Loving the small stuff

Posted on January 21, 2011 by Anne Basye

Yadda yadda yadda: after dozens of posts on stuff and how to get rid of it, how to move it crosscountry in a UHaul, how to store it and ignore it, and how to live without it, I’ve unpacked it all, in a new home.

Making my coffee in my little white Melita pot, dressing from a closet instead of a suitcase, settling down to books and papers united, finally, at one desk—my stuff surrounds me again. Now I can create the comforting routines I was longing for towards the end of my 17-month sabbatical road trip.

Perhaps rejoicing in my belongings—seeing them as new all over again—will help me avoid hedonic adaptation. In this phenomenon, says the New York Times in this article on what makes us happy, “people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness. Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.” And that means we stop getting pleasure from that new dress, new house, new car, new whatever. Which makes us go out and buy more new things!

Hedonic adaptation is one reason researchers who study happiness recommend investing in leisure activities and services that build relationships instead of spending money on more stuff. One Illinois expert used his field’s research to buy a house close to hiking trails. The novelty of floor plans and amenities would wear out quickly, he reasoned; the ability to walk four or five days a week would make a longer-lasting contribution to his family’s happiness.

What better reason to get over our foolishly conspicuous consumption and embrace, instead, calculated consumption—buying only what we need and investing everything else in relationships, experiences, learning, giving. If only we could recognize that our material needs were met long ago, and seek new, nonmaterial sources of contentment instead.

Nice idea, isn’t it? And worth contemplating as I put down my backpack and become a householder once more. There are some things I need to buy—a broom, a rug, some weather stripping—but mostly I’m sitting around appreciating what I just unpacked. To quote from Frederic and MaryAnn Brussat’s wonderful book, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life,

How different we might feel about our world after making a practice of saying hello and thank you to the refrigerator that hums while it keeps our food cool, to the slippers that warm our feet on cold winter nights, and to the pen that expends all its ink so that we can express ourselves…when we cherish our things, they reciprocate; when we ignore them, they can turn toxic.

No more ignoring. I’m back to cherishing, and it’s a relief!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

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