Happier at Home…Or How You Can Make Your Surroundings Friendlier

 

We’ve said often that getting rid of what we don’t need can add to our happiness. But what do we do with the stuff that we have chosen to keep? Three authors explain how making small changes at home can lead to a greater feeling of contentment.

Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People, has traveled the world researching what makes people happy. He has discovered three strands of happiness—pleasure, purpose, and pride—gleaned from what he calls the world’s happiest places.

I understand how having a purpose in life makes us happier and how we need to experience pleasure or enjoyment, but pride was the one that kind of threw me. Buettner’s focus is on improving our surroundings. He says, “There are small things [we can do]. One facet of happiness is a sum of positive emotions. So I like the idea of a “pride shrine”—a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories. Or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.”

Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life, says, “Of all the elements of a happy life, my home is the most important.”

Two stories that Rubin tells in her book speak to both the importance of a comfortable home to her and to the truth of our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object.” She also calls these set-ups “shrines” and shows how one item or a grouping of a few can make us happier.

Of the many items that Ruben had that belonged to her grandparents, she treasured most two small ceramic birds. She decided to put them on a shelf in her home office, a place where she would see them every day, and this enabled her to get rid of the rest the inherited things.

Ruben’s two daughters were accomplished ballerinas and Ruben kept the tutus from their many recitals in storage under their beds. The tutus soon outgrew the space available and Ruben agonized a bit over what to do about the costumes even though she had many photos of the recitals. She chose to set up a “shrine” in her foyer: several frames with photos of the events. She kept additional recital photos in a drawer in the hall table so she can swap them out from time to time. These photos are the first things Ruben sees as she enters her home.

Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life, writes about how to streamline your life by identifying the essential and eliminating the unnecessary, freeing you from everyday clutter and allowing you to live a better life.

In a recent blog post, he wrote about lowering your life’s requirements. He explains: he was walking through an airport in early morning and wanted a cup of coffee but the long line at the coffee bar made him change his mind. He didn’t need the coffee to be awake. His thoughts were, “What are your requirements, things you can’t do without?…What happens when we let go of these needs, and just keep them as a ‘nice-to-have’ option?”

He and his wife joined a no alcohol challenge, “just to push into the discomfort of not relaxing with a glass of wine at night.”

Babauta concludes, “The fewer requirements we have, the less of a burden these requirements become. The more often we have the same thing every day, the more likely they are to become a requirement.”

To make our homes happier, we can create small monuments to important aspects of our lives – “shrines” to our accomplishments, to our family, and to our favorite activities. We can also rethink our habits, what we do every day without thinking, whether it’s making coffee first thing in the morning or keeping too much stuff simply because it belonged to our parents or grandparents.

Is it time to rethink what makes us happy? These authors suggest that we can let a few things, a curated few, tell the story we want to tell. We don’t have to keep everything, or hold onto everything, whether it’s an item we inherited or a habit we have cultivated.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

 

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On My Reading List: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

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Well, this “coming soon” title has definitely caught my eye, not only because of my Swedish-American roots, but because the title of the book seems—to me anyway—ever-so-slightly ironic/sardonic, as well as obviously quite provocative. (Those Swedes, they don’t mess around! 🙂 )

Reviewed this week by Jura Koncius in the Washington Post, the book, which is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in January, sounds like yet another gentle pushing back at—or at least moderating influence over—the Marie Kondo “magic of tidying up” tidal wave that has swept the nation in the past few years. The publisher describes The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “a charming, practical, and unsentimental approach” to downsizing and decluttering, which sounds either helpful or frightening, depending I suppose, on one’s perspective—that is, as we have discussed in our book, on whether the reader of the book is a “keeper” or a “thrower.”

It’s interesting to me that this book comes from Sweden. I have often thought about the fact that within a few short generations my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. with nothing more than a couple of trunks, a lot of courage, and the determination to succeed in a new land the way they hadn’t been able to in the old one, ended up with big houses, garages, attics, barns, and so on, crammed full of stuff that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren tended to feel very attached to, but were not quite sure what to do with. I have wondered if it is in part the fact that there was that lingering and painful historical memory of having had to leave everything behind in Sweden that fueled part of the fierce resistance to letting go of things that is very familiar to me as a Swedish-American Minnesotan.

So the explanation in the Washington Post article that “death cleaning”—that is, doing most of the getting rid of things before you die, so your survivors don’t have to it—is a very Swedish thing (“almost biological” says the Swedish ambassador to the U.S.) and the author’s view that it’s “not fair” to leave that task to others to me feels on the one hand surprisingly un-Swedish (that is, the getting-rid-of-things part), and on the other hand very Swedish indeed (the-importance-of-fairness part).

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading this book. And I imagine we’ll be letting you know more about how well it complements our approach to downsizing—or doesn’t?—later. So stay tuned for more…

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

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So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

 

Fix Your Broken Window and Other Great Tips for Feeling Less Stressed

There is a social science theory that one broken window on the block can lead to the downfall of a neighborhood. Broken-window policing, the practice of combatting minor offenses in an effort to deter more serious ones, was popular in many cities and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, for one, was a strong supporter.

Today that practice is somewhat controversial as a police policy but it may have a place in our arsenal against clutter. It can be a new way of looking at small messes in our home. Rather than seeing the mess and feeling overwhelmed by it, we can fix the small things.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says, even something as small as a stack of unsorted mail can feel defeating. She continues: “Maybe your broken window is dirty laundry, a sink full of dishes, clutter on your counter. Whatever it is, it undermines your goals because it gives you a sense of chaos. The act of fixing broken windows, however, is liberating. The task takes on symbolic weight. It doesn’t just feel like you’re sorting the mail you’ve been meaning to sort—it feels like you’re taking the first step toward doing everything you’ve been meaning to.” So fixing small messes means they’re less likely to become big messes.

Another tip is to be prepared. Yes, the Girl Scout motto comes in handy for adults, too. When you don’t have the time to do a complete job – of any household task including battling clutter – the more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can get done. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, of his command of the troops in World War II, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A Navy Seal reminds us: “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Let’s look at our training at home. You have a mail sorter and wastebasket near your front door? Your mail never has to become an unwieldy pile. You’ve posted important phone numbers on your refrigerator? No need for a frantic search when you need one in a hurry. Bought fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market this weekend? You’re halfway to a healthy meal after a stressful day at work. Systems that are firmly in place often reduce stress.

Remember to appreciate the small things in your life. Do you have a painting you love to look at? Make sure to hang it in a prominent spot away from clutter or other distractions so you can enjoy it. You love to read but find your books are always in a jumble? Make it easier on yourself by straightening up your bookshelf so you can find the titles you want. You love your grandmother’s china but never have an occasion to use it? Hang one plate on the wall so you see it every day. Live with the things you love.

Learn something useful. So much of life today involves paperwork or using technology, or both, which is so disheartening. To combat that feeling, learn to do something useful. You can share your expertise with a friend and ask her to teach you something. Ask your grandmother for tips. Or take a course, if you like. But be useful. Grow vegetables. Knit a hat. Fix your toilet. Bake a cake. Paint the porch. The results of a first try may not be as wonderful as you would like but you’ll feel like you’re contributing to your home. You’ll empower yourself.

And, lastly, help someone else. Lend a hand. Do a good deed for someone in need. As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Do you have a favorite stress-buster? We’d love to hear from you.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing and Decluttering Tips: What To Do With Ephemera

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One of the things that has been difficult for me in sifting through the contents of first my parents’ home and now mine, has been what to do with all the vintage items, especially vintage items on paper that first my grandparents, then my parents, and then I have saved through the years.

This kind of material is called “ephemera,” and it is actually a very interesting category of collectibles. The dictionary tells us that ephemera is: “Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.”

Among the things I had moved with me from place to place through the years were many brochures from touristic sites; old (some VERY old) postcards (some written on, some not); old maps; old Valentines; many ticket stubs and playbills; and even some postage stamps torn from letters. These things were kind of interesting at the time I originally kept them, but of course through the years they have become even more so, and some of them have become more valuable. (I suppose. I don’t really know!)

Collecting ephemera is for some people an interesting and fun hobby, and for some—those who take the time to do the research and make it a serious hobby, or even a professional expertise–it may even be a way to make money. For some artists it is material for collage. And for museums and libraries it can be valuable documentation of times gone by to share with the public.

But for me, I have come to realize, it is none of these things. For me it is really just more clutter, but clutter that I recognize as having historical and/or archival and/or artistic interest and value: therefore it is Not To Be Thrown Out. (My Inner Archivist absolutely will not allow me to do that.)

The question is, Inner Archivist, what do I do with it, then?

One of the experts I interviewed when we were writing our book was the director of a local historical museum in Minnesota, who told me that one of the things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were emptying out a home full of stuff was ephemera: she held up a birthday card she had recently received that was lying on her desk by way of example. She also explained to me that these are the kinds of things that become valuable and interesting to historians, because most people do, as a matter of course, throw them out. She told me that the curators of historical museums are often very interested in acquiring such things, and that even when the items in question are not going to be of interest for their collections, they still like having the chance to see them. She said that sometimes with certain items–for example, old photographs taken in another county or state, or printed materials from or about other places–the curators will take the items and “send them home.” Meaning that if the photographs, or documents, or whatever, don’t fit into the local collection, they may be sent to another historical museum that would very much appreciate having them.

I loved that phrase “send it home,” and I loved knowing that there was a network of professionals dedicated to preserving these items for posterity. And shortly after our book was published, I did salvage some items that I knew were of at least potential interest to the historical society near where my parents had grown up, and donated those items to them. And I got a thank you note from them that made me feel very much like I had done the right thing. That was a nice feeling.

But. There were still many more boxes of stuff to go through, and by the time my kids were grown and I was able to start (well, continue) going through them, I was far away from those places. And I still didn’t have the kind of time that would have been needed to spend sorting and deciding and hauling off to the nearest local historical society, because the next round of downsizing I engaged in was a far-too-rapid, radical downsizing that involved an international move.

So, in that round, I made a compromise with my Inner Archivist: I put all the tourist brochures, maps, old postcards and so on together, and took them to a thrift store and dropped them off, with just a brief comment that some of the things in the box might possibly be of interest to collectors. Then I walked away, and deliberately closed my mind to thinking about the possibility that they would be thrown out by an overzealous volunteer. I preferred to think that they would be bundled into batches for sale, and picked up by a very excited collector of whatever the items were. (You can guess which of these options my Inner Archivist would find the most pleasing.)

The point is, I was able to (finally) tell my Inner Archivist that this really just couldn’t be my problem anymore. My turn for watching over these potentially valuable historical items was over. I wasn’t going to throw potentially valuable historical artifacts into the garbage, but I wasn’t going to keep them any longer myself, either.

My Inner Archivist wasn’t completely satisfied, and quite honestly the better solution would have been to take them to a historical society where the possibility of an overly zealous volunteer throwing them out was not such a distinct possibility.

So. I guess the advice here is: if you have the time, and these things are, to you, really just clutter, do your local historical society a favor and let them do the deciding, or perhaps let them guide you to another institution that might welcome the items of ephemera you have.

And if you don’t have the time to do that, please just don’t throw them into the trash or the recycling barrel: at least leave open the possibility for someone to find and appreciate these treasured bits of our past, and to rescue them from obscurity.

But you don’t have to keep hauling them around from place to place, and you don’t have to have them filling up your closets or your storage locker. You really don’t. Trust me on this. I’ll bet even your Inner Archivist will be willing to give you a break.

For those who would like to know more about ephemera, here is a link to the Ephemera Society.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Do Downsizing (and Decluttering) ALWAYS feel liberating?

DownsiingAgainWell, no. Honestly, they don’t. At least not for everyone. I know at least ONE person for whom it is not always so: myself!

And I have talked to quite a few others who feel the same. 🙂

This post is for those who may find it anywhere from a little bit, to very, discouraging to hear about how the process of downsizing is so liberating for others, when they don’t feel that way AT ALL…

This post is for those for whom the task is really difficult and painful, EVEN THOUGH WE ALL KNOW IT IS NECESSARY!!! 

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. As the coauthor of a book on downsizing, people often assume (quite reasonably) that I am someone who is really good at getting rid of things.

But this is SO not the case…I am, on the contrary, someone who has learned to grit my teeth, gather my resolve, roll up my sleeves, and then grin (not very merrily), and BEAR IT!

I am also a person who has managed to find ways to get past my aversion to getting rid of things. Writing our book helped me a lot to become this kind of person, and in the downsizing experiences I’ve engaged in since we wrote it, I found it very helpful to follow our own advice. I often tell people, I know our book is a good one, because it has helped me! 🙂

I think part of what our book offers that many decluttering and downsizing books do not, is acknowledgement that this process is really not so easy at all, especially for those people we call “keepers”–as well as more sympathy for the “keeper” point of view.

What we found through our own experiences, as well as in talking to people as we wrote our book, is that it IS possible, even for the most adamant keepers, to find ways to part with many of the things that are cluttering their homes, or garages, or storage lockers, or simply their minds; and it is possible to do it without breaking their hearts or destroying (or losing) precious memories.

But. I still say it is not all that easy, and for me it really hardly ever actually, truly feels “liberating.” For me, there is always something a little bit sad and unsettling about it.

The process certainly does include moments of feeling liberated, but a far more prevalent feeling is a kind of unnerving fluctuating between being plunged into the past in a not-very-pleasant way, in which the past feels more like a trap from which you’ll never escape than a pleasant field of memories. And then being kind of jolted from those moments into a present in which the words disorienting, or exhausting, or jangling come much more quickly to mind than liberating.

In my most recent bout of downsizing, I had some conversations with friends who were reminiscing (or commiserating) about their past, or current, decluttering projects. One of them remarked on a phenomenon I have noticed too. “You keep finding yourself holding objects that have no relation to each other in your two hands, and not knowing what to do with either one of them,” she said, with a bewildered and frustrated shake of her head. “I KNOW it!” I said, and together we shook our heads some more.

Why this should be so distressing is beyond me, but for me, and clearly for my friend as well, it just is.

I suppose it is possible that people who are much more adept at arranging physical spaces and objects than I am, or my friend is, don’t have this kind of thing happen to them nearly as much, or perhaps they find it challenging, or amusing, rather than distressing. I wouldn’t know.

But I do know that there are many ways to overcome the aversion to getting rid of things. We share a lot of those ways in our book. But there’s one new tactic I came up with in my last downsizing adventure that I hadn’t thought of before: invoking a war chant!

As I got into the car, and took a deep breath before driving out to the storage locker where the next stage of downsizing awaited me, I remembered that I had a CD in the car with some beautiful, and rather stirring, Icelandic folk music on it. I have to admit I’m not sure if this particular song really is a war chant of some kind, or not. But the music certainly sounds martial, or at least very determined, to me: and listening to it as I drove toward what I was thinking of as the Battle of the Storage Locker both made me laugh and gave me the surge of physical energy I needed to begin the task.

On another day, as I headed away from the storage locker, when what I needed was more calming down than revving up, I played some of my favorite soothing Hawaiian music.

Both things helped!

So, you might want to think about putting that into your bag of tricks, keepers of the world, next time you’re ready to attack “the beast”–music to downsize by!

OR…take a look at our last post, in which my coauthor has a list of 50 things that can be fairly easy to get rid of, even for most keepers. Especially if you put on a war chant! 🙂

Whatever works!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.