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New Key to Happiness

Melissa Lafsky Wall

Perhaps it’s time to rethink our lifetime acquisition plan—in other words, the way we buy stuff. Our current default setting of “more, more, more” is getting old…or rather, it’s getting unworkable when you compare it to the way everything else is going.

Just look at the last two decades of consumer spending. The graph just keeps shooting up. We spend more and more on stuff every decade. Then think about how much you’ve spent on stuff in the last year, and how much you’ll have to spend in the future to match it.

So it begs the question, how are we supposed to afford all this stuff?

Our collective financial future is boggier than ever. Young people are being graphed according to poverty levels. Unemployment refuses to budge—and even once it stabilizes, we’re facing careers in a gig economy where we shuttle between jobs every two years on average. Not ideal for accruing retirement funds, or even a solid savings account.

We’re getting to the point where we can no longer ignore the human and animal casualties of our supply chain, or deny the long-term environmental devastation our need for ever-more stuff is causing. At some point, we need to embrace the fact that the production of all this stuff is causing actual harm. Sure, we may not have to witness the direct effects (or negative externalities, to get all econ-speak) that our piles of plastic doohickeys and fiberglass gadgets and one-season-then-toss-’em shoes are having on other people and places, but the Internet has done a laudable job of making sure we know they exist.

We also know that we don’t (and likely won’t in the future) have space for tons of stuff. We’ve traded the McMansions of our parents’ dreams for tiny apartments in ultra-urban centers. Ten-thousand-square-foot brick monstrosities 10 miles from the nearest grocery store won’t be options for us, even if we wanted them.

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So long, McMansions, hello, minimalism.

So maybe we radically rethink stuff. Not in a “become a freegan and subsist on discarded cheese curds” kind of way, but rather in a self-reprogramming, contemplative way. The movement has already begun, with projects like LifeEdited, which are chipping away at the notion that we always need more stuff and helping us reexamine our shopping patterns, stop buying out of habit, and focus on collecting and curating a discrete number of things that we value.

See, there is beauty in things—beauty that “stuff” lacks. There is meaning, and sentimentality, and story, and memory. Things have value and deep psychological significance. We feel actual joy (not the dopamine-rush shopping-spree joy that’s been linked to cocaine addiction, but authentic joy) when we receive them, and use them, and look at them.

Things and stuff are not interchangeable. Things are valuable—either because of the amount they cost, or the care with which they were made, or the context in which they were bought or received. Stuff is all the rest of the crap you own and bought because…well, because that’s what we do.

The test for telling the difference between your things and your stuff is simple: Look around your living room or bedroom. Identify every object that you would be devastated if you never saw it again—not just momentarily annoyed, but truly impacted. Assuming you’re honest with yourself (and not trying out for an episode of “Hoarders”), the list will be small. Tiny, even. Your wedding ring. Your best suit. The photo of your grandmother in a white dress. Your travel photos. The Fender Stratocaster you bought with your first paycheck.

How much would you spend to keep these things safe? More than you’d likely spend on a truckload of new stuff.

Nothing about the future is for sure. Few, if any, of us have a clue what our income will be in 5 years, let alone 25. The idea of continuous expansion (accompanied by an ever-growing compilation of stuff) is not realistic, let alone achievable. Stuff may still represent status. But status won’t warm your heart, or pay your mortgage.

Melissa Lafsky Wall is a journalist with nearly 10 years of experience in digital and print media. She was the founding editor of Newsweek’s iPad edition, as well as an associate editor at the Huffington Post and first editor of the New York Times‘s Freakonomics blog. She is currently the owner of Brick Wall Media.