Why You Need To Throw Out All Your Stuff And Start Over

November 1, 2017

Does less stuff really equal more happiness?

I’m turning this story in late because I’ve been packing and hauling boxes for days, moving from a too-big apartment to two rooms in a house just a few blocks away. I don’t have that much stuff, I thought. It won’t take long to make this move. 

A month later, I’m sitting at my desk, surrounded by boxes, behind on deadlines, trying very hard not to cry.

It took a month because I had a month, and isn’t it true that tasks expand to take whatever amount of time you give them? I could have done the whole move in a day if I’d really needed to. But I had a month, so I took a month. Each day that I didn’t pack anything up or deal with the move in any way, I told myself it didn’t matter, that I had plenty of time, that it was going to be easy. That’s how I ended up spending a rainy Saturday all alone packing boxes well into the night, feeling miserable and lonely, refusing to ask for help.

Each time I move – and I’ve moved eight times in the last ten years – I get rid of more stuff. I toss out bags and bags every time, and I don’t acquire much, either, so how is it that I still seem to have so much stuff? I moonlight as a personal organizer, helping other people streamline their spaces and declutter their possessions: I don’t believe in holding on to things. And yet….I’ve dragged my late grandfather’s medical school microscope with me through all eight of those moves. It’s heavy, too. What am I doing?

The weight of our possessions

It’s not just that having a lot of stuff makes moving a painful and time-consuming process; it’s the emotional weight of all our stuff that drags us down. When I was packing up last weekend, I felt like a nerve stripped raw. Here were my daughter’s school papers from last year; this year, she’s moved six hours away from me to study ballet and live in a dorm with other dancers. Should I really just toss her chemistry notes and English essays? I did, but my heart ached as I chucked them into the recycle bin.

Books we’d read together, books we hadn’t yet read, clothes I remember wearing while we snuggled on the couch or went to a party, ticket stubs and photographs and notes tucked into drawers – these things take up space in a box, but they take up space in my psyche, as well. Going through them, deciding what to pack and what to let go of, is exhausting and painful.

Experts name moving as one of the five most stressful life events, along with divorce, the death of a loved one, losing a job, or experiencing a major illness or injury. And a large part of what makes it so stressful is having to deal with all the things we’ve accumulated during however long we’ve lived in our homes; moving from a place you’ve lived for six months is less stressful than moving out of a home you’ve been in for thirty years.

But what it there’s another way to live? What if packing up our things to move wasn’t a painful chore, but rather a chance to celebrate the things we have, that bring us happiness?

Embracing minimalism

“Minimalism” has become quite the buzzword lately, with books, podcasts, blogs, and even documentaries espousing the benefits of having fewer possessions. Whether it’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up author Marie Kondo urging people to throw out anything in their home that doesn’t “spark joy,” social media hashtags challenging people to whittle their possessions down to a certain number (the #100thingschallenge is popular), or best friends Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who call themselves “The Minimalists,” spreading the gospel of how having fewer possessions can lead to happiness and fulfillment, there’s never been more pressure to have less stuff.

But what does minimalism really mean? Should you really take an inventory of everything you own, and try to keep it under a particular number? Is it possible to only have things in your home that make you happy?

Being in the middle of a move, I’m reminded that there are certain boxes I can’t wait to open – the ones that make you smile as you unpack them, because each item in it is something you love, and use, and know exactly what to do with. Maybe embracing minimalism means only having those things around, and getting rid of everything in the boxes that fill you with anxiety and consternation – the ones you end up not unpacking at all for months, or even years.

Fields Millburn and Nicodemus, the aforementioned “Minimalists,” say it’s not about how much stuff you have, it’s about how your stuff affects you. “We tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves,” they say, in the name of pursuing possessions, whether it’s a big house, an expensive car, or designer shoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting those things, they’re quick to point out. “If these things are important to you, then that’s wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.”

To toss, or to keep?

So, what’s the answer? Throw out all our stuff, or simply be more mindful about the things that surround us, and what we allow to come into our lives? When I was packing, I made a valiant effort to pare down my possessions, but after a certain point, I got burnt out. I couldn’t make one more decision about what to keep and what not to keep, and just started putting it all into boxes. When I was done, it somehow turned out to be less than I’d anticipated, and also more. Here was my life. Or was it my life? It was my stuff, but was it me?

Fields Millburn and Nicodemus say minimalism is about much more than just getting rid of material possessions. When you’re looking to jettison something from your life, they suggest looking at your relationships and your habits, as well as the clothes you haven’t worn for five years and the basement full of broken furniture you’re never going to fix. “Why are you holding on?” they ask. “Because it’s comfortable? Because it’s safe? Because society tells you you’re supposed to? What would happen if you just let go?”

Diving into a minimalist lifestyle can feel scary. Where should you start? With the bread machine you never use, or with your terrible marriage? Maybe they both need to go. But Fields Millburn and Nicodemus recommend starting with the bread maker. “Start in the easiest places,” they write in their blog. “Identify some things that you’re certain are not adding value to your life.” This could be VHS tapes you don’t watch, stacks of unread magazines, or the junk drawer jammed with mystery cables and old cell phones. “Be honest with yourself,” they say. “When’s the last time you found value in many of the items cluttering your home?”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll wrap this up and start unpacking boxes. I’m inspired to let some things go…

Images via giphy.com, laughinggif.com, 

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