Contentment consists not in adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire, not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting from desires.
I'm not religious or particularly spiritual, but Thomas Fuller's sentiment on contentment is at once appealing as a goal to strive for and frustrating as something to actualize.
There's a phrase that you've probably heard if you watch American TV. "Go big or go home." I should stop watching so many home improvement shows, because those in particular reflect the American obsession with big homes and stuff. Go big is a common phrase barked on TV shows, suggesting that making or buying things bigger and having more can make anything better. It's one of those expressions that makes me cringe every time I hear it. What does having this attitude really do to benefit or harm us?
American culture seems obsessed with procuring more than we have. To an outsider looking in, it would seem that consumerism is among the most valued of our core values as a nation. It's something I've been accustomed to all of my life. It's only in the last 10 years or so that I've had any serious thoughts about what it means to participate in this society as a consumer, and what it could mean to challenge and change my role as a consumer.
Corporations and the media are constantly telling us that more is better, and when I look around me, it's easy to believe that most of us have bought in to this idea. I've lived most of my life consuming without thought, consenting to the idea that newer, more fully featured, and bigger is better.
The problem of acquiring more doesn't end with things. We live in a world where information flow has gone from the seemingly unctrollable force of a fire hose to what Richard Saul Wurman called an Information Tsunami. The force of the tsunami threatens to bury every meaningful bit in site, and the struggle of designers and information architects has been to create the systems that function with this increasingly tremendous force.
This is the place where I find myself today. Things have taken up too much space, and information has become too voluminous. I've had enough, but more to the point, I have too much.
I feel like I'm silently crying over the overwhelming need to deal with this glut of stuff more and more, and I'm finding tremendous comfort in places I didn't look. I have an understanding of both the philosophical and spiritual ideas associated with living simply, removing attachment, and controlling the mind's desire. It wasn't until I felt the need to start with the basics of uncluttering my stuff that I felt the gelling of ideas into something I can believe and practice.
Uncluttering and carrying less refers both to the reduction or removal of both the physical and mental stuff we accumulate. The desire for, acquisition, and maintenance of physical objects create a cycle that weighs us down and uses up energy. It fills the spaces of a person's home, and the stuff leaves little room for much else over time.
Mental clutter is the collection of repeated desires, tasks, and thought patterns that invade our mind and interrupt every moment. These days, the constant notification and tickling of your iPhone and the incessant ping of email and social networking apps contributes to mental clutter. These kinds of things burden our experience.
Cat Li Stevenson has a nice, short article discussing her strategy for dealing with both the mental and physical clutter. The act of decluttering one's environment and mind are closely connected to freeing up space to find deeper, more meaningful experience.
But before dealing with the mind, I wanted to first deal with the burden of physical stuff. Considering the clutter of physical things is the most obvious path for novices—people like me. This is what I began with, and continue to struggle with daily, because it's practical and real.
I've found a lot of inspiration from adventure sports athletes who approach issues around carrying less pragmatically. Alpine climbers, ultralight backpackers and Randonneurs who do long-distance cycling carry the minimum necessary gear out of necessity when they venture out on adventures alone and unsupported.
Cindy Gilbert, a cyclist and the sustainable design program director at Minneapolis College of Art and Design wrote about the freedom of traveling with less during a 2.5 week, 4 state, 1000 mile cycling ride she took from Montana to Minneapolis. During the trip she learns about what she is willing to give up to lighten her load. She ponders the positive effect of focussing on what one needs, and questioning the value of acquiring everything one wants.
I thought about the potential freedom I would feel to not have, want, buy, care for, protect, and use as many things. I think I am starting to understand why the retired folks in my life are offloading their stuff on me. Physical and emotional freedom from stuff costs nothing and it weighs nothing. Now that's something I am prepared to carry with me.
This idea of giving up the burden of one's things is at the core of what I'm trying to get at. There's freedom lying beneath the pile.
Dave Bruno, who started the 100 Thing Challenge and who wrote a book about his challenge to reduce his posessions to 100 items talks about consumerism and how we become prisoners to it. In his book he writes how early consumerism for young people comes of necessity to begin your life and equip yourself. But the problem we run into after we start acquiring things is that we never stop. We continue to collect what we don't need or sometimes even want.
The problem is that having more doesn't necessarily result in a higher quality of life or better experience. Acquiring more has gotten us into dire economic and environmental straits. If you look at some of the "professional" software that we use, the accretion of features has rendered them overwhelming and difficult.
What it comes down to is that sadly, for many people, more is actually less in terms of overall experience. The more we become a society hell-bent on acquiring and becoming attached to things, the greater the burden those attachments become to carry. It's can be a burden in one's personal life as well as in one's work. Giving up attachment frees you to focus on what's important.
What does this mean exactly? Barry Schwartz, who wrote "The Paradox of Choice" believes that more choice leads to paralysis rather than happiness.
I've been trapped in the cycle of attachment and consumerism for years, and wasn't until the last 5 or so years living in New York that I had been able to do something about it. As my family had grown, so too had our acquisitions, but the decent-sized Brooklyn apartment we lived in had not grown. This is the point where people get creative about storage, upgrade to bigger spaces, or move to the suburbs. I decided to go the other way and remove things instead. My wife is a constant unclutterer (thank goodness) and follows the rule that as things come in, other things have to go out. This is the rule I try to keep to now.
When my second son was born, I decided it was time that I start uncluttering as well, and had been going through the process of reducing my possessions, starting with my closets and book shelves. I'll write more on this later, because I really am a complete beginner when it comes to living simply and I have felt like I fail more than succeed at doing it. I'm no hoarder, by any means, but I know that I have too many things that I don't need.
A few years after starting this experiment, we have moved out of New York to a suburb in California, but we made the conscious decision to find a place that was roughly the same square footage as our place in New York. That is helping keep me honest.
The important thing to me is that I started, and made the conscious choice to draw a line, and say enough is enough. I find it terribly difficult to do this without rules and arbitrarily picked numbers of items like 100. The funny thing is that as I was doing this, I found myself cheating, by spending time researching what I can use as lasting replacements for the things I have. This is a beginning for me, and it starts with taking small steps.
It doesn't have to be this way. By making choices that are appropriate to task, we can simplify, improve, and live more satisfying, meaningful lives. Slowly, I think, internalizing these goals through everyday practice, has started to influence my thought in other areas as well, the key one being how I evaluate products that fit with these ideas.