Do you know the relationship between your stuff and your mindset?
In Japan there lives a man, Fumio Sasaki, who owns only 150 things. To give you some idea of what that looks like, if you open his wardrobe, you would see three shirts, four pairs of pants, and four pairs of socks. And his kitchen, bathroom and living room are similarly pared back. He has been quoted as saying ‘It's not as though you feel satisfied after collecting a certain amount of stuff. Instead, you keep thinking about what you're missing. Now I feel content with what I have."
It’s been estimated that the average American household contains around 300 000 items. And if that sounds excessive, consider that there’s probably 150 pencils and crayons just in the kid’s art box.
Behind the numbers lies a few interesting facts about how what you own reflects what’s in your mind. What we keep, and the reasons why, reflects our mindset.
The core of mindfulness is about being present in the moment, and not judging that moment as being either good or bad: just being with it as it is. As Sasaki alludes to, his minimalist mindset helps him to live mindfully. Instead of thinking about what he wants and does not have, or spending time imagining how he will get what he doesn’t have, he keeps focused on the present – and what he does have – and makes that work for him.
Mindfulness in this context isn’t linked directly to how many objects you own, it’s linked to the idea that it’s all too easy to get caught up in wanting more, or different, or better, if you’re not consciously avoiding that way of thinking.
Being mindful of the present often brings increased gratitude as you focus on what is in front of you, instead of wishing for more/for things to be different. The less you have, the more gratitude you tend to feel for what you do have, and the opposite is true too: the more you get of something, the harder it is to remain thankful for it. Consider that the faster internet connections get, the less we’re tolerant of when they’re slow. The more information that’s given away for free, the more we come to expect this rather than to be thankful for it. The more connected we are to others, the more frustrated we get if someone doesn’t respond to us straight away.
Whether or not you cut down on what you have, make sure you are grateful for its existence in your life (or get rid of it!).
What If Thinking
One of the most damaging types of negative thinking is ‘What if’ thinking. It’s the kind of thinking where you focus on something in the future, and end up imagining all the possible negative outcomes of an event (as a way of ‘protecting’ yourself from these things happening). While a bit of what if thinking can be practical (i.e. If you actually take effective action to reduce the possibility of a negative outcome), most people use ‘what if’ thinking in a very damaging way: they simply dwell on different negative potential outcomes, making themselves live through these experiences in their head as they imagine them, and end up making themselves miserable for little reason. If you’ve ever been worried about attending a party where you didn’t know many people, worrying about how no one would talk to you or how you’d stumble over your words, and then you went to the party and it was all okay, then you know the time and energy that ‘what if…’ thinking sucks from you.
How does this relate to what you own? Because of the tendency to hold onto items ‘just in case’ we’ll need them one day. Holding onto it is actually a manifestation of what if thinking. Essentially, it’s a way of saying to yourself ‘what if I get rid of this item, and then I regret it later?’ You hold onto the item to avoid the potential future regret. But if the result is a house full of unused, usually ugly items cluttering your space, then living with all that stuff just to avoid the potential pain of regret is worse than actually experiencing occasional regret in a clean, clutter free space. It’s the difference between living through twenty negative experiences in your head just to ‘prepare’ for them, vs going somewhere and actually having a negative experience – but only one!
Wishful thinking is sort of the opposite of what if thinking, but its effects are the same. Wishful thinking leads us to hold onto items in the hope the future will be better than right now, even though we’re not taking action to make the future better. What this looks like is holding onto clothes two sizes too small, in the hope of fitting into them one day (though you’re not actively prioritising any diet or exercise plan), or holding onto craft items or tools for hobbies you’ve always meant to start, but never do (and again, you’re not prioritising working on these areas!).
Wishful thinking items make us feel unsatisfied with our life as it is right now (i.e. the opposite of the state of mindfulness which I talked about at the start of this article, where your aim is to feel content with where you’re at right now), because it points to our unrealised goals and dreams. If you’re not prepared to work on that area of your life, get rid of the items that are a reminder of someplace you’re not! However, if you’re unable to let go of these items, then the answer is to make the project a priority for you right now. Promise yourself – if I’m going to keep that scrapbooking stuff, I need to do some scrapbooking this week. If I’m going to keep those clothes, then I need to get back to the gym starting today. In this way, the items become a catalyst for positive action instead of weighing you down with their reminder that you’re not being the person you’d like to be.
I’ve written before about how the act of decision making is an effortful process, and how that contributes to a lack of willpower by day’s end. The more choices you have to make about what to have for breakfast, what to wear that day, the less energy is left over for working on things that actually matter to you and would enhance your life.
If you’re lacking motivation to get started on a goal or project, try drastically simplifying the rest of your life for a little while, and watch the difference it makes to your energy levels. Less choices = more time and more energy for creation!
If you regularly feel overwhelmed in your life, you have too many obligations, choices, decisions, or just plain commitments. The more there is in your life, the more your attention and energy becomes stretched, until each piece is held together by a delicate balance of tension and will, and the slightest change can be enough to unravel the whole lot.
Why do we hold on to obligations that bring us no joy, possessions we don’t use, and people that bring us down? It’s a combo of fear and not really understanding the benefits.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop trying to be a ‘better person’ in order to cope and instead understand that to achieve peace and harmony, you’ll just have to let some of it go. Choose quality over quantity.
Which areas of your life suffer from too much stuff and could do with a bit more minimalism? Do you need to drop possessions, fears, unappealing projects, obligations or toxic people? Aim to find at least one thing in your life you don’t like and just let it go. Blame it on minimalism! And notice the difference in how you feel once it’s gone.
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If you liked this article, check out:
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.