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How to break the emotional bond and throw out your junk

Happiness guru Gretchen Rubin shares thoughts on why people accumulate so much.

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If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of stuff but you only really notice it when you move. This happened to me recently and, as I filled box after box, I was incredulous at the sheer volume of clothes, books and completely random knickknacks I own. There were things I had forgotten I own — which provides a bit of a thrill upon rediscovery — but also provides a hint at just how unnecessary that particular item is to my life.

Happiness guru Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project) recently tackled the idea of clutter and happiness (and how to make it work better for you) in a piece for The New York Times. Rubin, who is in the process of sorting out the clutter that runs her family’s NYC apartment, points out that she’s far from the only one drowning under piles of stuff. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 25 percent of people who have two-car garages can’t park their cars in them because they’re filled to the brim with everything but cars. It seems the more space we’re given, the more stuff we’ll fill it with.

But, she adds, not everything we accumulate is bad. Part of increasing our personal satisfaction is sorting out the truly happy-making stuff from the junk. “The things we own exert a powerful influence over the atmosphere of our homes,” she writes. “My large library of children’s literature, my friend’s collection of Maine paraphernalia — these contribute to, and reflect, our sense of identity. Objects received as gifts commemorate important milestones like weddings, births and graduations. Photos remind us of those we love. Possessions can’t make us happy alone, but they can indeed play an important role in a happy life.”

Rubin’s notes for parsing which stuff is important and why we accumulate it in the first place are great. Take a look:

1. The “endowment effect”: Once we own something, we value it and find it hard to part with, so think twice before you take custody of any item.

2. The charm of procrastination: It’s easier to keep stuff than get rid of it, which encourages us to shove yet another takeout flyer in a junk drawer instead of truly assessing its contribution to our lives.

3. The tug of nostalgia: It’s tough to part with something (no matter how crappy) that came from someone we love or that we associate with a particular memory, and Rubin suggests deliberately curating along these lines so that you feel respectful of personal history without having to keep grandpa’s old socks.

As I try to keep these things in mind, wading through boxes, I’m tempted to just leave a lot of the stuff I haven’t even sorted through out on the curb. The trouble is, I don’t want to regret anything. And so I would add several of my own notes to Rubin’s list:

1. Try living without it:  If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, try boxing up all of it for a couple of months to figure out what you actually need and miss. Many of my things have been in boxes since March and I’m shocked by how much of it I could just walk away from. I want my books, my sad clown painting and my grandparents’ record player, but no longer remember the details of most of my clothes, random kitchen junk or assorted extras. I have been amazed by how little I actually need.

2. Less stuff means more possibilities:
I realized, when living in my former (and very small) apartment, that I got to a point where I didn’t have room for anything else. Everything was stuffed. So even though I had a lot of junk in my apartment, I also had no room for things I might care about. Having fewer things and less clutter means you don’t have to hesitate when something truly amazing comes along.

I’ve also come to realize just how pinned down we are by our belongings. If I got an amazing job offer in Hong Kong for six months, one of the factors in my decision would be just what to do with all of my things. Could my stuff stop me from having a potentially life-changing experience?

3. Allow yourself to be a little sentimental: I recently got some clarity on what things are meaningful to me. While I haven’t missed the piles of clothes and miscellaneous items stacked in my storage closet, I did experience one minor heartbreak when a box of my grandmother’s glasses fell and smashed. I was hit with a wave of grief over the how irreplaceable they are. The experience, while unpleasant, has given me a needed reminder of what holds significance for me, and what can go.

How often do you clean out your home? Get 25 tips to declutter your home here.


Get How to be Happy: 50 Extraordinary Revelations on Love, Life, Lattes & Summer Camp, $4.99, on Kobo or iTunes