I've been thinking about stuff quite a bit lately. The US economy runs on stuff. If we stopped buying so much stuff, we'd crash the economy very quickly. It's so important that President Bush suggested we all go shopping after the 9/11 attacks. Maybe that's a way to stick to the Trump administration? A general strike on buying stuff to crash the economy on his watch. But, that is a subject for another day as this is not a political post.
The consumption culture in the US is not an accident, happy or otherwise. In Post WWI America, agriculture and manufacturing productivity was making great leaps forward. Futurists of the day were talking about a future in which all men were gentlemen of leisure, because nobody needed to work full time. The government had other ideas. They conspired with the advertising industry to promote the idea that consumption was patriotic. The idea was that the more we consumed the more the factories and farmers could produce. Tax revenues went up, which meant more money for government programs, and standards of living went up for everybody. It kind of sort of worked for a while, although government spending had a lot more influence on it than any conservative will ever admit.
President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices . . . a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”
I've slowly come to the realization over the last couple of years that stuff doesn't make me happy. I know this seems obvious, but I'm a Gen X kid. The 80s were all about conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately, that attitude came with me into adulthood. Thankfully, it's not going to follow me to my death. Hopefully I've got a good 30+ years of living a less stuff filled, and more experience focused life, in front of me. And if I don't? Well that is even more motivation to stop collecting stuff and start collecting experiences.
I'm not nuts. I'm not becoming a minimalist and I'm not moving into a tiny home. However, a man's home is his castle is utter bullshit. A man's home is a place to rest, relax, recharge, and stay out of the rain. Who can relax in the castle? Can you imagine the maintenance on that square footage? Not to mention the heating and cooling bills! People put way too much emphasis on the physical structure, when it's the people you share it with that is important. And if you are sharing with the right people, the physical structure shouldn't matter at all. I'd be perfectly happy living in a one bedroom apartment with my wife. Hell, a lot of days I'd rather live somewhere that small.
In his book Stuffocation: Why We've Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever, James Wallman traces the history of our consumption based culture, and looks at some alternatives. One interesting point that he makes is that GDP is a really poor measure of an economy that is based on anything other than maximizing the output of stuff. If the US makes less, but higher quality stuff, and we are all actually happier as a result, it won't be captured in GDP. We have to keep buying stuff to keep GDP up, and the government definitely wants to keep GDP up.
There is plenty of research available that shows the increasing amount of stuff in our lives doesn't make us happier. Look around the USA right now. We are not a happy people, yet we have more stuff in our lives than at any time in human history. What does makes us happy? Experiences. Research shows that experiences make us happy. The crap we buy tends to fade from memory quickly, while experiences stick with us forever. Likewise, if you buy a crappy product it will always be a crappy product. Even the worst experiences tend to mellow with time, and that horrible night you got stuck in a rainstorm in the middle of nowhere with a convertible whose roof wouldn't close becomes a great story that you enjoy telling for the next 10 years.
So what am I actually doing about all this? My wife and I have been purging stuff for a couple of months now. Her cancer certainly had something to do with these realizations, or maybe it's more accurate to say her cancer was the kick in the ass we needed to stop talking about downsizing and actually start doing it. 14 years of homeschooling causes quite a build up of books and assorted educational aids and games. Disney Snow Globes that Michelle collected years ago but have sat in cabinets not even thought about for 10+ years are going on the local For Sale Facebook group. Goodwill is getting weekly deliveries from us right now. 7000 odd baseball cards that will never be valuable will be downsized dramatically. It turns out the cards I collected as a kid still bring me joy, so I'm going to keep the 75-80ish Topps cards, of which I have probably 80%, and complete the sets as a hobby, not as an investment. I've made a pass through the dressers and closet too, getting rid of clothes that fit just fine, but will never wear. That was hard. Something in me has a hard time tossing anything that might be useful some day. However I realized the cost of keeping it (in space, in stress, and in psychic energy) exceeds the cost of replacing it someday, if I ever actually need it again.
How am I going to fill the stuff void in my life? With experiences. Hopefully a fair amount of those experiences will be really exciting trips. However, everyday life presents plenty of opportunities to focus more on experiences, even if the experience is just a walk in the park with your sweetie. There is so much to do and experience around us, no matter where we live. So we'll be getting out of the house doing stuff that doesn't end in us acquiring anything but an experience, and maybe some pictures; or maybe a nice meal or a couple of drinks at a friendly pub.
Speaking of experiences, it turns out leading an experiential life doesn't automatically eliminate the "keeping up with Jones' stress." Social media allows us to share our experiences conspicuously, in real time. We've replaced keeping up with our neighbor's car purchases with competing with their Instagram feed. I've probably been guilty of that. I'm going to stop. It's not about getting rid of stuff for the sake of getting rid of it. I have no interest in trying to live with only 3 pairs of socks. It's about only owning stuff that actually makes me happy.
I've learned I don't need much stuff to be happy.