The Stuff of Happiness

Look around. Do you have a lot of stuff? What kind of stuff do you have? Stuff that you use every day or frequently? Stuff that you use once in a while? Stuff that you never use?

Take a moment and write a list of the stuff you use every day, whatever it is.  You might walk room to room to make your inventory. Maybe your toothbrush, your favorite cooking pot, a pair of summer sandals, a ring, your bed and bed linens, a towel, a bike, a table and chair, a mobile phone. Just write down the stuff you use every day. You’ll probably be surprised that the list isn’t that long.

Now write down the stuff that you use frequently. Maybe you don’t use your bike every day, but you use it every other day, three times a week, or every weekend. Maybe something is seasonal. You use your skis every week during the snow season, but not in the other months. This stuff can go on the frequently used list.  You’ll find that this list isn’t that long either.

Now look around again. Everything else, all your other stuff, goes on the almost never or never use list. Don’t worry about writing all this stuff down. Just take some time, look around, reflect, and make a mental note of everything on this list.

If you find this task overwhelming, then start with just one room in your house or your clothes closet. Write down what you use every day and what you use frequently. The same rule applies. Your winter coat goes on the frequently used list because it is seasonal. If you have five winter coats and only wear one frequently then put one on the list. The other four are out.

Now, you might ask yourself why do I have this stuff?

You will probably say something like this, “I like my stuff.” That’s a start. Now, dig deeper. But why? Especially when you don’t use most of it? Not sure?

The answer is, in large part, because we humans are collectors by nature. Searching, collecting, and storing is in our genes. Pre-agricultural hunters and gatherers sought and collected food to keep alive during hard times, materials, like animal hides, to keep warm and protected in the cold, and other things, like grasses, to make storage baskets.  This necessity of collecting and storing kept our ancestors alive and safe during periods of difficulty and enabled them to pass down their genes to us, the future generations.

We still get a sense of security from having stuff. We feel deep within us that need to search out, collect, and store stuff to be safe. Look at all the stuff we own! We must feel safe, right? Maybe, maybe not. A car may give us a sense of safety because we know it can get us where we need to go: to work, to the hospital, to the food store. But if we can easily take the metro, the bus, or bike to work, hospital, and market, then the car is a nice to have, not a necessity.

The car may give us something more. Acquiring stuff can be the pathway to feeling accepted by a group. If the people over there all have ski jets or cars and I want to belong to their group, then I will be motivated to get a ski jet or car, too. With my jet ski or car I not only identify with but feel accepted by the group especially if my jet ski/car is comparable in features and brand to those owned by the members of the group. This sense of belonging and acceptance also gives us a sense of status, especially when we believe that others in the group already have a high status. The jet ski or car gives us status, too, at least for awhile until it doesn’t give us anything and we feel empty and unhappy again.

The search for stuff gives us pleasure. We seek bargains, special features and functions, or certain brands. Once we have found what we have been seeking, we feel satisfied and happy in the moment but it is not lasting.

So, what’s wrong? The acquisition of all this stuff only gives us a temporary sense of  belonging, and pleasure. We feel happy but it is fleeting. The old insecurities and anxieties come right back. There is a point when we have the stuff we really need and beyond that acquiring more stuff doesn’t give us anything but a momentary flash of pleasure. Then, wham, we feel anxious and depressed again.

What’s going on? Why does this happen? Think about it. Once our basic safety and security needs are met. The searching, collecting, and storing genes have done their work. But, our culture has told us. If you have more stuff you’ll be even safer, happier, and more accepted. Wrong.  Unless the stuff and how we use it aligns with our inner values, there is no lasting effect.

If we acquire the ski jet and use it regularly, improve our skills, share its fun with others, especially those who may not own a ski jet, and spend time having fun and laughing with others in a group who share our values, then it is worthwhile.  If we buy the ski jet, take it out a couple of times, and then leave it sitting in the garage, then it is not serving us. If we buy the jet ski and meet up with a group of other jet skiers who after a couple of encounters we realize don’t share our values, then the jet ski is not serving us.  Time to get rid of it.

When we are honest with ourselves, the amount of stuff that we need, like a cooking pot, and the amount of stuff that brings us together with others and helps us have fun, like, perhaps, a jet ski, are few. A few useful and fun things are all we need. This pile of stuff which we accumulate does not bring us happiness. Cooking a great meal in our favorite pot or riding our jet ski with our best friend does.

So if we really want to align with our authentic selves and feel happy, a good place to start is with our stuff. Getting rid of the stuff that does not serve us frees us to seek out the activities that align with whom we really are. This brings ongoing happiness and joy.

Feeling Happy When We Don’t Get What We Want

In this Ted Talk, psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about feeling happy even when things don’t go as planned and teaches us how we do it by using our  “psychological immune system,” or our ability to make happiness.

In explaining how we synthesize happiness, he shows us how “impact bias” makes us believe different outcomes are more different than they are.  Ponder this. One year out, Paraplegics and lottery winners have the same amount of happiness.

Curious?  This video runs about twenty minutes. Dive in. You’ll laugh and you’ll learn how we are built for happiness even when we are stuck. On a mobile device? Watch Dan’s Ted Talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html