Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

The Explorers - Does This Stuff Make You Happy? (Part 2)

by Bob Van Hook and Jackie Eder-Van Hook


Does This Stuff Make You Happy?

By Bob Van Hook and Jackie Eder-Van Hook

This is the second in a series of articles (see June 2000 Executive Update for the first article) on how a successful Washington couple, Bob Van Hook, a 56-year-old trade association CEO, and Jackie Eder-Van Hook, a 38-year-old federal manager, sold their house, quit their jobs, and went on a journey of discovery, searching for a life consistent with their values.

In our Washington lives we were like a lot of other two-income couples. We shopped a lot. We weren’t extravagant consumers, but it was easy to buy the latest book, the newest CD, or the coolest gadget. Buying these things made us feel good. They were things we "needed." They made us feel powerful. Perhaps these shopping excursions were a form of "retail therapy" to compensate for things missing in other parts of our lives. Whatever the reasons, we accumulated a lot of "stuff."

As we contemplated significantly changing our lives, our relationship to our stuff began to change. Once we had made the decision to sell our home, we got serious about what stuff to keep, sell, and give away. We went through each and every item in our house and asked ourselves: Why do I have this item? What emotional response does it trigger? Fear? Pleasure? Does it add value to my inner net worth? Does this item support me as I move into the future or does it keep me tied to the past? Put more simply, does it make me happy?

One night as we were conducting this reassessment of our stuff, the conversation triggered a recollection of a celebration by coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest, called a "potlatch." After a little research, we learned that the Tlingit people held potlatches to celebrate an important life event. These ceremonies featured dancing, singing, feasting, and the giving away of the honored person’s property. (It is interesting that the federal government supported a policy banning potlatches by native tribes. Some historians believe that this was a way to, among other things, promote consumerism among the native people.)

The idea of a potlatch celebration sparked conversations about how we might incorporate it into our lives. As we assessed the current value of our possessions we added a new question — to whom would we like to give this thing? We selected many gifts for family and friends. Giving our things away was like willing them to someone while we were still alive. Like the Tlingits, our gifts were meant to celebrate and honor our relationships.

We didn’t give away everything. We held a big yard sale, made several trips to the Goodwill, and asked friends to keep and enjoy our artwork. The remaining stuff (e.g., photo albums, tax records, books, music, etc.) was moved into a 6’ x 10’ storage unit.

As we travel, we still have stuff, but the amount is limited to what will fit into the back of our Ford Explorer and a small cargo container. We have to be ready for anything. We tent camp about 50 percent of the time, requiring gear for sleeping, cooking, and surviving in wind, rain, heat, and cold. We have dress clothes just in case we chose to go to church, on a job interview, or for some special occasion.

We have a new relationship to our stuff. We have decided that it is not the stuff that makes us happy. We live intimately with the stuff we carry on our trip. If we don’t manage our stuff it turns into clutter and makes us claustrophobic and anxious. Periodically, we take everything out of the Explorer and repack it. Before anything goes back into the vehicle we reassess its value. We shed more stuff every time we repack, like molting or shedding an old skin.

There is a freedom that comes from being unencumbered of too many possessions. We feel lighter. We feel freer to experience life more fully and without worrying so much about stuff getting lost, stolen, or damaged.

We are, however, still recovering from our old relationship with shopping. We (especially Bob) miss having the means to buy and maintain "toys." From time to time we find things we want, but we restrain ourselves from impulse purchases, beyond food. We buy things only after having considered the purchase thoroughly: Do we really need it? Can we afford it? Do we have a place for it? Do we want it more than something else? Do we need a new one when a used item might suffice? Ultimately, will it make us happy?

It’s too early to tell whether our new attitudes toward stuff will change our behaviors long term. When we settle down again will we be sorry that we parted with so many things? Possibly. Will we miss some things? Probably. But, when it comes right down to it, it’s not the stuff that makes us happy.

This article appeared in the print version of Executive Update, July 2000​.

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