Stuff and the Promise of Happiness


More than four years ago, I wrote about the cost of buying and accumulating stuff, and how we can have more peace when we own less.

One of the points I mentioned when it comes to buying stuff is the promise of happiness. Today, let’s explore this thought: stuff and happiness.

There are two components to physical possessions: acquisition (buying stuff), and accumulation (keeping stuff).

Acquisition and happiness

What makes us happy about buying something? And why do we want stuff in the first place?

The main thing that comes up, especially in advertising, is a sense of completion. Stuff helps us fill a void, meet a need, be something, or experience something.

We’re either supposed to derive value from use (a bed, a car, a book), or appreciate the items we own (works of art, beautiful objects, or reminders of cherished memories).

Use is our primary reason for buying most things. We want to use an item to achieve a goal, or fulfill a desire.

When we use the things we own, we get a feeling of satisfaction, or achievement—and that illusive sense of completion.

But how long does this feeling last?

The feelings won’t be felt as intensely after the novelty wears off. That’s life. So we end up with two situations:

Things that we use on a regular basis: We may appreciate having a new comfortable mattress, or a fancy electrical toothbrush. And these are things we use every day.

In the beginning, we feel grateful and appreciate the new acquisition, but after a while, we just brush our teeth, and go to sleep on automatic. It’s something we do, and will continue to do.

In this case, we will feel the void in some other area of life that we don’t take for granted.

Things that don’t (or hardly) get used: Most of the stuff that we have will probably fit into this category—especially if we don’t let go of things on a regular basis.

In these situations, we bought something and thought it’s going to be life changing. Getting a new elliptical machine will get me to exercise every day. This works out for a week, or two, or even a month, or two. And it feels great.

Unless we consciously make exercise a habit, we will stop, and eventually give up. Now, how do I feel about the elliptical machine that’s taking half the room?

When we have stuff that’s not being used, we don’t necessarily feel happy in the traditional sense. But we feel something way more important—secure.

Accumulation and security

Keeping stuff that we don’t use gives us satisfaction in many ways, most of which are probably beyond our conscious awareness.

When we keep stuff because it feels good (safe) to keep them, we justify the accumulation with one, or more, of the following.

Future use: We wouldn’t want to give up the possession because we will get to use it, sooner or later. We wouldn’t want to spend more money to get the same thing in the future.

Avoiding loss: Our possessions cost us money and upkeep. We wouldn’t want to lose money by selling them at a much lower price, or worse giving them away for free.

A false sense of abundance: Having a treadmill, or a million cooking gadgets, or countless lawn chairs will fill our home. We feel we live an abundant life.

Dreading the void we might feel: Letting go will mean we have more empty space. What are we going to do with this space?

Maintaining status: The more we have, the more we feel accomplished and successful. If we let go of our possessions, it may appear that we need money, or can’t afford buying stuff any more.

And the more we hold on to stuff, the harder it gets to let go. We become accustomed to defining our lives with what we own.

So what’s the alternative?

Clarifying happiness

The best thing to do is to always ask ourselves questions to clarify our needs and wants—before we decide to buy, or let go of anything.

Do you feel happy right now? If not, what would make you happy?

Now look at each thing that you own and ask yourself: Does this item make me happy? If so, how?

If we let go of something, would we miss it?

When we honestly answer questions about what makes us happy, we realize that our definition of happiness when it comes to possessions is unrealistic.

There is no such thing as everlasting happiness that comes from owning stuff.

Happiness is fleeting, if we attach it to an outside source. Over time we either take the possession for granted, or we feel disappointed because the item did not deliver the highly anticipated satisfaction.

What truly makes us happy boils down to very few possessions and a lot of enjoyment from things that mean something to us. The rest is just noise and chaos.

When we look happiness in the eye we realize that it’s here all along.

What makes us happy is not a new gadget, or a fancy car. We feel happy when we do the things we enjoy, spend time with people we care about, and be who we want to be.

We all have stuff. Some of us more than others. How much stuff we keep is up to us.

We come in to this world with nothing, and we leave it with nothing. All the stuff we have in between is supposed to serve a purpose in our lives. So how much of the stuff in your life serves a purpose?

When we don’t know why we’re keeping something, or if we haven’t used it for a while, it’s time to let go.