Could you live with just 200 possessions?
Living-with-less movement is taking root in Portland
Two hundred things seems about right for Lina Menard. The Northeast Portland tiny house resident has tried for a few years to live with less stuff. She teaches workshops in downsizing. She thinks living with fewer material possessions is not only responsible from an ecological point of view, but frees her to live a happier, more meaningful life.
And yes, her 200 things has a little bit of cheat in it. She counts her jewelry box as one item, even though there are about 30 pieces of jewelry inside. Her bike counts as one, though it has paniers, a water bottle and lights that could be considered separate items. A truer count of her possessions, Menard says, would be more like 577. But thats not the point.
Menard used to live in a nice, two-bedroom house before she took the 200 Things Challenge, her version of the 100 Thing Challenge, inspired by Dave Brunos 2010 book about living a simple life with only 100 possessions. So she had stuff she had to lose. And getting rid of stuff, she says, is hard.
For example, there was her grandmothers fur coat. Menard had worn it to high school dances and the coat was associated with all sorts of pleasant memories. Still, it had to go. So Menard discarded the coat in a way that would attach a new meaning to it. Research revealed that the Humane Society of the United States accepts fur coats to help in its wildlife rescue program, the fur comforting cubs of the same species.
It seemed like an appropriate choice because it kind of sent the fur back where it should have been, Menard says.
Most of us are surrounded by thousands of material possessions, only a few of which deliver pleasure, say academic researchers and downsizing experts such as Menard. In her Less is More workshop, Menard has encountered young couples intrigued by tiny house living as well as baby boomers transitioning from houses to apartments and lives with more travel.
So why is it so hard to downsize?
Portland is part of the problem. Yes, the city is a national center for the tiny house movement and as an adjunct, the
living-with-less ethic. But that means theres also a lot of free stuff here.
Especially in Portland, you dont have to buy things to acquire a lot, Menard says. Learning to say no to free things is actually a challenge.
On the other hand, the popularity of tiny houses and micro-apartments here, and the many communal efforts such as the citys tool libraries, make Portland a leader in living with less. One lesson Menard says shes learned is that an Oregon-style conscience can get in the way of downsizing.
The process wasnt so much about tearing myself away from possessions as it was trying to figure out a way for them to be somewhere else, she says. I was responsible for these things, and because of my environmental ethic, I didnt want to throw things away unless they were truly garbage.
Downsizing became an emotional process for Menard, and an analytical one. Throughout each day, before moving into her 121-square-foot tiny house, she was mentally prioritizing every object she owned. She was just 27, not old enough, she thought, to have accumulated much.
But it was still amazing to me how many things I had that I had never intended to own and how few of them had meaning and how few of them had a story, she says. She took photographs of objects that did have meaning but were still destined for a new location. Among the items that made her 200 things cut: the blanket she had as a child, a hammock from Costa Rica, her laptop and cell phone, one mattress, one pressure cooker, and a favorite teacup she had brought back from Prague.
Programmed in our genes?
In her workshops, Menard is not a scold. Shes selling a concept, not a standard, and she suspects shes battling natural selection in the process.
If its not voluntary, it feels like deprivation, she says. We have an intrinsic worry about scarcity thats related to a biological need for survival.
Yes and no, says University of Missouri evolutionary anthropologist Karthik Panchanathan. Sure, Panchanathan says, it makes sense that our ancestors developed habits that associated hanging on to stuff with survival. But a survey of human cultures casts doubt on that idea. Owning lots of stuff, he says, is a relatively new phenomenon in the sweep of history. And in other developed countries such as Finland and Norway, people are accustomed to drastically fewer material possessions than those in the United States.
Millions of humans have been and some continue to be mobile foragers, and their survival has never been predicated on owning stuff, according to Panchanathan. The level (of materialism)we have now is certainly novel, he says. If you went to the Bushmen in Kalahari and said its time to downsize, they would look at you like youre crazy. Theyre already downsized.
The evidence, Panchanathan says, is that the amount of stuff we keep is not due to natural selection, but culture. We view how well were doing by comparing ourselves to others, he says. Hes even got experiments that appear to prove it.
In one, a group of co-workers were offered raises of 5 percent but told their colleagues received raises of 7 percent. In a companion experiment, everyone received 4 percent raises. If materialism were the dominant value, the workers in the first experiment who received a 5 percent raise should be happier than those in the second experiment who received 4 percent raises.
But thats not how it worked out, according to Panchanathan. The majority of people who received more money but less relative to their co-workers reported unhappiness. Which spells trouble for trying to live light here.
As much as downsizing is trendy among certain subcultures, especially in places like Portland, the larger American culture is about consuming more, and thats probably waging some sort of psychological battle inside these individuals, Panchanathan says.
The one with least toys wins
The best hope for people attending Menards workshops, Panchanathan adds, might be to surround themselves with like-minded people who believe in the living light ethic. And they dont all have to support each other competing to be most green might work just as well.
Youd like it to be supportive, but I can see it becoming a different kind of status competition to prove something about others, Panchanathan says.
This idea of counting possessions started with San Diego resident David Bruno, who four years ago wrote The 100 Thing Challenge after giving up his guitar and a baseball jersey signed by Pete Rose in a purge on his possessions. Bruno, incidentally, lives in a 2,000-square-foot house with a wife, three daughters and nine pets. The 100 items are Brunos alone.
Brunos 224- page book and blog connected with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who started looking at their material possessions in a different way. He found that major obstacles in his downsizing efforts were items that held emotional value. His garage, he says, held an assortment of rarely used woodworking tools. For years hed envisioned spending weekends making dollhouses for his daughters or furniture for the rest of the house. Giving up those tools meant giving up an image.
I attempted to purchase my way into a lifestyle, and just buying a router or saw is not going to make you a woodworker, Bruno says. What I found was I was giving up more than woodworking tools. I was giving up this idea of what I am.
Bruno says the letters and emails from those who have written him after taking up his challenge sound eerily similar. The consistent, word-for-word response from hundreds of people was, It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders, he says.
Thats because more stuff, even more money, past a certain point doesnt make us happier, says Cornell University economist Robert Frank, author of Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess.
Study after study, Frank says, show that, People are incredibly adaptable. That means even lottery winners, after a brief spike in happiness right after they get the news and the money, revert back to the same level of happiness they always had.
Directed spending boosts
But that doesnt mean we cant buy more happiness, he adds. In fact, he says rich people still are generally happier than poor people in the United States. But its not due to the bigger cars or larger houses they acquire.
The secret? There are some things to which we dont adapt. Spend money on those and your happiness likely will increase. One unadaptable is environmental noise. Loud, unpredictable sounds irritate people who never quite get used to the intrusion. Another is long commutes to work. A third is a job where you have no sense of control.
The Lina Menards have it right, Frank says, if they are ridding themselves of material objects and spending their money so they can live free of the situations that will never stop making them less happy.
Tammy Strobel has hit the jackpot by Franks happiness standard. With husband Logan Smith she has moved from a life where she felt assaulted by noise, had hourlong commutes to work in a cubicle-centered job that felt confining, and was far from family. She acquired her new lifestyle not by spending money, but by ridding herself of stuff.
Strobel and Smith were among the first members of Portlands tiny house community when they left apartment living behind and perched in a friends backyard in 2011. But their tiny house was the culmination of a process begun earlier when Strobel took up the 100 Thing Challenge and gave away 90 percent of her material possessions.
Today Strobel and Smith have parked their tiny house behind Smiths parents house in rural northern California. The noise they suffered while living in an apartment on Northwest 23rd Avenue is no longer an issue. The stressful job Strobel once held for a financial management company is in her distant past. Shes a freelance writer and photographer, and Smith works for a nonprofit, but commuting isnt part of their lifestyle. None of this would have been possible, Strobel says, if they hadnt gotten rid of their stuff, thereby infusing their lives with flexibility. The move to California also allowed Strobel to help nurse her dying father in the last two years of his life.
Something in, another thing out
Strobel no longer counts her possessions, but figures she is still right around 100 because shes adopted a policy that perpetuates the challenge she took three years ago. I have what I need, and when I buy something new I give something away, she says.
Still, Strobel says initially getting rid of her possessions was hard. She and Smith took six years to complete their downsizing process, going one room at a time.
Economist Frank offers another reason we find it so hard to get rid of stuff. Everybody can remember throwing something out and then immediately discovering that you needed it, he says.
Of course, we dont remember the thousands of times we threw something out and didnt later need it, he adds. Thats what economists call the Availability Heuristic we recall the odd event more than the commonplace, and form irrational attitudes as a result.
Another favorite of economists that Franks says has a role is the Endowment Effect. Just putting something into your possession makes you value it more highly than if you didnt own it, he says. So its hard to give up.
Dee Williams, one of the pioneers of Portlands tiny house movement and founder of Portland Alternative Dwellings, recalls how hard it was to get rid of a leather couch she treasured. Getting the couch, she says, felt symbolic of becoming an adult when she was 38. And the couch was only a year old when Williams decided to downsize after being diagnosed with a heart condition and being told she might live only a few more years. She didnt want the demands of possessions keeping her from living as full a life as she could. And yet.
There was this little niggling part of me that was, What if everything works out fine and youve gotten rid of the couch? Williams recalls. Nonetheless, she gave it to her brother, who eventually sold it, leaving Williams with a new insight.
More than anything else we dont want to get gypped, she says. We dont want to make poor choices with money. Its something in our culture that is a very powerful motivation, to not let go of stuff, especially if it was hard to obtain, regardless of whether its crap or not.Add a comment