In Fight Club, Tyler Durden made the bold claim: “The things you own, end up owning you.” Although I think that’s true, I’m not going to be a zealot here and try to convince you to throw away all of your possessions and go live on a mountain or something. Obviously, you have a life and a home (perhaps a family) and needs, and a radical shift in lifestyle wouldn’t be practical for many of you. I live in a new country every three months, run my entire life from my laptop and rent furnished apartments everywhere I go. I realize that’s not a typical luxury.
But what I am going to try to convince you is that you probably don’t need as much of the stuff you think you do, and that getting rid much of it can be surprisingly liberating as well as make you happier.
Back in 2007 I went broke after graduating university. To deal with this, I sold most of my possessions and moved onto a friend’s couch temporarily. At the time, it was painful. My bed, my desk, a lot of my books and CD’s, pictures, and who knows what else. I remember it felt excruciating. But despite my perception of “selling everything,” I still moved into my friend’s place with two large boxes of crap, a full suitcase of clothes, desktop computer, desk chair, TV stand (don’t ask) and other odds and ends. For the six months I lived on that couch, 75% of everything I owned sat neatly in boxes, untouched.
The next year, with a struggling online business, no money, and nowhere to go, I moved home to live with mom for a while. Since shipping a box full of stuff from Boston to Texas cost $100 at the time, and that was about $100 more than I could afford to spend, I jettisoned even more stuff. On Craigslist everything went: goodbye bicycle, messenger bag, the high end poker chip set I won in a tournament, framed pictures, dumbbell weights, yoga mat, basketball, Playstation 2 and games. It hurt. It’s funny now, but looking back I really felt like a failure because I was selling all of my possessions to keep my business afloat. Like it was this massive sacrifice. Aside from my clothes and suitcase, all I kept was my guitar and a small box of books.
Six months later, I began my foray into the mobile Tim Ferriss-inspired lifestyle. I visited Brazil and moved to Buenos Aires. I took one large suitcase with me and spent hours the days before I left deliberating over how I was going to fit everything I “needed” into one single suitcase for 3-6 months abroad. Which tools do I bring? Which raincoat should I bring? Fitness supplements, external hard drives, extra pair of running shoes, clothes iron and cooking spices all seemed like necessities at the time.
Needless to say, I didn’t use half of the stuff I brought to Argentina and I’ve since rid myself of literally everything I don’t use semi-regularly. These days I live out of a suitcase smaller than most people take on a 4-day beach vacation and a small backpack for my laptop. Most of what I own is expensive, but it was purchased with the purpose of efficiency and utility, not for entertainment, status or whim.
That may sound a little extreme to some of you. And it is. But… and this is a big “but,” so I’m going to bust the italics out: Every step along the way, getting rid of what I didn’t absolutely need was painful, but at no point did I ever miss anything once it was gone. Ever.
The only exception is my guitar, which I left at my mom’s because I didn’t want to travel with it. Aside from that, I don’t remember most of the crap I owned, much less miss it. I couldn’t tell you what hung on my wall, what the color of my couch was, where I bought my television, which video games I owned without thinking very, very hard.
In fact, not only do I not miss anything I got rid of, but the thought of spending money on more of the same possessions instead of life experiences and relationships with others sounds absolutely insane to me now.
Identity Investment and Loss Aversion
There are two psychological factors at play in owning a bunch of stuff and I think both lower the overall quality of life: identity investment and loss aversion.
Identity investment is what Fight Club ribs at when it makes fun of the need to own a bunch of nice stuff, particularly in American culture. Americans are incredibly materialistic, often without even realizing it. A friend of mine recently told me when he was a young professional he spent endless amounts of time crafting his apartment to be the perfect place to bring people — buying the right furniture to represent his identity, decorating and re-decorating. The irony is that he put all of his time and effort into making his apartment perfect to bring people to instead of actually, you know, going out and meeting people to bring to his apartment. He described this as a depressing and miserable period of his life.
This sort of identity investment in possessions is pushed onto us by advertising and it works well. People become attached to the companies that make their car or truck, their computers, their clothing, their appliances, etc. They spent months saving up for an item, spent a lot of mental energy choosing which item “represents” them best, therefore they begin identifying themselves as a “Ford guy,” or a “Mac user,” or whatever.
This becomes part of your identity, no matter how small, that you portray to others in your life. And if you’ve learned anything from this blog, it should be that investing your identity in factors outside of yourself (sexual interactions, what people think of you, how much money you make, stuff you own) isn’t healthy and lowers one’s self-esteem.
The second factor, loss aversion, is a sad fact of life. Psychology has shown that humans perceive the pain of losing something to be much greater than the pleasure of having it. This is true for everything — relationships, possessions, competition — and it’s hard-wired into us. All of us. So that poker chip set I won and swore I had to keep, that crushed me to get rid of, is actually something I haven’t thought about or missed once since discarding it.
The problem with loss aversion is that it motivates us to expend more time and energy maintaining what we already have than the actual pleasure having it gives us merits. To think of it in numerical terms, something may give us 5 points of pleasure, but loss aversion will cause us to perceive losing it to cause us 15 points of pain. So instead of investing 5 points worth of effort to maintain it, we invest 15 points of effort into something that gives us 5 points of pleasure.
Such is the curse of loss aversion. And such is the benefit of being attached to as few things as possible.
Happiness studies consistently bring back a couple of findings: 1) that we derive far more happiness from experiences than we do from possessions, and 2) that we’re better off investing our energy in our relationships than the things we own.
Getting rid of unnecessary possessions can therefore indirectly improve our quality of life through the following ways:
- Frees up more time and money to spend on experiences and with people.
- Forces one to invest more of their identity in their behavior and attitude and less in objects around them.
- Removes the stress of loss aversion and trying to hold on to what one already has.
- Saves money (always a stress reducer).
I’m sure one day I will own property and need to furnish a small apartment or house or something, but when I do go back to having permanent possessions, I’m sure that I won’t be invested in them in the way I used to be and the way most people are.
What Can You Get Rid of Today?
Now comes the fun part. Let’s talk about the useless crap YOU have that you can get rid of today. I’m going to start with the easiest objects to trash and move to the most difficult.
- 90% of what’s in your storage closet, attic or garage. This is the easy part, the spring-cleaning part. Those old golf clubs you never play with, the rusty toolbox, the beaten up board games, the bicycle pump for the bike you don’t have anymore, the old pool toys, the posters from college, on and on and on. This is the stuff you would have thrown out ages ago except you told yourself, “Well, you never know,” or you stopped because they brought back a really good memory or two. Look, if you haven’t used it in the past three months and don’t think it’s likely you’ll use it in the next three months, toss it. Don’t think about it. Don’t reminisce. Just toss it. You won’t miss it. I promise.
- CD’s. It’s 2012. Get with the times and put all of your music on your computer. A few years ago I sold my collection of 400+ CD’s for $500. That paid for a plane ticket to Panama. No-brainer.
- Video games. About half of my readers just gasped when they saw this. Yes, video games are fun, and they’re nice to blow off some steam every now and then. But most men, particularly young men, play them way too much. Not only are they a massive time-sink, but they waste a lot of money and all but kill your social life. Ask yourself, if you spent half the amount of time you spend playing video games out socializing the past five years or reading books, what would your life be like? Chances are you stomach dropped as soon as you thought about that. If it did, then it’s time to put the Xbox and PS3 on Craigslist. Delete Diablo 3 off your hard drive. Get living.
- Television. Yeah, there are some good TV shows, but you can watch them on your computer for free whenever you’d like. Forget the television. Having it around only encourages you to get sucked into pointless crap. Like sports? Go watch your favorite games at a sports bar. Watching sports with other people is ten times better, even if they’re total strangers.
- Books. I’m a bookworm and love the good ole glue and paper as much as anybody. But buy a Kindle or iPad and start downloading your books. This one hurt me a lot and I resisted it for a long time. But I’m glad I did it.
- Clothes. All you need: 3-4 dress shirts, 3-4 T-Shirts, two pairs of jeans, a nice pair of pants, some shorts, exercise shoes, dress shoes, a coat, a jacket, a sweater, maybe a sweatshirt, socks and underwear. Chances are you own a lot more than that, and chances are you don’t actually wear much more than that. Most people don’t wear 75% of what’s in their closet more than once a month. Why not toss it and simplify? Or even better, donate it.
- Furniture. Now we’re getting serious: that nice chair you never sit in, the dining room set you touch once a year, the extra table in the office, the bookshelf that held the books you just sold. When you toss your unneeded furniture, you’re likely to find you are able in a house/apartment half the size of your current one. That may be a traumatic realization for some of you, but if you can handle it, then you can use the money you make now to live in a smaller place in a far better location. Remember, experiences bring happiness, not stuff. So what’s going to make you happier, the futon grandma gave you for a graduation present, or living down the street from your favorite concert venue?
- Car. And if you live in a better location, and live in a city with good public transportation, chances are you don’t need a car anymore. I haven’t owned a car in 9 years and I think it’s very unlikely I’ll ever own one again. My friends think I’m crazy, but they’ve never lived in a city with quality mass transit. If you don’t own much stuff, you can live in the best location in the city and then use buses or metros to get where you need to go. Not only is it far cheaper, far more convenient, and far more enjoyable, but it leaves a much smaller carbon footprint. The only situation I can even fathom wanting a car again is if I one day end up with four little kids and need to shuttle them back and forth to football practice and dance recitals. But let’s cut this article off right there before I start envisioning my soccer mom future a little bit too clearly.
Update: I’d just like to note how amusing some of the reactions to this article were. Get rid of TV and movies? Sure. Get rid of clothes? OK. Car? Soon as I can. Video games? Oh my god Mark, you’ve gone way too far. Sure tells me something about my readership.
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