Does Less Stuff = More Happiness?
Fairlady|March 2017

Whether it’s a cultural shift or a passing fad, there’s no denying that minimalism is having a moment. But is there anything to the idea that paring down your possessions will bring you happiness?

Liesl Robertson

Part pop philosophy and part Pinterest worthy décor aesthetic, minimalism has become a way of life for many, even inspiring religious fervour in some. From decluttering phenomenon Marie Kondo advocating keeping only the items in your life that spark joy to the cult movement of people aspiring to own just 100 items in total (the average American household is stuffed with 300000 objects, just to put that into perspective), having fewer things is definitely trendy. Nineteenth-century English textile designer William Morris said, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ Truth be told, I’d never heard of him, but his quote definitely resonates in our consumer culture.

Some, of course, take it to the extreme. American entrepreneur James Altucher writes about throwing away his college diploma. (‘I don’t hold onto all the things society tells me to hold onto,’ he says.) He owns nothing but a bag of clothing and a backpack containing his must-have electronics: computer, iPad and smartphone. ‘I have zero other possessions,’ he writes.

For others, the luxury of open space has become something of a status symbol. In a recent interview with Apartamento magazine (laid out next to images of his all-white home in Queens), taste maker and director of contemporary art institution MoMA PS1 Klaus Biesenbach was quoted as saying, ‘I don’t aim to own things.’ (Eye-roll.)

While you might not be keen to live in an empty house staring at your bare walls, there is some merit to the idea that your life could do with a bit of editing. Minimalist David Fried lander believes that ‘editing is the skill of this century’. ‘Stuff, it turns out, is a very demanding mistress,’ says Angela Horn, founder of Mostly Mindful. ‘And as soon as we gave her the boot, our weekends and, in fact, our whole lives went from being jam-packed with chores to wide open.’ And in his TED talk titled ‘Minimalism: For a More Full Life’, Grant Blakeman explains that part of living a full life is about ‘curating our lives actively, removing distractions, removing something before adding something new, finding that wider negative space’. And that, he says, will help us focus better. So should you give it a try?

More experiences, less stuff

Research shows us very clearly that experiences trump possessions every time when it comes to happiness and enjoyment. You may think that a new couch or the latest cell phone will bring you more lasting satisfaction than a fleeting experience like a holiday, but that’s not actually true. Due to a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation, the joy of a new purchase fades as people get used to it. A memorable trip, concert or outing, however, has a long-lasting effect: the joy of anticipation, the pleasure of the event itself and the fond memories of it that linger long after. Even a bad experience can become a good story in retrospect.

A study by Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich and doctoral candidate Amit Kumar that looks at the idea that spending money on experiences ‘provides more enduring happiness’ also brings up other interesting side effects. Even waiting for an experience evokes more joy and excitement than waiting for an object that you’ve bought. In fact, you are more likely to be impatient and anxious waiting for material goods than you would be waiting for an experience. ‘Think about waiting for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or looking forward to a vacation,’ says Kumar, ‘and how different that feels from waiting for, say, your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive.’

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