He slowly counted the stack of $100 bills out loud and stopped at every thousand to confirm the number as he handed me the bills. It was a silly process but he seemed to find it useful. I wasn’t thinking about the money. I was thinking about the significance of bidding farewell to the last of my cars. He stopped counting. I signed the final paperwork. It was done. My earthly value had finally transitioned from a mass of tangible things to a list of mostly-intangibles. That was three years ago.

A finance guru would refer to my transition as one between fixed and liquid assets. I see the process as a removal of many things that distracted me from the relationships and activities that made me most happy. Sound crazy? Let’s work through it a bit and see what happens. Start with 4 questions:

Why do you have so much stuff?

When it comes to household belongings, I am not the type of person who enjoys organizing things for the sake of the organizational process. I can come up with a place for things and keep them in their place until I have more things than I have places. Once that happens, you’d be correct in referring to me as a “messy person.” I found a solution in reducing the number of things I owned to where I could easily manage them without much effort.

There was no struggle in realizing that if I had less stuff I’d have an easier time of managing it. The hard part emerged as I worked through the reasons why I wasn’t getting rid of all the extra stuff I had. In thinking things through, I came up with some reasons why I kept so much stuff around.

  • To avoid the discomfort of empty space- Just like an empty social calendar is never considered a positive opportunity for increased interaction, the space left in your garage after you sell your collection of golf clubs may feel lonely and unused.
  • To meet the expectations of a social group – I owned a bunch of furniture even though there is just one of me because I felt badly when friends stopped by and didn’t have a place to sit. The bigger house, the boat, even a special set of dinnerware for special occasions can all fall into the group of things you own just because your friends expect you to.
  • Because procurement is enjoyable- Buying new stuff is fun. The smaller objects that clutter up most of our lives are the easiest to stock up on because their price point is low enough to make purchases excusable. “It’s just $20″ you say as you bring home yet another set of beer mugs.

As I learned that the empty space I’d so feared was actually freedom, I started celebrating newfound spaces and gaurding them fiercely. While my previous actions and purchases pointed to the contrary, it turned out that my friends weren’t actually visiting me just to sit on my furniture. They wanted to hang out with me and didn’t really care if that meant sitting on a plush couch or sprawled on a wood floor. Procurement turned out to be my all-in-one answer to a creative urge and was easily replaced by helping others make, fix, and imagine things.

What makes you most happy?

As I figured out why I had so much stuff and focused more of my energy on social interactions, I found myself digging deeper into what it was that made me most happy. We are too easily convinced that happiness is a recipe one needs riches, fame, and power to create. Such things have their uses but I was unable to tie my personal experiences to any sort of happiness. I eventually settled on three notions that seem closest to “happiness ingredients” as I can find in my own life. I am most often happy when I am able to:

  • Be Useful – I am happier when I can help others.
  • Love – I don’t just mean love in the deranged romantic sense that causes one to make poor financial decisions and hazard life and limb. I also mean the sort of abiding interest in ideas and pursuits that keeps one up and night and makes it worth leaping out of bed in the morning.
  • Recognize and Share Beauty – There is beauty in kindness. There is beauty in the unexpected smile of a stranger. There is beauty in the flower growing on the rubble of a war-torn district. Being able to recognize that beauty and share it with others always makes me happier.

Notice that none of those things directly involves tangible things. Money and high-tech gadgets might be extremely helpful in my pursuit of usefulness or sharing. But there’s no direct necessity for most of the stuff I had kicking around my house just a few years ago.

What belongings allow you to pursue that happiness?

Figuring out what I truly needed in order to pursue happiness was much easier once I figured out the things that made me happiest. As I went through my belongings I asked myself a few questions that made simple work of deciding what to keep and what to push away.

  1. When did you last use this?
  2. Can you find another one of these easily?
  3. Could somebody you know use this more than you?
  4. Would any of your relationships suffer if you got rid of this?
  5. Would you run back into a burning building to rescue this?

I enlisted the help of a trusted and mildly sarcastic friend to help me in my stuff-busting adventure. Just like shopping with somebody else’s money is fun, getting rid of another person’s stuff seems like a good time, too. At least she seemed to enjoy it! It was very helpful to have a friend nearby to cut through the fog of the inexplicable emotional attachments I had to some belongings. She also helped scan in a lot of the necessary but bulky paperwork I’d been towing around for years. Now that I had an idea of what made me happy it was easy to get rid of extra stuff. It had all gone from being a part of my life to just being stuff I lived near. I felt free.

What will you do with the rest?

If you don’t have friends willing to snap up your extra belongings, you might consider one of the following options:

  • Craigslist - Sell or give your stuff away to willing locals.
  • eBay - Sell your stuff.
  • Freecycle - Give your stuff away.
  • Yard Sale – Sell, Give, raffle. Up to you!

If you know of another website or have an idea I should add to the list of ways to get rid of extra stuff, drop me a note in a comment and I’ll update with it!

How much stuff do you need to feel happy?

Image: Visual Panic 

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