Good Riddance

It’s always an ironic postscript to Thanksgiving: the raucous Black Friday stampede at the starting line of a month-long shopping marathon. How quickly our gratitude for blessings descends into a sharp-elbowed scramble to acquire more.

In the American spirit of supersizing, Black Friday now stretches into Cyber Weekend. That consumer frenzy sets the pace for the weeks that follow, in which lists pile atop one another like scrambling shoppers: gifts-to-buy lists, gifts-to-make lists, food-to-buy lists, food-to-make lists, holiday card lists, and charitable donations lists.

And let’s not forget the post-holiday thank-you list. Because once the marathon is over, we need to acknowledge gifts received – even those we did not want or need.

The holidays can exacerbate the challenge many of us face with overstuffed homes. Only 3 percent of the world’s children live in this country, yet the United States buys 40 percent of toys consumed globally.

The average U.S. home size has tripled over the last 50 years, but people still can’t accommodate all they acquire. More than half of those with garages can no longer use one or more bays due to accumulated belongings.

Even retailers in the business of selling us more – like Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for IKEA – have begun to acknowledge that American families are approaching “peak stuff.”

Filling our lives and homes with more gadgets and kitsch is not just a matter of diminishing returns. It actually detracts from the quality of our lives, distracting us from pursuits that would bring greater satisfaction and waste fewer global resources.

Joshua Becker’s new book, “The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want under Everything You Own,” brings this point home. As with his Becoming Minimalist blog, he takes a holistic approach to minimizing that goes beyond facile tips for decluttering (or, worse, organizing voluminous stuff into ever-more storage containers).

Alongside practical guidance for winnowing possessions and disposing of them responsibly, Becker invites readers to engage in a deeper life reassessment – questioning not only buying habits and household practices but work, diet, volunteer service and charitable giving. The driving question becomes, in his words, “What’s distracting you from a more purposeful life?”

Becker’s experience, which mirrors my own, is that reducing belongings paradoxically generates greater fulfillment. Less stuff translates to more freedom, sounder finances and lower stress.

Researchers who completed an eye-opening photographic and anthropological study of 32 American families, documenting overflowing rooms in “Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century,” found that the “clutter crisis” in those households drove up cortisol levels among mothers (fathers, interestingly, were relatively immune to the mess!).

The spiritual and psychological benefits of minimalism were evident long before that term came into popular use. Voluntary simplicity and simple living are countercultural threads that have run through western and eastern cultures for millennia, evident in Amish, Shaker, Quaker, Buddhist and many other traditions.

Becker comes to this practice of renunciation as a Christian, but his tone is ecumenical. He questions the cultural pressures that drive reflexive consumption even when we have more than enough. “Am I buying too much stuff because deep down I think it will insulate me from the harms of a changing world? And if so, what is that costing me?” And what, one might add, is it costing the world?

Becker challenges the advertising that breeds shame over well-worn clothing, older-model vehicles or outmoded tech gadgets. He suggests upending social norms so instead of being embarrassed by perceived shortcomings in the “quality and quantity of our possessions, we became embarrassed over how much money we have spent on our own selfish pursuits.”

The holidays offer a chance to recalibrate our lives, relinquishing routine (even reflexive) shopping. Becker’s book (and others, like Duane Elgin’s classic “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Life that is Outwardly Simple and Inwardly Rich”) invite us to consider what we value and what we want to support.

The season of giving need not be a treadmill of buying, wrapping and overeating. Trimming back holiday consumption can set the stage – in the new year – for undertaking the wholesale simplification Becker recommends.

Starting that process now helps us make good on the season’s promise of peace – enjoying what we have in the company of those we love.


 Talk with friends and relatives about your wish to exchange something besides material gifts – such as coupons for services (like help with firewood or a hand-cooked meal) or a shared cultural experience. Even traditionalists who resist initially may find that alternative gift-giving proves liberating.

 Make minimizing a family affair, sharing your motivations with children. Invite them to thin toy, book and clothing collections regularly, and consider stemming the influx of new items with a “one in-one out” policy.


© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.