Figure out what really makes you happy. Be specific, and forget about realistic for now. If you don’t know, gather information. Become a happiness detective. Think back over your history and reflect on times you’ve been happy, how long they lasted, and what you learned from those experiences. Expose yourself to new places, people, situations and reflect on how you feel during and after those experiences. Investigate; talk to people about what their happiest moments in life have been. Ask them how long those good feelings lasted, how and why they changed and what feelings followed. Read books; Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, The Power of the Now by Ekhart Tolle are a few good examples of insightful books full of good information on human happiness. Sometime people imagine the wildest things will make them happy – even impossible things. And sometimes… they’re right. They describe their perfect happiness and some unexpected gift comes along to make their impossible dream happen. (ask Dominique the Nomad)
Make a happiness plan. If everything in your life has to change for you to be happy, figure out what those changes look like and start making them one by one. Happiness is the ultimate currency, and generally depends on a harmonious balance between opposing forces; selfishness and service, independence and community, solitude and company, drive and dreamtime. Make space for these opposing forces in your life and strive for balance in your plan, but don’t be afraid to be clear. If your plan requires you to be outdoors everyday, then so be it. Get a job in a nursery, a concession stand, or conducting tours of a park – who cares? As long as you’re happy and your needs are simple you’ve achieved perfect success.
Quantify and describe all the ways stuff gets in the way of your happiness. Every time you have to vacuum the entire floor and under all the furniture think about what you’d rather be doing with your time. When you can’t find the one tool you want in the pile, when you can’t find a matching pair among your shoe collection, when you can’t decide what to wear – imagine the freedom of fewer choices. Recall the wasted food at the back of your pantry or fridge that would have been eaten if there was just less stuff in there. Try to add up all the time you spend shopping for, searching for, assembling, cleaning, troubleshooting, repairing, taking out, putting away, and protecting your stuff, not to mention working to pay for it all.
Imagine the wonderful things you could do with all that free time and extra money! Take classes, travel, visit family, spend more time with the kids, go to parks, attend theater, join museums, get into projects, grow your own food, attend events, and get out to meet interesting like minded people. My list includes many simple and some more elaborate dreams: becoming a member of Berkeley Botanical Gardens and the Sonoma County Parks, getting season theater tickets to a couple area arts center, putting my kids in fun summer camps and classes, spending a weekend in Monterrey to see the town and the aquarium, hitting all the many neat local festivals, taking my creative daughter to the Museum of Women in the Arts, someday touring Tuscany, and gradually building a diverse permaculture tiny house village with a cottage for my family of four, and a few tiny granny units for our parents.
Prepare yourself to let go of lots of physical and emotional stuff. Our deepest attachments to our stuff come from the way we identify ourselves through it. We look at our stuff as the physical embodiment of our history. We can touch it and be transported back to earlier times in our lives, and at some level we sometimes feel as if our very lives would be erased if the stuff wasn’t there as tangible evidence and powerful reminder. Trim these collections down to their most precious core, then consider a safe deposit box for them. Give yourself time to get through this, and let yourself enjoy each item, remember its significance, and maybe even cry over some if you feel the urge. These emotional connections are why we keep this stuff, so experience the feelings once more as part of the process of letting go of the physical object. Ask yourself, am I still who I am without this piece of paper? Is the experience this t-shirt represents still a part of me even when the t-shirt is gone? The answer for me has been yes. We may also have categories of stuff that represents hope for a better future for us. Maybe we obtained something intending to use it in some wonderful way but we never got around to it. One such thing may be fine, but too many of those lying around just gets in the way of this moment, the only moment you have in which to live your life, wield your power, create your dream. Do your best to let go of most things from the past and things for the future, so you can lighten the load and shift into a new gear where you can really do what you want in the now.
Have conversations about stuff with your friends and family. Question the importance of stuff you have. Discuss ways things can be used for multiple purposes. Ask them why they have certain stuff and see what they have to say. Do they think it’s important? Why? This lays the groundwork for your increasing detachment from stuff so it’s not as surprising when you start to give things away and refuse to accept more stuff.
Buy less stuff. Start with one ‘buy nothing’ day and expand from there. Question yourself every time you reach for your wallet. Do you really need it? How long will it last? How many ways can you use it? What do you see happening to it when you don’t want it anymore? Is it possible you can make do with something you already have? Is it manufactured locally or made from materials sourced locally, sustainably? If your desire feels terribly urgent, question whether it’s really connected to the thing you’re about to buy or some unmet emotional need.
Lay out the new ground rules on stuff. Make them up to suit you and relay them to your family and friends. If you want them to give you absolutely nothing, ever – let them know. Perhaps you’re happy to accept consumable gifts, or tiny handmade gifts. Perhaps you’d like to make up a wish lift of only those few most durable, reusable, multi-purpose things that would be a real asset to you, and ask people stick to that list when a gift occasion comes along. Consider your kids if you have them. Many extended families have a hard time with the notion of not giving kids a gift at holidays, so prepare for that. Perhaps encourage the family to pool together for one marvelous present instead of a lot of smaller things. Contributions to a savings account or non-tangible gifts like tickets to events, music and movie downloads, e-books, or taking the kids out for some great experience are great choices. Whatever you decide, lay it out clearly and kindly for everyone in your circle to avoid confusion. Make the same rules apply to everyone if possible. If you’re transitioning and not sure how long the rules will stay the same, let people know that. This is a process and can be as gradual as needed for your comfort.
Start by getting rid of the obvious stuff; trash those broken things you were going to repair, unfinished projects, parts from long gone equipment, mismatched shoes and socks, and anything else without use or value. Refresh your filing system and recycle out of date documents. Keep a box bag or basket next to your exit doors at all times ready for things you’ve decided to let go of. Put a few things in every day, and take the container to local donation sites once or twice a week.
Now move on to the less obvious stuff; evaluate everything. If it is not beautiful and or truly useful, get rid of it. If you have family heirlooms, consider gifting them to their eventual recipients now. If you haven’t used it in six months, get rid of it. For things with some monetary value, have a garage sale and post things on Craigslist. Don’t worry about it being perfect, just schedule it as soon as possible. If you think you could Ebay it, get it done. Put the auction items in a box in a prominent location next to your computer with a big label that directs you to AUCTION THEM. If that box sits there for too long, face up to the fact that you really don’t want to do it and get rid of them. Give things away. With time you can find someone who would accept almost any gently used item with gratitude. One person’s trash is truly another’s treasure.
Digitize or transform your stuff. Collect anything sentimental you want to come back to but would rather not make physical space for and take photos, make impressions, scan them, make a list, journal them, write their stories and then let go of the physical objects. Other sentimental items may be transformed into something new with more utility. T-shirt collections can be made into quilts, corks from winery tours can become trivets, rickety old furniture can be re-purposed as shelves or hook boards. Making sentimental objects into useful things can bring those memories into our everyday lives where using the object becomes a touchstone to our history.
Celebrate your new found freedom from stuff. Do something wonderful from your bucket list and cross it off. Throw yourself a party. Repaint and decorate a beautiful space in your house that radiates new serenity now that it’s free of excess stuff. Maybe you can give yourself one expensive and wonderful gift as a reward for getting rid of so many unneeded things. I find it’s far easier to have very few things when the things I DO have are of high quality, great durability, and preferably great to look at as well – and such things usually come with a higher price than I would ordinarily accept. The only way such a purchase makes sense is when it lasts and I avoid buying all the cheap stuff all the time.