“I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.”
In one corner of the world, a family of five gathers around their big screen to watch a movie. After the movie, everyone goes to their individual, well-equipped bedrooms. Mom and Dad retire to their “master bedroom” which includes a generous sized bathroom and walk-in closet.
In another corner of the world a family of five gathers around their big screen- only this big screen is a little different. This family is watching the night sky and listening as Dad tells the story of the stars. After the story, everyone says goodnight and retires to their bunk. There are four rooms in their modest abode, a kitchen/living area, a bathroom and two sleeping rooms. The total square feet of this home would fit nicely into the size of the first family’s master bedroom and bath combined.
Which family is happier? Although happiness is highly subjective, many have tried to measure it.
“According to Gallup’s findings, the happiest people in the world live in Panama and Paraguay, followed by El Salvador and Venezuela, then Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Guatemala, the Philippines, Ecuador and Costa Rica.”
Interestingly enough, the average standard of living in these countries is certainly not what most Americans experience, however, they are happier than us.
The Evolution of The American Dream
From 1750 to 1800, the American Dream was to build a nation that was based on religious freedom; every American was committed to working towards that freedom. In the early to mid 1800’s the dream changed to expanding our country from coast to coast. From 1850 to 1900, working until death and supporting a family was what every American desired to do. From 1900 to 1910, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became the American Dream.
As America grew, so did the American Dream. Between 1910 and 1920 parties were popular and Americans began to value living in the lap of luxury. The Great Depression brought glamour and glory to a screeching halt and the only dream was to put enough food on the table to feed a family.
This struggle lasted from 1929 to 1940. The American Dream from 1950 to 1960 was equality for all races and an end to violence towards African Americans. Today the American Dream includes such things as becoming a millionaire or a celebrity and possibly starring on a reality television show.
The American Dream and Health
What does the pursuit of the new American Dream have to do with health? Well, we know for a fact that over 15 million Americans suffer from some kind of depression and sales of Paxil and Zoloft (anti anxiety medications) rank 7th and 8th on the top ten prescribed medications in the US, with sales of well over $6 billion.
We live in a very rushed, and material-based society where getting to the top with the most stuff seems to be foremost in most people’s minds. Sexy advertising campaigns and a culture charged by consumerism drive the race to the top, reinforcing the empty promise that more stuff means more happiness.
Busting at the Seams
Housing size has grown over the last 60 years from 983 square feet in the 1950’s to just under 2,500 square feet in 2011. Even with this larger home size, our country drives a $22 billion dollar personal storage industry. Apparently, we still don’t have enough room for all of our stuff!
The saddest part of all is that much of what Americans consume does not even end up in storage but in the trash. We are a very wasteful society. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food that Americans purchase ends up in the dumpster. As our spending increases, the temperature of the earth rises and our natural resources dwindle. The big question is… does all of this buying and using actually create happiness?
Psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen from Northwestern University states that, “Irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mind-set, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well-being, including negative affect and social disengagement.”
Some are Living with Less
However, the more, more, more philosophy is not for everyone, and people from all parts of our country are starting to come to the realization that there is another way, perhaps, a better way.
Graham Hill once had more money and stuff than he knew what to do with. When his “stuff” started controlling his life, he realized things needed to change. Through a series of personal events, Hill began to appreciate where his true happiness resided and made some very radical changes. He went from living large and having a huge carbon footprint to living very small and loving it. He sold some companies he had created, slowed his life down and now appreciates time like never before.
“I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.” says Hill.
According to Hill, stuff is not the best thing in life, it is relationships, experiences and meaningful work.
Families are Doing it Too
In the years since the recession, the average household income has dropped to just above $50,000. With the cost of living inflating, it is no surprise that the Tiny House movement has caught on fire.
It is not just single people who are making the transition to a life filled with stuff to a life of less, families are getting on board as well. Those that take the plunge say that the payoffs are well worth it. Families of all sizes are moving into homes and apartments of less than 1,000 square feet. Although this may seem super small, keep in mind that the average house size in Guatemala is less than half of that.
Some of the challenges of downsizing require creative thinking and a lot of cooperation, but with a change of mindset it can be done. Those that have made the transition say they feel as if a load has been lifted off of their backs. They have less stuff and more time to make memories with each other.
Tips for Living on Less
While it may not be time for you to make the big shift to a smaller house, there are some things you can do to live on less and save more:
- Grow your own food – even apartment dwellers can grow food using hydroponics or balcony gardens
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture Group – look for one near you. Often you can buy a share of produce and other farm fresh goods
- Stop eating out – most restaurant food (unless you are spending a ton) is cheap processed food and of no value to your health and a real drain on your wallet
- Make your own cleaning, laundry and personal care products
- Cut off your cable/ Dish and get Netflix
- Don’t buy anything new without getting rid of something old
- Pay cash at the grocery store and stick to a budget
- Freeze, can or dehydrate food for storage
- Shop for a cheap foreclosure
- Give stuff away
- Have frequent yard sales
- Stop buying stuff you don’t need just because it is “marked down”
- Don’t try to keep up with your neighbors
- Go on a spending freeze for 6 months apart from essentials
- Make your own fun – get creative with your fun instead of relying on costly gadgets
- Get back to nature – enjoy walks in the woods, park or other green space instead of costly entertainment
Benefits of Downsizing Your Life
- Some of the noted benefits to downsizing include the following:
- Financial security
- Reduced stress
- Smaller carbon footprint
- More time
- Better appreciation for friends and family
- Increased creativity
- Better health and well-being
Whether or not you feel the need to get rid of it all and go small, we can all benefit from learning to live with less.
Action Plan: Try putting more thought into what you spend your money or time on and ask yourself what really makes you happy? Perhaps you will discover what Plato did.
“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” – Plato
-The Alternative Daily