It’s 7:58 a.m. and I’m looking around the living room/dining room/kitchen in my apartment wondering, “how the hell did I amass all of this crap?”
Of course I know how. A garage sale here, a book sale there, Christmas, birthdays, technology upgrades, my inability to get rid of a piece of furniture that has sentimental value, but that I can’t even sit in because it’s so uncomfortable, retail “therapy”. The truth is that I haven’t spent a lot of money on this stuff—most of my furniture was given to my husband and I or bought second-hand and refinished—but it’s all starting to make me feel a little claustrophobic.
STUFF. And I’m addicted to it. And that’s been bothering me for a while.
And then I got this email:
We’re all so lost, these days. And SO many of the things we’re doing right now are part of addictive behavior patterns, even though they’ve become “normal”: Endlessly scrolling Facebook. Jumping up and down like one of Pavlov’s dogs anytime our phone dings. Depending on screen time for our connection, instead of actual connection. Drinking EVERY NIGHT. Using food as a way to distract ourselves—and give us a break from the computer. (Even though, the irony is that we’re addicted to both.) And worse, becoming workaholics when our lives don’t feel full anymore; using our work as a way to keep ourselves busy, even when our brains are beyond exhausted and cannot produce any more useful, or creative, output. The addiction to productivity, as it were. To feeling like you’re getting something accomplished—in lieu of feeling like your life means anything.” — Email excerpt, written by Ashley Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project.
She’s bang-on, right?!
Coming to terms with the addiction to stuff
You see, there’s material stuff like the stack of cookbooks I have but rarely use and the scale under my bathroom vanity that’s collecting dust and cat hair, and then there’s emotional/personal stuff, like calendars that are too full and that feeling that maybe if I go buy a new dress today, I’ll feel better about my expanding waistline and flattening ass. These are ideas that we hold on to, conditioning that we’ve picked up scrolling through Instagram and watching too much Mad Men (somehow I haven’t become addicted to cigarettes or started drinking at work…yet).
I don’t have cable television, I rarely read magazines, and I use an ad-blocker on my web browsers, so I can’t blame mainstream advertising too much. But, I do know that when I get on a roll where shopping is constantly on my mind, whether it’s for a new pair of shoes or a vacation, it’s usually because I feel something is lacking in my life. Ironically, the thing I’m lacking is usually money…or a lack of sunshine (damn these west coast Canadian winters!). Whatever happens to trigger me into Consumer-Robot, I’ve learned that a latte or a sweater should fix it. Obviously, that’s a crock. Once I get home, I’m overcome by buyer’s remorse or the caffeine sweats, and things go downhill quickly.
So, this year, I’m changing things up a little bit.
Not so much minimalism as simplification
Love people, use things. The opposite doesn’t work.”
― Joshua Fields Millburn, Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists
Could you live in a tiny house? I definitely couldn’t—I like having more space. Living with nothing but a week’s worth of clothing, shampoo, and a toothbrush is a little too backpacking-through-Europe for me. But what about only having things with you that bring value to your life?
What about only RSVPing to events that add value to your life?
What about only buying new things that you actually need?
I can’t imagine it’s as easy as that, but I’m willing to give it a try.
I started with the bathroom
Have you ever tried a shampoo bar? One bar replaces shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Simple! This discovery inspired me to start simplifying my material possessions in the bathroom.
Nail polish I’ve used maybe three times. Cheap hair products I bought to make my hair shinier or crustier that I can’t use because they make me want to scratch my eyeballs out. Necklaces I bought on discount, but have never actually worn. I went through my entire bathroom collection and half-filled a shopping bag with stuff that brings zero value to my life. Here’s what I have left:
- 1 shampoo bar (from Lush, so it smells ridiculously good).
- 1 loofah.
- 2 nail polishes, different colours, for summer pedicures.
- 1 bottle of salt spray, which makes my hair look like I just stepped out of the ocean. 2 minute hair-styling for the win.
- 2 deodorants: 1 natural & 1 that I use for sweat-inducing events like public speaking.
- 1 bottle of vanilla-scented oil, which makes me smell like fresh-baked cookies.
- Bubble bath (I find much solace in a 3pm hot bath + glass of wine).
- 2 other hair products that I use regularly and that actually work.
- Basic makeup (foundation, powder, blush, bronzer, eye shadow, eyeliner x 2, mascara, lip colour).
- Sugaring strips and sticks for doing my eyebrows (yep, I’m a masochist), all reusable.
- Toothbrush and toothpaste.
- My mini travel kit.
- A selection of jewelry that matches and that I actually wear.
- Hair brush, curling iron, straightening iron, and blow dryer.
- Basic first aid supplies, such as peroxide and bandaids.
- Feminine hygiene products.
That still seems like a lot of stuff, but I can verify that I use each and every one of the things I kept regularly enough to make it worth having. Could I get rid of more without much guilt? Yes. I might do a second round.
Which brings me to another thing: throwing stuff out. We live in such a throwaway culture. Canadians are throwing out more garbage than ever—9.6 million tonnes in 2012, nearly a 7% increase since 2004. I still haven’t sorted out what I’m going to do with the all the stuff I’m getting rid of. I know I’ll give some of it away, I’ll donate some things to a second-hand store that supports women in need, and the rest will either get recycled or thrown out. I think the best I can do is vow not to buy more crappy, disposable stuff that will also be thrown out.
Replacing shopping with connection
Entering a grocery store without a shopping list is asking for trouble, but how often do you bring a list with you when you’re shopping elsewhere? You’d probably save a ton of money. Or, you’d decide you don’t even need to go shopping.
Imagine what else you could do if you could break that impulse.
Consumerism, even when it tries to embrace ‘sustainable’ products, is a set of values that teaches us to define ourselves, communicate our identity, and seek meaning through acquisition of stuff, rather than through our values and activities and our community,” Annie Leonard, who created “The Story of Stuff” documentary, told YES! Magazine.
This takes this whole idea to another level. Not only will you stop buying things that don’t add value to your life, but you’ll replace the time and money you used to spend shopping with more meaningful activities. Instead of another pair of new shoes, you get your bike fixed so that you can do fun exercise. Instead of an expensive new phone, you host a few dinner parties. You don’t have to be extreme about it, just think about it and make a choice when you have the opportunity.
According to Scientist Matthew Lieberman, our well-being depends on our connections with others. Stuff can never replace the feeling you have when you’re out with your friends, on a date, or on the phone with Mom. If social connections are a large part of what makes us feel whole, shouldn’t we focus more on them?
It’s a lot to think about, but as I continue to explore this whole figuring-life-out thing it’s becoming more apparent that consumerism is to blame for a lot of pain people feel. We can expand that idea to productivity as well. We consume software and event invitations like candy, hoping that the right one will be THE THING that will solve life’s problems. Simplifying life is all about auditing ourselves to find out what really matters and what doesn’t, and then learning to let go of what doesn’t. I think practicing this will bring about some real insights into what it means to feel fulfilled.