There is a huge difference, I've found, between "thinking" or "talking" about something and "doing" something. That's certainly true with our talk about the relationship between our happiness and our stuff. We can say over and over again that stuff - and the money that buys out stuff - doesn't make us happy, but it's easy for that to remain one more intellectual piece of data that hardly affects our daily life at all. Similarly, we can talk about "simplifying" our life and briefly enjoy the illusion that since we've talked about it we've actually accomplished something. (Sort of like how just shopping at REI makes you feel more outdoorsy. )
One way to "do" something about all this would be to simply start giving some of our stuff away. Organized folks often do this before moving, giving a few things away each week to friends, neighbors, or the local Goodwill for months before the move to make the transition easier. But there's no reason we couldn't regularly make it a goal to give one thing away each week in order to simplify our lives intentionally. That might be a particularly helpful exercise for our kids, inviting them from an early age both to recognize how much stuff they can easily live without and to learn how enjoyable it is to give (remember the experiments that determined that spending money on others makes us far happier than spending it on ourselves).
Maria Popova, curator of the fabulous site Brain Pickings, recently pointed me to another way to do something about all this. It's a creative exercise in prioritizing, and while I realize that exercises are perhaps susceptible to the charge of falling closer to "thinking" than "doing" - since in the end you don't have to actually give anything away - I think some exercises provide a framework that makes it easier to change what we do in and with our lives.
The exercise she suggests comes from a fascinating blog-turned-book called The Burning House: What Would You Take?, a collection of photographs from people around the world of what they would take with them in a suitcase in the event that their house was burning down. It's a fascinating study in what matters to us. As the author/photographer Foster Huntingon writes on his website,
It's a philosophical conflict between what's practical, valuable and sentimental. You're forced to prioritize and boil down a life of accrued possessions into what you can carry out with you. What you would bring reflects your interests, background and priorities. People's stage in life also dictates their selection. A father of five in his forties would grab very different things than he would have as a bachelor in his twenties. Think of it as a full interview condensed into one question.
What I find so engaging about this exercise is that it forces you to actually make some choices - even as an exercise - that help reveal what is most important to you. And once you've made those choices - and reflected on what they reveal about your beliefs, values, passions, and priorities - you can use that to inform decisions about what you buy, what you save, what you give, and what you keep. If you have any desire to get by with less or live more simply or escape the constant trap of being possessed by our possessions, I can't imagine a better way to start than by collecting and naming (and perhaps explaining) the things you'd take with you if your house was on fire. You've perhaps heard the charge that one of our deep problems living in a society of material abundance is that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Here's a chance to remind ourselves of the value of the things we own regardless of their price.
You can look at some of the pictures (and stories) of what people would take with them over at Brain Pickings, find a host more at Forest's site The Burning House, and you can even take your own photo and a submit it to Forest for inclusion in his ongoing collection. If you do, send me a note; I'd love to know what you'd take!