Can Happiness and a Love of Possessions Coexist?

by Katy on August 10, 2010 · 30 comments

The NY Times ran an article on Saturday titled, “But Will it Make You Happy?” The author, Stephanie Rosenbloom focused on Portland blogger Tammy Strobel who made the decision to embrace the simple living movement. She went from working as investment firm project manager in California, to full time blogger and freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. In the process, she:

“Began donating some of their belongings to charity. As the months passed, out went stacks of sweaters, shoes, books, pots and pans, even the television after a trial separation during which it was relegated to a closet. Eventually, they got rid of their cars, too. Emboldened by a Web site that challenges consumers to live with just 100 personal items, Ms. Strobel winnowed down her wardrobe and toiletries to precisely that number.”

Yes, you read that right. 100 personal items.

This decision seems to have been the right one for Strobel, as she reports to be much happier with her current life. I applaud this fellow Portland blogger, but want to counter with the idea that happiness is not just for those who go to the extreme.

I am happy. I am happy in a big house. I am happy in a big house with much more than 100 personal possessions.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not an advocate of clutter, nor am I enamored of each and every object that has snuck its way into my house. I am engaged in a never ending battle against Stuff, crap and general where-did-this-come-from-ism. But I do not believe that having a lot of stuff bars my entrance into the happiness club.

I love setting the table with my Fiestaware. I love that I have enough to throw a dinner party without hitting the paper plate aisle. I love my shelf of books written by family and friends. I love the framed photos of my kids, and I love having enough extra stuff to host house guests and exchange students.

Rosenbloom goes on to interview happiness researcher Professor Lyubomirsky:

” ‘We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it,’ says Professor Lyubomirsky, who studies what psychologists call ‘hedonic adaptation,’ a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.

Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.

‘We stop getting pleasure from it,’ she says.”

I absolutely agree with Lyubomirsky’s premise, but want to add a personal note. When I buy things, I generally pay pennies on the dollar, and end up adding high quality and unique belongings to my household. And when I use these items, I get a zing of happiness that does not wane over time. Examples being my $125 antique couch, $18 Maxfield Parrish framed print or my $47 oriental rug. It may sound shallow, but these possessions are part and parcel of my happiness.

Are they the biggest wedge in my happiness pie chart? Of course not. But I just wanted to point out that happiness and stuff can coexist.

Do you agree, disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacey August 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for this post! I always feel guilty when I hear about that 100 personal items movement. (For some reason, bloggers like to mention it a lot, probably because it’s such a novelty.) There’s no way I could ever have only 100 personal items in my house. I love my vintage clothes too much, and my books, and my souvenirs from my travels. I feel very happy when I look at those things and use them – in my opinion, they’re a mark of a life well lived!


Katy August 10, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I see that Tammy Strobel gets a lot of satisfaction from the choices she’s made, but we are all different. I am a home owner with children and a love of stuff.

Luckily, we can both be happy. 😀



Stephanie S. August 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I absolutely agree with you–it’s not about how many things, it’s about your relationship with your stuff. My personal comfort level is also set much higher than 100 things. And some of my things contribute significantly to my happiness.

I also think that the pie chart shifts and changes with time. Stuff is probably more important when you’re young, building a home and raising a family. For most people, I imagine it becomes less important with age.


Mary August 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

It’s interesting that someone came up with a number instead of just the idea of trying to live a simple life without a bunch of extra stuff. I know I have more than 100 items and I don’t plan to count! I buy used whenever possible and hardly ever go shopping because I don’t need much. To me it’s all about balance.
Love your blog Katy!


Katy August 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Thank you Mary!



Tracy Balazy August 11, 2010 at 10:04 am

I agree. Keeping track of a number so it stays within 100 would be an obsession in itself!

I’ve cleared out a lot of things in the past year, such as my childhood miniature rocking chair, an extra set of dishes I bought at a garage sale because they were pretty but I never used them, and my wedding gown. I feel good on the way home from the American Council for the Blind Thrift store, where I donate items, on two counts: making stuff available to someone who can use it, and freeing up space in my house!


Tracy Balazy August 11, 2010 at 10:05 am

Oh, I meant to add, on the topic of 100 things, I agree with you, Katy, and others who commented, that I do enjoy the stuff I have, especially now that I’ve culled the items I wasn’t using and didn’t need.


Annie Jones August 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I do think happiness and material items can co-exist. I also think that when there are so many material items that they cause clutter and disorganization, or when stuff (like TVs, video games, etc.) take over the majority of a person’s free time, then yes, they can eat away at happiness.

It’s all about balance, and sometimes I feel weighed down by my “stuff” and out of balance.


Weston August 10, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Of course they can co-exist. And I sure own a lot more than 100 things just on my own. Don’t even want to think how much we own when I add in the possessions of my wife and all those daughter.

However, for me, I always remember that there are limits. Limits on time, limits on money etc. Speaking for myself I have found that the only way to pay (in time and money) for my “cool stuff” is to take away time, money and energy from all those other wonderful wedges that you marked in your chart. Even at a discount for my stuff do I really want to take away from things like “happy memories” and “financial well being” ?

We all have limits. If not in money, than in time and energy.

Vicki Robin wrote a really well thought out blog post along these lines (and using a similar analogy) about one year ago. I highly recommend it


Tracy Balazy August 11, 2010 at 10:08 am

Good blog, thanks for sharing the link!


Marti August 10, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I agree with you 100%. It’s not the number of things you own that give or take away from the quality of life, it’s the number of things that own you.


Kris-ND August 10, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Wow, what a great post to think about. I agree with you 100%. I would be miserable with 100 things. On the flip-side, she is quite happy. Both can co-exist at the same time.

I love looking at my antique books, including my grandmother’s first Sunday school new testament for perfect attendance and my grandfather’s school books. I don’t “need” them, but they make me feel like a toll-house cookie inside; all warm and squishy. It makes me happy to look at them and think of my grandparents and the stories they told about those times in their lives. It keeps my grandfather’s memory fresh still, even though he passed away 16 years ago.

On the other hand, I have epilepsy and cannot deal with clutter everywhere(freaks my brain out 😉 ). My husband and I found a way to accommodate the need to be clutter free visually, and the desire to keep things that make us happy.

When we picked out furniture we made sure it had cupboards, drawers, etc. It allows us to keep more than 100things; things that make us happy, but not have 10,000 things laying around.

Happiness is in the eye of the beholder..shrug. It doesn’t have to be a choice of being a hoarder or a martyr to the “no stuff” cause. Each person has their own “sweet” spot of happiness when it comes to their possessions.

Besides, who freezes in our ND winters if we can only have 100things? Somebody will be without their coat or boots, and it ain’t goinna be me 😉

I like the way you think on this issue 🙂


Tracy Balazy August 11, 2010 at 10:11 am

Good point! I hadn’t even thought about the issue of needing more warm clothing when you live in a cold climate. Here in Michigan, I have several winter coats in varying degrees of warmth and length, many pairs of gloves and mittens, and several hats, and in no way do I feel that’s extravagant. When you can wear heavy outerwear six months a year, it’s a necessity!

Where does the 100-things woman live?


Tammy August 10, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I like how your pie chart reflects your satisfaction with your “stuff” as opposed to the amount of stuff. I think this is where the number of items theory of happiness falls apart. If we give our stuff the bigger chunk of our happiness pie and let it start eating into our other satisfiers (excuse the pun), then I think happiness overall suffers. I wonder if the people on the massive purges aren’t really trying to increase the other satisfiers by decreasing the portion of their stuff supplier in the overall pie? I do know people, who if asked would put at least HALF of their happiness pie in “stuff” – and those are the people who overall I think are out of balance. Not being judgemental, but have observed it. I think we each need to find the right size pie piece to satisfy our individual tastes. Maybe 100 things is good enough for someone or maybe they need 10,000 – it’s really not my business.


My Roman Apartment August 10, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I prefer spending my limited funds of experiences instead of things. Memories last longer and I have little closets.

Less things, less things to dust.


Lisa Under the Redwoods August 10, 2010 at 6:41 pm

I don’t think it is necessarily the ownership of items that dims happiness but the mindset with which those items were acquired. If you buy something that you really love, and keep it forever, it seems to me that that item has the potential to bring more happiness. If, on the other hand, the item was purchased to make you feel better (retail therapy) or to improve your status (keeping up with the Jones) then I doubt the item will bring any sort of lasting happiness.


Ann August 10, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I do not like the 100 personal items movement. It is a movement that will set our collective economy back. I am not saying that we should buy “stuff” just to buy, or hoard, or not to de-clutter, but people who are employed need to consume, realistically, to keep other people employed.


Katy August 11, 2010 at 12:49 am

But isn’t she spending in other ways such as eating out, buying consumables and paying for services?



Ann August 11, 2010 at 6:21 am

Yes, for sure.


Jinger August 11, 2010 at 4:31 am

I agree with you Katy, that surrounding ourselves with things we love enhances our well being. When I had to start my life over 5 years ago, I tried to purchase only furniture and items I loved…mostly second hand or made by me. I live in a very small space, but it is cozy and very much my home.


Leora August 11, 2010 at 4:42 am

I sort of hate the get-rid-of-all-your-stuff movement, even though I’m in favor of living simply; I mean, it works great for a few very committed people, but I think a watered-down version has pervaded the culture that amounts to a mania for throwing away–“decluttering”–instead of a healthy respect for “stuff.” It seems to me to be, often, just another version of the idea that your stuff, or lack thereof, has to somehow represent the true you.


Louise August 11, 2010 at 6:18 am

I didn’t think I would be happier with fewer things. But I am. So, to each her own.


Magdalena August 11, 2010 at 7:33 am

I know I can live with just 100 things if I want, with no loss of happiness, but the way of life I hope we can live soon would involve more than 100 things, because I am certain that one cannot farm and live a self-sufficient lifestyle with only 100 things. Heck, I’d need more than 100 canning jars! That said, it is a matter of how we choose to live, and how we view our place in our world. I enjoy getting things settled, and keeping them that way. I believe that those of us blessed with the ability to be self-sufficent should be, and help provide for others. If that means I need more than 100 things to do that, then I will get them and use them. I know I don’t take pleasure in things because they are my things, or my new things, but because of their utility.


Tracy Balazy August 11, 2010 at 10:15 am

Absolutely! Great point. My husband and I can vegetables from our garden, too, and we make wine in batches of 30 bottles at a time. There’s one-third of the stuff already! Unless consumables don’t count. We also prefer our own cooking to eating out, so we have a lot of utensils and cookware. And then there are our four cats and two dogs. THEY have stuff, too! Leashes, harnesses, food and water bowls, toys … The more I think about it, it seems impossible to have only 100 things. Has anyone seen a list of what the 100-things woman owns? I’m terribly curious.


Kayla K August 11, 2010 at 8:21 am

I read this article earlier and have and bookmarked “Rowdy Kittens” to read again. I enjoy reading 100-item blogs but know that the movement is not for me. Many of my material items enable my happiness; like my sewing machine and accessories, knitting needles and accessories, fabric, etc.

Proponents of the “100 items” movement like the idea that they can pack up and move anywhere. “miss minimalist” moved overseas with just a duffel bag. Me, I am a nester. I need a certain amount of stuff and personal items in a home to feel like I belong there. This college-student-shuffling-apartments thing is very unnerving for me.


Lisa August 11, 2010 at 8:56 am

I think it’s up to each individual to discover ways to maximize their happiness. I’m content somewhere in the middle between minimalism and being a packrat.


Naomi August 11, 2010 at 10:45 am

I like reading your take on this, Katy, because you’re among the people I think of as a role model for simple living.

Tammy and Logan seem genuinely happy with minimal possessions, and I loved seeing their story in the Times because they’ve been such a pleasure to communicate with. But minimalism isn’t for everyone. I really intended to do the 100 Thing Challenge when I started blogging, but the more I sorted my stuff, the more I realized that I couldn’t downsize that much without giving up too many of the things I use and value. So I did as much as I was comfortable with.

If I were still living alone, I would get rid of even more stuff than I have already, especially kitchen stuff. But it’s not just about me. My fiance has been fully supportive of my efforts to get rid of clutter, but he also wants more than 4 dinner plates in our cabinet. I can live with that!

I think the most important thing is that you (like Tammy and Logan) appreciate what you have, have a lifestyle that reflects your values and are happy with your choices. There’s more than one way to do it.


Beth D. August 11, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Our brains get a rush of dopamine from any new experience whether it is paring down or buying more. Just as we get stuck on the treadmill of buying more, it’s also possible to get stuck on a treadmill of reducing what we have. The 100 things person may be much happier now, but once the rush of doing something new wears off, she will be just as happy as she was before.


BarbS @ 1 Sentence Diary August 11, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Very insightful, as per usual, Katy. I think the 100-thing-topic gets a lot of press precisely because it is so extreme. And if Tammy and Logan are happy, I am definitely happy for them. But it’s not for me.

I recently went through every item on a particular set of shelves in my room. I found a notebook of emails I sent to friends and family when my oldest child was small. I spent almost an hour re-living that special time, sitting on the floor of my room, telling my kids these stories. Although it wouldn’t make the cut of “100-things,” it’s definitely not something I would want to part with.

For those who really want to be able to pick up and move across the ocean with only a backpack, more power to them. But it’s not for me.

On the other hand, taking the time to think clearly about which items I really love, and that I really want to own, seems very useful. I get a lot more joy from the objects that I choose to keep by getting rid of the rest.

I do wonder, though: 100 is a lovely round number. But why stop there? Why not 50? or 500? It does seem somewhat random.


Lisa P. August 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Thanks for your post Katy. This movement along with all the “decluttering” going on is bringing people back to being a “throw away” society while they preach about “going green”.

If it’s one’s style and personality to live a minimalist life then that’s perfect for them but to send a message that tossing all your stuff will bring happiness to one’s life is extreme.

I’m a New Englander and easily exceed that 100 things just in winter outerwear and accessories like an above poster… and I wouldn’t want it any other way.



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