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How Much Stuff Do You Need To Feel Happy?

How Much Stuff Do You Need To Feel Happy?

    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:

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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    How much stuff do you need to feel happy?

    Image: Visual Panic 

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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