Time to Shed All Your Stuff?

When I was in Dubai 6 years ago it was not easy to rent a furnished flat and so I ended up owning half an IKEA store and around me were sofas, bookshelves, beds, televisions and a well-equipped kitchen. I had all the stuff and gadgets anyone could want.

It was all mine and the colours, layout and style defined my identity. Come to my apartment and you could see who I was or more likely how I wanted you to see me.

I left Dubai in difficult circumstances and in the weeks before leaving everything went on sale. Slowly the apartment was emptied. That was it. The only things left for me were two suitcases of clothes and that is how I arrived back in the UK.

Regular readers will know of the catastrophic changes that took place in that year before I left. I don’t use the adjective catastrophic to mean shattering or calamitous but in the mathematical usage of a discontinuity, moving from one state to the other. I arrived as a classic materialist and left with a much-reduced need to own stuff.

To my surprise, I didn’t feel bad and instead, I was liberated. To use the new and faddy word, my life had been totally uncluttered.

There is a lot of psychology in the need to own things. It starts young, very young and modifies through adolescence into maturity and old age. However, the things we own and the way we show them off is core at the definition of ourselves.

The designer bag is a flag to the world of our status. The oil painting in the living room is as much a reminder to ourselves as it is to any visitor, of our success.

Hoarding and owning may seem natural, but there is a thought that the millennials are starting to buck the trend.

In the days of vinyl, I can remember the first record I bought. It is too embarrassing to give it a shout out here, but can you remember the first tune you streamed on Spotify? If you don’t want to cook or don’t own an oven you can have your evening meal, in any ethnic flavour, delivered to your door.  On the other hand, if you want to cook, you can get the precise ingredients for the meal on your doorstep, in a neat box. I doubt you have recently bought a box set and instead now subscribe and watch everything on Netflix. Owning a car was everything but with Uber is it really a necessity?

We, or at least the millennials, are heading to a subscription lifestyle and away from ownership. According to a recent survey by McKinsey of US consumers, they found that of those that shopped online 15% had signed up to a recurring purchase of some kind.

But don’t be conned. It is a false dawn.

The need to own hasn’t changed it is just that the stuff we want to own has moved on. The mementoes of my past have been replaced by Instagram and Facebook accounts where we store our lives and stories.

The old and tatty pot I picked up on a holiday to Greece has been replaced by a photo of it on social media. Threaten to delete these accounts and the new generation will feel the same sense of loss as their parents losing a treasured teenage, first love letter.

I have found my new lifestyle liberating and don’t miss the burden of not owning. All that I have added since I left Dubai are a few more clothes, but that is all. There are no possessions I have to manage.

The truth, however, this is not about assets and stuff but more it is an attitude about living in the present moment, uncluttered by the past. There is freedom knowing that all that constrains me is my own ambition. This approach is right for me.

I am not going to try and change the world. I will leave that to others but in an article in 2013 in The Psychologist reports:

The prevailing view in psychology is that materialism is bad for our well-being.

Research by Tim Kasser (at Knox College) and others have revealed an association between holding materialist values and being more depressed and selfish and having poorer relationships.

Kasser has previously called for a revolution in Western culture, shifting us from a thing-centered to a person-centred society.

Other research by Leaf Van Boven, Thomas Gilovich and colleagues has shown that the purchase of experiences leaves people happier than buying material products. In another study of theirs, materialistic people were liked less than people who appeared more interested in experiences.

In the film Fight Club, the troubled Tyler Durden sees the burning of his flat as liberating. He says It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.

A thought worthy of reflection.