How to be happy with less stuff

Ever swung open your closet door only to have your clothes and junk spill out all over you? Maybe once a year you go through your drawers, closet, and that dark void under your bed to get rid of the stuff you don’t use anymore, yet somehow more keeps piling up. That’s probably because, like so many of us, you have too much stuff.

The perpetual “stuff” problem is not likely due to our lack of space or organizational skills; it’s that we keep buying more of it. About 75 percent of 1,000 Americans surveyed in 2014 said they’d made impulse purchases (e.g., a last-minute decision to buy that celebrity gossip magazine at the drug store checkout). But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. Deciding to stop buying the stuff you don’t need means you can give your wallet a break and maybe even throw some bills into your
college fund.

Why bother? Because stuff doesn’t make us happy—our experiences do. “Who you are is the sum of your experiences but not the sum of your things,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness (Penguin, 2013).

To stop buying (or asking your parent to buy) stuff you don’t need, try this:

Before you buy, ask yourself three questions:

  • How likely is it that this purchase will shape who I am, help me grow and learn, or help me see myself in a positive way?
  • How likely is it that this purchase will connect me with others in a meaningful way or strengthen my relationships?
  • How likely is it that I will remember and tell stories about this purchase?

Are you excited, sad, angry, or bored?

Then be wary of going near the mall—you’re more likely to make impulsive purchases and experience buyer’s remorse, according to a 2014 survey by CreditCards.com.

Before you buy, consider the downsides:

  • Possessions cost time, as in the time you (or your parent) had to work to make the money to pay for them.
  • Possessions get damaged or go missing, causing stress.
  • The pleasure of new possessions fades quickly.
  • Possessions may become associated with regret, negative comparisons, and envy.
  • Possessions may become clutter. In a study involving 60 women, clutter was associated with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and a depressed mood, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010).

Do your research:

Need a new laptop or jeans? When students researched a product before buying, they experienced less buyer’s remorse in a study by Jisook Park at Kansas State University in 2011. “You have to make sure that the amount of effort that you put forth is justifiable to you,” Park told Consumer Affairs. “If you’re satisfied with the amount of effort that you have put in, then you are less likely to experience regret.”

De-clutter:

The pleasure of a clean, organized space may make it easier to stop buying things you don’t need. Marie Kondo, author of the bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Ten Speed Press, 2014), recommends pulling out everything you own and asking yourself, “Does it spark joy?” Yes? Keep. No? Donate, recycle, or toss.