leche threw my senses into overdrive. I was inspired to experiment and explore these new-found joys when I returned. I excitedly opened a food cupboard in my kitchen…and everything all came tumbling out and onto the floor.
There was so much stuff in there! It was just too full. I realised I had too much. I hoarded spices, jars and things I couldn’t even pronounce. It overwhelmed me. It made me anxious. When I looked at it all, I felt frustrated. It was just noise, devoid of feeling. I simply didn’t feel like cooking any longer. How could it be that my possessions prevented me from doing the very thing I enjoyed so much? Why?!?
A few weeks later, someone randomly posted a link on Facebook to a new book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Its premise is simple:
“Get rid of anything in your life that doesn’t bring you joy.”
Essentially, you go through a brutal process of discarding. That instead of asking yourself the more conventional question:
What shall I discard?
The book turns this point on its head, proposing that the right question to ask yourself is:
What shall I keep?
The outcome is that only the things you value will remain in your life; those things that you actually derive joy from. I was keen to try it.
What follows is an outline of what the book suggests you do, along with a few tips and some of my own experiences, having been through the process.
1. Gather all items from that category into one single space in your house.
2. Place them all on a large flat surface. This way, you can see them clearly in a single space.
3. Pick each item up, one at a time. Recognise that for each object, there’ll be a unique attachment. Respect this.
4. Touch it. Smell it. Taste it (if need be)
5. Deeply think about your connection to the object. How does it make you feel? You might feel anxious. You might feel nothing…
6. Does it give you pleasure? Does it spark joy within you?
7. Or does it represent a past failing that you can’t let go of? Are you holding on to this thing because there’s something from your past that troubles you. Stacks of old magazines that you promised yourself you’d look through? A pair of trousers that you were given at Christmas that you’ve never worn?
8. Maybe you’re holding onto it because of a fear of the future? Is there something you’re clinging on to that represents a potential future you that, in reality, is highly unlikely to come into being? That unused pair of rugby boots…the pasta machine on your top shelf… It’s okay to admit that you’ll never use these things. Your future is always richer than the possessions you own today.
9. Let it go. No joy? Get rid of it.
10. Thank the object. This one might sound a little silly, but is very important. For every object you have, there is some historical relationship or experience you’d shared together. I have a top that I wore to an event. It was was a great event. But this doesn’t mean I want the top any more; that I should keep it. I’ve not wore the top in years. It’s done its job. We shared that moment. That was enough. Thank it sincerely and say goodbye.
11. Put it into a bin liner / box. Once you’ve thanked the object, pop it into a bag or box and move on to the next item. Don’t dwell. Don’t worry.
12. Give it to charity. Don’t just dump all your things in the trash. Recycle or take to a local charity store. It’ll make you feel all the better to know that these items could be going to a home where they’ll bring joy once again.
Do it by category, not by room / space
It’s important that declutter in a way that allows you to compare and contrast items of a similar nature. The act of sorting through an entire room means that you’ll need to balance lots of different types of object (clothes, papers, books, letters). Instead, sort through one category at a time. For instance, bring all clothes from around your home into one space to see how many you really have. You’ll be able to see how many trousers you have, which you use, and which perhaps you don’t like or need any longer.
Start with the practical
By beginning the process with the more everyday, less emotionally-attached items in your life like clothes or books, you’ll be able to work through your possessions a lot faster. Tackling these categories initially allows you to train yourself to tackle the more challenging, increasingly sentimental and painful objects that potentially you’ve held onto for a long time and find it very difficult to let go of.
Progress to the emotional
That clarinet. Y’know, the one in that old box that you’ve not played in 20 years. The one your late father got you for your 15th birthday and desperately wanted you to play, much against your will. Will you ever play it now? Are you only keeping it because you fear you’ll disappoint him somehow if you admit defeat and let go of the object? Did you ever enjoy playing clarinet anyway?? Did it ever bring you any joy whatsoever!?? No. Let it go.
Focus on yourself
Work on your own possessions first. If you live with another, it can be tempting to try and go through this process for both of you. Don’t. They’ll eventually see the benefits of what you’re doing. They need to come to this realisation without you forcing their hand, because…
Attachment is uniquely personal
You cannot declutter for another person. It is their own personal bond to that object that they need to reflect on, understand and work through. You have no right to do this on their behalf. It can cause them immense upset if you do. This is their journey. Respect that.
Don’t ask for advice
Other people will slow down your decluttering process. Don’t ask for their opinion on whether an item is worth keeping or not.
Be sensitive about gifts
If a friend sees a gift they gave you be cast away, it can be very painful for them. You know that your relationship to them isn’t dictated by an object, and goes far far further. They may find it hard to look beyond their present feelings, even if you tell them otherwise.
Expect fatigue and emotional pain
The process is very mentally tiring. You’re constantly searching within yourself to look for a bond, pain, or fear attached to each object. You’ll be reminded of painful memories; of the fear of how not having this object will leave you in the future. Accept this as a necessary part of the process.
The process of decluttering takes time, especially to begin with. It can be very strange to say goodbye to so many of your things. It takes time to be comfortable with this. If you get tired, leave everything as is and come back to the group of objects the following day. You’ll be impressed with how much easier it will be to decide, once you’ve got used to the process and had a chance to refect.
Keep the outcome in mind
At points, You may wonder why exactly you’re going through this challenging process. Why bother?!
Don’t worry. This is natural. Gently remind yourself that you’re not simply getting rid of your life; of who you are. Quite the opposite! You’re actually looking to embrace who you are more fully. To look around you and only see things that bring you immense joy is a profound feeling that you’ll wish you did many many years ago.
My own experience
Books are incredibly powerful, especially amongst the educated. They say
“Jerome. You’re smart. You’re knowledgeable. You’re interesting. You’re worldly. You’re worth knowing.”
Books don’t just furnish a room. Books furnish your perceived identity.
And I had 100s of books. Books about economics, fiction, non-fiction, reference books, cooking books, all stashed away in various places around the house.
I pulled them all out and laid them out flat on the floor.
I looked at each, picked it up one at a time, and said to it:
“Book, if I may be so honest, do you actually bring me joy?” Moreover, might I be attached to you because you hold the key to others’ positive perceptions of me? Do you perhaps represent an unfulfilled dream or a past failure that I’ve yet to come to terms with?”
I reluctantly accepted that in some cases, they do. In the past, I didn’t do so well in A-Level Maths, and I kept my maths books because I had unresolved anxiety towards that failure. The reality is that I don’t have time to resolve this issue from my youth. Likely, I never will. More importantly, it’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to fail.
I also had a few books on raw vegan food. I had a future vision alongside these books of being ultra-healthy in the future. But I’ve never used them! Never opened any of them! And I’m still pretty healthy. Having such objects doesn’t change this fact. Not one bit.
Other books I simply had no interest in, were a forgotten relic of the past, were gifts or formed part of the majority I promised myself I’d eventually get around to reading. The crushing reality is that “eventually” really means “highly unlikely to ever get around to reading ”. In conclusion, for all these books, the only thing I had in common was that I felt no joy for them.
So one by one, I thanked each one and placed it in a box to be given to charity. It was an emotional experience, which got easier as I progressed. It took about 3 passes, across about a week. I ended up getting rid of about 90% of my books. I now have about 10. These are mostly cooking books, because that’s what actually brings me joy. I have a gardening book too. These are what I value. I haven’t missed what I’ve given away. Thinking about it, I can barely remember what they were, in any regard.
This process of letting go of my meaningless possessions has been incredibly powerful.
From fear to rekindled appreciation
Though it was scary to go through the process — I’d naturally attached my identity to each thing that I’d bought, downloaded or was given. The only things in my possession now are those that have real meaning or value to me. I look around myself and get excited. I feel incredible things. I now have a lot less, but I appreciate what remains a lot more.
A new, unexpected type of joy
I was always a clean freak, but it’s made the process of tidying significantly faster. There’s now a mental and physical space to enthusiastically bring in a loved one’s possessions into my life; possessions that have greater meaning and joy to me that many of the things I had owned myself. This brings me a sort of joy I never anticipated I’d feel when I started the process or that I’d thought I’d experience in my own life. An appreciation of objects that goes far beyond my own identity, and that is something truly profound indeed.
Convincing others of the value of this cathartic method of decluttering is a slow, patient one. But by going through the process yourself, you’ll quickly see the benefits. You’ll want to share your story with others…
You’ll want to tell them how little you have in your life, yet how you feel so incredibly rich and surrounded by such meaningful joy through the few things that remain.
So if our unswerving pursuit of material gain appears to reduce happiness, this post perhaps offers an alternative for a more positive approach to consumption. One that focuses on something I’d like to now call Meaningful Materialism. To have a little courage, embrace a little anxiety and spend some time connecting with each item, asking it honestly “what meaning do we share?”
The most important outcome of this questioning is that I’m now aware of the joyful relationship to the things that are in my life. That far from attaining more to establish my own identity, I made the realisation that my idenity is far stronger when I have less. And that makes me very happy indeed.
Jerome joined us at the Happy Startup Summercamp last year, for more nuggets of advice and inspiration watch these 3 minute clips recorded at camp – they’ll empower you ››