Downsizing to 200 items forces closer look at meaning of 'stuff'

by: COURTESY OF BRITTANY YUNKER - Two hundred possessions and bikes are two of them? Living light advocate Lina Menard says she doesn't own a car, so she uses one bike for grocery hauling and the second for cruising around town.Two hundred things seems about right for Lina Menard. The Northeast Portland tiny house resident has tried for a few years to live with less stuff. She teaches workshops in downsizing. She thinks living with fewer material possessions is not only responsible from an ecological point of view, but frees her to live a happier, more meaningful life.

And yes, her “200 things” has a little bit of cheat in it. She counts her jewelry box as one item, even though there are about 30 pieces of jewelry inside. Her bike counts as one, though it has paniers, a water bottle and lights that could be considered separate items. A truer count of her possessions, Menard says, would be more like 577. But that’s not the point.

Menard used to live in a nice, two-bedroom house before she took the 200 Things Challenge, her version of the “100 Thing Challenge,” inspired by Dave Bruno’s 2010 book about living a simple life with only 100 possessions. So she had stuff she had to lose. And getting rid of stuff, she says, is hard.

For example, there was her grandmother’s fur coat. Menard had worn it to high school dances and the coat was associated with all sorts of pleasant memories. Still, it had to go. So Menard discarded the coat in a way that would attach a new meaning to it. Research revealed that the Humane Society of the United States accepts fur coats to help in its wildlife rescue program, the fur comforting cubs of the same species.

“It seemed like an appropriate choice because it kind of sent the fur back where it should have been,” Menard says.

Most of us are surrounded by thousands of material possessions, only a few of which deliver pleasure, say academic researchers and downsizing experts such as Menard. In her Less is More workshop, Menard has encountered young couples intrigued by tiny house living as well as baby boomers transitioning from houses to apartments and lives with more travel.

So why is it so hard to downsize?

Portland is part of the problem. Yes, the city is a national center for the tiny house movement and as an adjunct, the

living-with-less ethic. But that means there’s also a lot of free stuff here.

“Especially in Portland, you don’t have to buy things to acquire a lot,” Menard says. “Learning to say no to free things is actually a challenge.”

On the other hand, the popularity of tiny houses and micro-apartments here, and the many communal efforts such as the city’s tool libraries, make Portland a leader in living with less. One lesson Menard says she’s learned is that an Oregon-style conscience can get in the way of downsizing.

“The process wasn’t so much about tearing myself away from possessions as it was trying to figure out a way for them to be somewhere else,” she says. “I was responsible for these things, and because of my environmental ethic, I didn’t want to throw things away unless they were truly garbage.”

Downsizing became an emotional process for Menard, and an analytical one. Throughout each day, before moving into her 121-square-foot tiny house, she was mentally prioritizing every object she owned. She was just 27, not old enough, she thought, to have accumulated much.

“But it was still amazing to me how many things I had that I had never intended to own and how few of them had meaning and how few of them had a story,” she says. She took photographs of objects that did have meaning but were still destined for a new location. Among the items that made her 200 things cut: the blanket she had as a child, a hammock from Costa Rica, her laptop and cell phone, one mattress, one pressure cooker, and a favorite teacup she had brought back from Prague.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - For Lina Menard (and cat Raffi), fitting 200 possessions into a 120-square-foot tiny home requires creativity and efficiency, including a lofted bedroom. Menard, author of blog, teaches people how to live with less in her downsizing workshops.

Programmed in our genes?

In her workshops, Menard is not a scold. She’s selling a concept, not a standard, and she suspects she’s battling natural selection in the process.

“If it’s not voluntary, it feels like deprivation,” she says. “We have an intrinsic worry about scarcity that’s related to a biological need for survival.”

Yes and no, says University of Missouri evolutionary anthropologist Karthik Panchanathan. Sure, Panchanathan says, it makes sense that our ancestors developed habits that associated hanging on to stuff with survival. But a survey of human cultures casts doubt on that idea. Owning lots of stuff, he says, is a relatively new phenomenon in the sweep of history. And in other developed countries such as Finland and Norway, people are accustomed to drastically fewer material possessions than those in the United States.

Millions of humans have been and some continue to be mobile foragers, and their survival has never been predicated on owning stuff, according to Panchanathan. “The level (of materialism)we have now is certainly novel,” he says. “If you went to the Bushmen in Kalahari and said it’s time to downsize, they would look at you like you’re crazy. They’re already downsized.”

The evidence, Panchanathan says, is that the amount of stuff we keep is not due to natural selection, but culture. “We view how well we’re doing by comparing ourselves to others,” he says. He’s even got experiments that appear to prove it.

In one, a group of co-workers were offered raises of 5 percent but told their colleagues received raises of 7 percent. In a companion experiment, everyone received 4 percent raises. If materialism were the dominant value, the workers in the first experiment who received a 5 percent raise should be happier than those in the second experiment who received 4 percent raises.

But that’s not how it worked out, according to Panchanathan. The majority of people who received more money but less relative to their co-workers reported unhappiness. Which spells trouble for trying to live light here.

“As much as downsizing is trendy among certain subcultures, especially in places like Portland, the larger American culture is about consuming more, and that’s probably waging some sort of psychological battle inside these individuals,” Panchanathan says.

The one with least toys wins

The best hope for people attending Menard’s workshops, Panchanathan adds, might be to surround themselves with like-minded people who believe in the living light ethic. And they don’t all have to support each other — competing to be most green might work just as well.

“You’d like it to be supportive, but I can see it becoming a different kind of status competition to prove something about others,” Panchanathan says.

This idea of counting possessions started with San Diego resident David Bruno, who four years ago wrote “The 100 Thing Challenge” after giving up his guitar and a baseball jersey signed by Pete Rose in a purge on his possessions. Bruno, incidentally, lives in a 2,000-square-foot house with a wife, three daughters and nine pets. The 100 items are Bruno’s alone.

Bruno’s 224- page book and blog connected with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who started looking at their material possessions in a different way. He found that major obstacles in his downsizing efforts were items that held emotional value. His garage, he says, held an assortment of rarely used woodworking tools. For years he’d envisioned spending weekends making dollhouses for his daughters or furniture for the rest of the house. Giving up those tools meant giving up an image.

“I attempted to purchase my way into a lifestyle, and just buying a router or saw is not going to make you a woodworker,” Bruno says. “What I found was I was giving up more than woodworking tools. I was giving up this idea of what I am.”

Bruno says the letters and emails from those who have written him after taking up his challenge sound eerily similar. “The consistent, word-for-word response from hundreds of people was, ‘It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,’” he says.

That’s because more stuff, even more money, past a certain point doesn’t make us happier, says Cornell University economist Robert Frank, author of “Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess.”

Study after study, Frank says, show that, “People are incredibly adaptable.” That means even lottery winners, after a brief spike in happiness right after they get the news and the money, revert back to the same level of happiness they always had.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tiny house pioneer Dee Williams doesn't have to play loudly to be heard all around her 54-square-foot  home. Williams says her downsizing to 100 possessions was hampered by a feeling that some of her stuff made her feel like an adult.

Directed spending boosts happiness

But that doesn’t mean we can’t buy more happiness, he adds. In fact, he says rich people still are generally happier than poor people in the United States. But it’s not due to the bigger cars or larger houses they acquire.

The secret? There are some things to which we don’t adapt. Spend money on those and your happiness likely will increase. One unadaptable is environmental noise. Loud, unpredictable sounds irritate people who never quite get used to the intrusion. Another is long commutes to work. A third is a job where you have no sense of control.

The Lina Menards have it right, Frank says, if they are ridding themselves of material objects and spending their money so they can live free of the situations that will never stop making them less happy.

Tammy Strobel has hit the jackpot by Frank’s happiness standard. With husband Logan Smith she has moved from a life where she felt assaulted by noise, had hourlong commutes to work in a cubicle-centered job that felt confining, and was far from family. She acquired her new lifestyle not by spending money, but by ridding herself of stuff.

Strobel and Smith were among the first members of Portland’s tiny house community when they left apartment living behind and perched in a friend’s backyard in 2011. But their tiny house was the culmination of a process begun earlier when Strobel took up the 100 Thing Challenge and gave away 90 percent of her material possessions.

Today Strobel and Smith have parked their tiny house behind Smith’s parents’ house in rural northern California. The noise they suffered while living in an apartment on Northwest 23rd Avenue is no longer an issue. The stressful job Strobel once held for a financial management company is in her distant past. She’s a freelance writer and photographer, and Smith works for a nonprofit, but commuting isn’t part of their lifestyle. None of this would have been possible, Strobel says, if they hadn’t gotten rid of their stuff, thereby infusing their lives with flexibility. The move to California also allowed Strobel to help nurse her dying father in the last two years of his life.

Something in, another thing out

Strobel no longer counts her possessions, but figures she is still right around 100 because she’s adopted a policy that perpetuates the challenge she took three years ago. “I have what I need, and when I buy something new I give something away,” she says.

Still, Strobel says initially getting rid of her possessions was hard. She and Smith took six years to complete their downsizing process, going one room at a time.

Economist Frank offers another reason we find it so hard to get rid of stuff. “Everybody can remember throwing something out and then immediately discovering that you needed it,” he says.

Of course, we don’t remember the thousands of times we threw something out and didn’t later need it, he adds. That’s what economists call the Availability Heuristic — we recall the odd event more than the commonplace, and form irrational attitudes as a result.

Another favorite of economists that Franks says has a role is the Endowment Effect. “Just putting something into your possession makes you value it more highly than if you didn’t own it,” he says. “So it’s hard to give up.”

Dee Williams, one of the pioneer’s of Portland’s tiny house movement and founder of Portland Alternative Dwellings, recalls how hard it was to get rid of a leather couch she treasured. Getting the couch, she says, felt symbolic of becoming an adult when she was 38. And the couch was only a year old when Williams decided to downsize after being diagnosed with a heart condition and being told she might live only a few more years. She didn’t want the demands of possessions keeping her from living as full a life as she could. And yet.

“There was this little niggling part of me that was, ‘What if everything works out fine and you’ve gotten rid of the couch?’” Williams recalls. Nonetheless, she gave it to her brother, who eventually sold it, leaving Williams with a new insight.

“More than anything else we don’t want to get gypped,” she says. “We don’t want to make poor choices with money. It’s something in our culture that is a very powerful motivation, to not let go of stuff, especially if it was hard to obtain, regardless of whether it’s crap or not.”

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