Tammy Strobel lives with her husband in 128 square feet. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. After years of living with high stress and high debts, the pair changed their attitude toward the stuff in their lives, deciding to dramatically cut the clutter. Strobel blogged about the lifestyle changes and found a huge, receptive audience. You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too (New World Library, 2012) is her “biographical manifesto,” a combination of her story and advice on how to join the simplicity movement.
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The metal hangers made a clicking noise as I browsed through the racks of suits. I was with my friend Lisa, and we were out shopping again on our lunch break. I didn’t have a lot of professional-looking clothes, and Lisa always looked stylish, so I enlisted her to help me revamp my wardrobe. Besides, shopping on our lunch break was the perfect opportunity to escape “campus.”
Campus was what corporate headquarters called our office. There were four huge buildings, and each unit held about four hundred people. The complex had no character and reminded me of a desert because the structures were so lifeless. On the surface it seemed like campus would be brimming with happy people. But that wasn’t the case. To escape the environment, Lisa and I would drive to the outlet mall for weekly shopping breaks.
The outlet mall wasn’t much better than campus. On the positive side, the mall walkways were lined with a little bit of shrubbery and bright flowers. Despite the bright flowers, the people at the outlet mall seemed to exude negative energy. Everyone was in a hurry. Especially during a sale — it was like being in the middle of an elephant stampede.
I was part of the herd, too, because I only had a limited amount of time to browse the racks. I had to be back in the cubicle forest by one o’clock at the latest. More often than not, I’d buy a cute blouse to go with my suit, and I’d always feel better afterward — at least temporarily. The high I got from my shopping trips didn’t last long. I was on what Sonja Lyubomirsky, in The How of Happiness, calls the “hedonic treadmill.” This isn’t the kind of treadmill that helps you get into shape. If you keep running on this treadmill, you’ll feel depleted and, more than likely, be saddled with a whole lot of debt and stress. For example, all the new outfits I bought at the outlet mall gave me momentary pleasure, but eventually I adapted to them and got bored with them. Essentially, I wasn’t getting a very good return on my investment. I always thought spending money on stuff would make me happy in the long run. However, I was wrong. Research on this topic tells a different story.
Knox College professor Tim Kasser writes in The High Price of Materialism that about 35 percent of Americans in 1957 described themselves as “very happy.” We haven’t reached that level since, and that’s surprising, especially since we’re making more money than ever and have a plethora of material goods in our homes. Even Americans who have plenty of material wealth aren’t as happy as you might think. According to the Happy Planet Index, conducted by the New Economics Foundation, the United States ranks 114 out of 143 countries measured. The Happy Planet Index survey is “an innovative measure that shows the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world. It is the first ever index to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which, country by country, people live long and happy lives.”
Countries like Costa Rica, Malta, and Malaysia, as well as most countries in Europe and all of Latin America, score above the United States. A likely reason for the relative poor performance of the United States is the misplaced emphasis on material wealth as an indicator of well-being.
Extensive research has linked unhappiness and negative emotions with a materialistic mindset. For instance, in 1976, researchers surveyed twelve thousand eighteen-year-old college freshmen and then measured their life satisfaction again at age thirty-seven. The students who expressed materialistic aspirations at age eighteen were less satisfied with their lives twenty years later.
Tim Kasser argues that “strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive undermining of people’s well-being, from low life satisfaction and happiness, to depression and anxiety, to physical problems such as headaches and to personality disorders, narcissism, and antisocial behavior.” Kasser points out that these negative outcomes end up fueling more consumption — as was the case for me. In addition, materialistic people hold very high expectations for what their stuff can or should do for them. In short, materialism distracts us from two main facets in life that actually make us happy — strong relationships and doing work you love. The good news is that more and more people are forgoing materialism and choosing to live a simpler life.
Samuel Alexander and Simon Ussher, researchers at a think tank called the Simplicity Institute, conducted a multinational online survey about the voluntary simplicity movement in 2011. They analyzed data from 1,748 respondents who were asked why they chose to live with less and what reasons were behind their decision. Specifically, Alexander and Ussher wanted to see if this group was measurably happier with their own lives. Not surprisingly, the survey participants who voluntarily downsized their stuff, debt, and work commitments were indeed happier. The participants also pointed out that their decision to live simply wasn’t all about personal happiness. The group was motivated to simplify their lives because they wanted more time for family and friends, to pursue creative endeavors, and to volunteer in their community.
Overall, 87 percent of survey respondents said they “were happier living simply.” Alexander and Ussher pointed out that the “results do not ‘prove’ that living simply will make a person happier. They do show that the overwhelming majority of participants in this extensive study are notably happier for living more simply.” Of course, asking this group if they are “happier” is kind of like asking kids in a candy shop if they like sweets — they’re highly likely to say yes. However, the results are intriguing and suggest that opting out of mindless materialism is a good idea, especially when you consider the impact of a consumer-based mindset on kids.
Unhappy Rich People: A Case Study
While my mom waited at the top of the staircase, she would twirl her hair and gaze at old wallpaper that depicted a brown monkey jumping from tree to tree. This was part of her weekly routine as a child. She would tiptoe from her bedroom and sit at the top of the stairs waiting for her dad to get home. As she waited she was scared because it was well past her bedtime and getting caught meant she’d be in big trouble. Eventually, her dad would come home, but she never had the courage to talk to him, which was probably a good thing, because her parents would inevitably start fighting about money.
My mom, Kathy Hettick, was born in 1948 and grew up in Loudonville, New York — a small community nestled in Albany. Her family had everything you could want or need, including boats, cars, a huge two-story house in Loudonville, and two homes on Lake George. From an outsider’s perspective, it looked as if her family had the perfect life.
I still remember the first time I saw her childhood home. My mom and I did a “drive-by” to check it out. The house was huge and reminded me of a movie set. Painted a light blue, with white shutters at the windows, it looked as if June Cleaver should be standing at the front door with a tray of cookies in her hand.
Every time we visited New York my mom explored her old stomping grounds. We’d drive by her childhood home and take a trip to Lake George and look around the now-defunct summer camp she’d attended. The big homes, the fancy cars, the country clubs, and even the Lake George camp for girls were long gone. Yet my mom could still transport herself into the past and revisit the good memories from her childhood, like her mom’s beautiful clothes and her dad’s sense of humor.
My mom described her mother, Mary Jane, as a “high-society lady, who looked a lot like Elizabeth Taylor.” She was tall, had huge blue eyes, and was always dressed perfectly. Mary Jane wore gloves, pearls, and formal three-quarter- or full-length dresses with a decorative trim. My grandfather Lance could have been a stunt double for Jackie Gleason, both in looks and with his bubbly sense of humor. He was a socialite and a businessman, and he loved being around people. Lance and Mary Jane basked in their money. They spent their leisure time playing golf, hanging out at country clubs, or at Lake George. As I talked with my mom about my grandparents, I asked her: “Do you think all of this material wealth made your parents happy? What about you? Were you happy as a kid?”
She told me, “In some ways yes, and in other ways no. Your grandparents drank a lot and fought about money all the time. I think they loved each other in the beginning, but their priorities differed, especially when it came to spending money on stuff and experiences.” As my mom explained, “I found this really upsetting, and it didn’t make me feel very happy. My basic needs were covered, but the only time I was truly happy as a kid was at summer camp. Going to summer camp and leaving the house saved my life. I think I would have gone crazy without some kind of outlet.”
My mom told me during another conversation that Grandpa Lance spent a lot of my grandmother’s inherited money. She had roughly a million dollars in a trust fund, which was funneled into Lance’s lumber business. My mom explained, “She felt like she was being taken advantage of because your grandfather would be out working all day, and he was rarely home for dinner. After work he would go out drinking at the country club and would flirt with the ladies. The alcohol fueled a lot of arguments over money and their marriage.”
My conversations with my mom about her childhood remind me of Madeline Levine’s research. She’s worked for decades treating unhappy kids and is an expert on how the media influences child development. In The Price of Privilege, she argues that “America’s newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families.” She goes on to say, “In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.” I can see a lot of parallels between the symptoms Levine describes and my mom’s childhood. For example, one of my uncles has struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. My mom noted, “After big parties at the lake house my brother cleaned up the mess. He picked up the glasses and drank the leftover booze. He was only twelve years old and that’s when his trouble with alcohol began.”
The biggest lesson I learned from my mom’s story is that growing up with a lot of money isn’t necessarily a ticket to a happy life. As a child my mom didn’t crave stuff; what she wanted was a strong connection with her parents. In essence, she wanted to be seen and heard.
No One-Size-Fits-All Solutions
In contrast to my mom’s story, Jenna is an only child, and when she was young, her family didn’t have a lot of money. However, as Jenna pointed out, they “weren’t poor either.”
Jenna grew up in the suburbs outside Portland, Oregon, and her mom loved to shop. In fact, she shopped so much that she frequently overcharged her credit cards and bounced checks. Jenna never understood why her mom shopped so much, because she already had a lot of stuff. Most of her closets were packed with clothing, shoes, and luggage, and the bathroom cabinets were bursting with cosmetics.
Growing up, Jenna said, “I always felt like our house was dirty because stuff ended up being strewn about the house in big piles. The piles were endless — nothing was taken care of, and I had a hard time locating things that I used every day. For example, we never had pencils in the house. I know that sounds a little weird, but I needed pencils for homework and art projects. Everything seemed to get lost in my mom’s stuff, and it was frustrating. It’s not like my mom was a hoarder — she just wasn’t organized and had too much stuff.”
Jenna explained that she had a “good childhood,” but it was really hard listening to her parents constantly argue about money. She noted, “My parents tried to keep financial matters to themselves, but it was obvious there were problems. A lot of the problems stemmed from my mom’s shopping addiction. It seemed like we were always going through periods of boom or bust. We either had a little money or we were broke.”
As Jenna talked about her mom and dad’s financial problems, I thought about 2003, the year I got married. It was a good year, but I lived paycheck to paycheck, with so much student loan debt that I couldn’t catch up. Rather than saving money to pay it off, I would go to the mall for “shopping breaks.” I could relate to Jenna’s experience.
Toward the end of our conversation, Jenna expressed, “It was hard watching my parents struggle because of my mom’s shopping addiction. Despite their struggles, both of my parents were there for me. They gave me their time, love, and attention. I felt secure and loved — that’s all I really needed.”
I interviewed Jenna in July 2011, and I keep thinking about her comment because I believe most people want time, love, and attention from their friends and family. I know that’s what I want. Interestingly, by simplifying my life, I’ve gotten better at giving those things to others, and in turn I’ve gotten them back, which has made me a whole lot happier.
I’ve also discovered that there is no “one size fits all” approach to living simply. Concepts like minimalism, downsizing, voluntary simplicity, and even personal happiness mean different things to different people. And that’s okay.
Over the past seven years, I’ve developed my own definition of simple living and happiness. For me that means living without a car, getting rid of debt, living in a very small house, and keeping minimal personal belongings. My aim in this book is to help you develop your own definition of simple living and happiness.
In addition, I’ve deliberately avoided the wider social and political aspects of these choices. For some, living simply is an active political and environmental choice; it’s pursued as part of a larger belief in the need for societal change. While I agree with many of these social goals, I’m not a political pundit, and I have no interest in becoming one. My goal is to offer stories based on my experience and to provide new options for you to ponder. Does the idea of living more simply appeal to you? Does it inspire you to rethink your perspective and choices? If so, then how can you use your own unique skills and abilities to make a difference in your personal life and in your broader community? These are big questions that we each have to answer for ourselves. For myself, I put my political energy into my local volunteer work. I believe I help my community through my individual actions, as well as by being mindful of my behavior and striving to live authentically in ways that support my life purpose. In all ways, I am continually trying to simplify.
Small Actions to Create Big Steps Toward Happiness
Small, actionable tasks made the process of giving away my stuff, paying off my debt, and even changing careers a whole lot smoother. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt empowered.
As you start, one of the first steps is to define your own version of happiness and simplicity. What does this vision look like for you? When I started to simplify my life, I asked myself two big questions: What makes me happy? And how can I simplify my life to enhance my happiness? These are great ways to begin rethinking your relationship with stuff and how you define happiness.
• Write down your definition of happiness. In a journal or just on a piece of paper, write about your own version of happiness. As you do, reflect on some of your favorite, happiest memories. Jot down where you were and who you were with, as well as sights, sounds, and smells. Capture the whole experience, and identify why these moments made you happy. For me, happiness is interwoven with strong relationships and memories that last a lifetime. What makes you happy?
• How can you simplify your life? Right now, write down all the ways you can think of to simplify your life. As you write, consider: What changes can you make to your daily routine that will give you more freedom and time? How will those changes make you happier?
Reprinted with permission from You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too by Tammy Strobel, published by New World Library, 2012. Read more from this book via Mother Earth Living: Time Is the Only Real Wealth—So Stop Wasting It!