How to Simplify When You Really Love Your Stuff

“It all depends on whether you have things, or they have you.” ~Robert A. Cook

Editor's Note:This post originally ran as a guest post by Barrie Davenport on Zen Habits.

Simplicity. It is a lovely ancient spiritual tradition that has seen a recent resurgence in popularity.  As we try to make sense of our erratic economy and the accompanying financial anxiety, it is natural to leap to a less risky lifestyle extreme — stop spending, scale back, live lean.

If you are a regular reader of Zen Habits, you are probably intrigued by the idea of simplifying. In fact, you may have even given up many material things and actively live a very simple life. People who have adopted this level of  simplicity, especially in the land of consumerism, are incredibly inspiring and fascinating.

But let's be real here. In spite of embracing the concept of simplicity, most people really love their stuff, and they love acquiring more stuff. Like our attitudes about a healthy diet, our feelings about material things are complicated. We know what's good for us, but we just don't want to give up what we like. Our stuff makes us feel good.

Is it possible to live a simple life and still love stuff? How much letting go of stuff really counts toward simplifying anyway?

Living simply and detaching from material things will make you happier. There is real research and lots of anecdotal evidence to support the truth of this. But is it possible that some material things can add to our happiness, sense of contentment and joy in life? If so, how do you go about deciding what's good stuff and what's bad?

Perhaps the deciding factor is motivation. Do the things that you own or wish to buy support your ego, or do they enliven your soul? Some material things can afford you a sense of warmth, coziness, beauty, fond memories, or comfort. There are other things that offer only that fleeting rush of acquisition.

If you infuse mindfulness into your ideas and actions around material things, you can create a gentle balance between loving stuff and living simply.

Here are some thoughts that might be useful.

1. Look around your house now.

Walk from room to room. Do you see things that you never use and don't really care about? Why not give them away or sell them? Clear physical and psychic space by removing the “dead wood” in your environment. Someone else might really need these things.

2. Examine why you are hanging on to something.

Is it truly useful or meaningful, or does it feed your ego in some way? Are you holding on to it just to impress others or to make yourself feel better or more important?

3. Look at how you spend your time.

Do you have things you own for hobbies that you never pursue? Do you have a kitchen full of gadgets but you rarely cook? If you truly think you will come back to a hobby or activity, box things up and put them out of sight until you do. Be realistic about how much time you have to use your extraneous stuff.

4. Are you in a career that is thing-focused?

Decorators, car dealers, retailers and others involved in creating, buying, selling and marketing merchandise, can have a hard time detaching from material things because they are always surrounded by the newest and best. There is beauty and art in many things, but consider this: you don't have to own them all to appreciate them. Eckhart Tolle once suggested to Oprah Winfrey that she not buy everything she likes or wants — just savor it for the moment in the store.

5. Consider experiences rather than things.

On the whole, experiential purchases provide far more pleasure than material purchases. The memory of experiences improves with time, but material purchases are harder to think about abstractly. Experiences also encourage social relationships which provide long-lasting happiness. If you are itching to spend, spend on a great experience with someone you enjoy.

6. When you think about your things or want to purchase something new, consider these parameters:

  • It brings beauty into your life and stirs your soul.
  • It supports a passion or hobby.
  • It helps bring family and friends together in a creative, meaningful way.
  • It educates and enlightens.
  • It makes life profoundly simpler so that you can pursue more meaningful things.
  • It helps someone who is sick or incapacitated.
  • It is useful and necessary for day-to-day life.
  • It’s part of a meaningful tradition or a reminder of a special event.

You will know you are buying mindlessly if you:

  • Buy on a whim.
  • Buy to impress others.
  • Buy because you feel you deserve it.
  • Buy when you can’t afford it.
  • Buy just to update something that still works or looks fine.
  • Buy because someone else has it and you want it too.
  • Buy because the advertisement seduced you.
  • Buy because you are bored.
  • It’s purchased because buying soothes you.

It is possible to balance a simpler life with owning and acquiring material things. You can enjoy stuff without living the life of an ascetic. The exact balance you create is a matter of personal preference. But realize there is a diminishing point of return with accumulation and materialism that undermines authentic joy and fulfillment in life.

Apply mindful purging to your current lifestyle and belongings, as well as thoughtful consideration to your future purchases. Carefully examine your motivations for keeping possessions or buying new things. Once you allow things serve your soul, rather than you being a slave to your things, your life will evolve into an artful harmony between what you have and who you are.

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  1. Barrie – thanks for sharing this article here. I missed it on Zen Habits.

    For me, buying mindlessly is something I need to focus on and control. I don’t need half the stuff I buy. I buy it because I think I need it. So, for me, it’s about changing what I think we needs are.

  2. “consider experiences rather than things”… I think I just saw some research supporting this as a fast track to happiness.

    Like many people I have a challenge with figuring out how long to hold onto stuff people who love me have gifted me with even when I have requested otherwise. I don’t want the clutter but don’t wish to make a loved one feel bad. Personally I prefer, and often give, “consumables” such as food, flowers or gift certificates. That way we aren’t adding to each others clutter piles.
    .-= Linda Gabriel´s last blog ..Your Brain is Plastic – Is That a Good Thing =-.

  3. Amit Sodha - The Power Of Choice says:

    I am actually going through the process right now of clearing up my house as we have years and generations of family things to get rid of. It’s a mammoth task but I have to say, it does feel good!
    .-= Amit Sodha – The Power Of Choice´s last blog ..How To Be A Rebel Personal Development Guru Without A Cause =-.

  4. Barrie,
    Interestingly…I started going through our house this weekend, getting rid of some of the things we no longer use. Some were just worn out. Others, though…had been there and rarely used. And it all had me thinking….”be mindful”…when buying.

    So, seeing that here today, too…it’s like a sign from the universe!! At least, I’m taking it as that.

    And…it truly is the experiences that are most meaningful…
    .-= Lance´s last blog ..Sunday Thought For The Day =-.

  5. Great post Barrie. I am doing my best to let go of stuff that isn’t serving me anymore – both emotional baggage, physical possessions and tasks. Often, as you say, the issues around why we buy and horde stuff are what we really need to deal with. I’ll take a step back and examine my why’s before I decide upon my what’s in terms of getting rid of stuff. Thanks for the always enlightening words.
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..A Simple Guide to Living Life with Wild Abandon =-.

  6. Nothing better than simplicity, if only that weren’t the most complicated of all things.
    .-= Stephen´s last blog ..Is it Meaningful or Random Part 2 An irrational Perspective in defence of synchronicity =-.

  7. Loved your article and have done these steps. I have been for years getting rid of things that I no longer used and either donated or sold them. There is one more to add to your “You will know you are buying mindlessly if you” list is buying because it is the only fun in your life. Thanks Barrie.

  8. Susie @newdaynewlesson says:

    I am so glad I came across your blog.

    I am trying to figure out how I came across your blog (sad cause I only found it today lol and I can’t remember). I think someone twitted a link to your article at daily brainstorm.

    Anyways-I just wanted to say that I so like your thought processes and energy. I believe we are sent in certain directions when we need to be there. I was just thinking that I need to sit down and write my wish list. I also believe experiences often are better than things.

    Glad to have “met” you. You are doing what I hope I am achieving with my blog which is inspiring people to be their best.
    .-= Susie @newdaynewlesson´s last blog ..Some Things Are A Constant =-.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Susie,
      Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I am glad you found my blog too. And it’s nice to meet you as well. I hope you will comment again.