Less is more: Can having less make your happier?

I recently helped my Mum move house, which after three decades in the home was no mean feat. On her real estate agent’s advice, we de-cluttered the house because buyers apparently prefer a blank canvas. After our efforts the house looked essentially as if no one lived there! This process involved discarding a mini skip worth of stuff, multiple car loads of possessions being donated to charity, hours spent selling things on Gumtree, and filling up my garage with her belongings. And then Mum moved into her new home, minus lots and lots of her old stuff. From what I can tell, she isn’t missing any of it, and it certainly made the moving-in part of the journey much easier than the moving-out part.

Aside from the practical ease of moving less items, I wonder what having less will do for my Mum’s general well-being. Will she feel happier? More content? Less distracted by stuff?

Since helping Mum with the move I too have de-cluttered and spent quite a lot of time scanning my home for things I can part ways with. I was actually a bit of a minimalist already, but I had a sense I would feel calmer and more content with less, and so far, so good.

So what does the research tell us? Well the research is mixed. Some studies suggest that people who value their time, rather than money or possessions, are happier than those who prioritise earning money to buy things. Other research indicates that purchasing material goods brings lasting periods of joy that outweigh the joy derived from experiences or time. Some studies indicate that people with less money and less possessions are more grateful for what they have, and therefore happier, than those with money and things in abundance. Research about collectors has shown that people who collect certain items and feel passionate about their collections gain a sense of meaning and purpose from their many possessions. And research of children in child care settings has shown that environments with less clutter, less stuff and less stimulation allow for children’s natural play and curiosity to flourish, and their behaviour is better than those of children in more stimulating and cluttered spaces.

I think it comes down to what meaning you place on the stuff around you and what your expectations are of your purchases. In my experience of clients in therapy, people who buy material items in the hope they will feel happier, when in fact there are serious problems in their lives, are usually disappointed by their purchases. What’s more, those people often get stuck on an endless path of purchases, desperately trying to ‘fix’ their problems. Similarly, people who are slavishly driven to follow fashions and constantly buy new things without thought to whether the items will add value to their lives or bring them joy, are often left wondering why they aren’t happy. I’ve also noticed that people who tend toward anxiety can feel more on edge and unsettled when their homes are messy or cluttered, and that having less can enhance their sense of order and control to ease their anxious minds.

Through media, advertising and some of our role models, our society sends us the message that we will be happy and at our best if we have all the latest things in all the latest colours. We are conditioned from a very young age to strive for more. But really, if you look around at the stuff in your home, in your bag, in your car and on your body, do the items make you feel happy, add value to your life, or help you feel content? And more so, do you really need them?

So, can having less make you happier? Of course it always depends on the individual. But I certainly feel calmer, more content and yes, a bit happier with less around me. And in the future, I will enjoy the time I would previously have spent on shopping or maintaining my stuff, by doing meaningful things with my friends and family instead – and to me, that’s the stuff of happiness.

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