I just read a really inspiring NY Times article, “But Will It Make You Happ?” about living with less and being happier, and it’s got me thinking. It’s a story that begins with a couple who got rid of their two-bedroom apartment, two cars, and $30,000 in debt, while cutting down their personal items to just 100 things. They now live happier in a 400-square-foot studio and one of them is able to work from home.
I have had many periods of genuine happiness living in Buenos Aires, and after reading this article I can’t help but think that some of the forced pairing down of “things” as a result of my move here has been part of the reason. Long ago, when I started my clothing addiction my mom warned me that the upkeep of all these clothes was going to become exhausting. Buying higher quality and fewer nicer items would keep me looking good but with less effort, she cautioned. To this day, I don’t think I have fully taken her advice but moving my life to Buenos Aires has taught me a lot about living with less.
In New York I lived in a really tiny studio apartment and was shocked to learn just how much stuff I had managed to acquire in that small space when I was forced to package everything I owned in a box to put into storage. But I found myself eager to pare down to the bare essentials. It was an emotionally and physically exhausting process to go through and get rid of so much stuff, and I found myself crying often. I learned from that to try to not make “things” so important to me anymore and that getting rid of that big weight would allow me the freedom to make life changes more easily, and to enjoy more of the travels and new life that awaited me in Buenos Aires. I wondered often if I had somehow allowed my possessions to define me and realized my experience moving to a new country and how that would shape me would far outweigh any loss I felt getting rid of things. When I came home day after day to piles of stuff I didn’t know what to do with, I told myself I would never accumulate that much again.
In my Buenos Aires apartment I have tried to keep that experience in foresight. I have enough dishes for no more than six, two pots, one pan, and about half the clothes, shoes, and accessories that I once had. I have almost zero decorative items other than the two black and white paintings we bought for close to nothing and a vase for fresh flowers. I continue to maintain a healthy array of beauty and bath products, as always, but nothing extreme and I am learning to wait to buy new ones until I use some of them up. While I miss many of the decorative items that once filled my Manhattan apartment to make it feel more like home, I find it refreshing to live with just the basics and I feel like it might have changed my purchasing habits for good. I love the liberating feeling that if one day we decide to move to another apartment, as we did almost four months ago, that it’s a matter of me packing up two suitcases and some odds and ends in some shopping bags and hopping in a cab.
The most interesting part of the article discusses a study that spending money for an experience – for example language classes, wine tasting, concert tickets – and creates longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on regular material things. “It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch” is the main idea of the research of two psychologists, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich. I couldn’t agree more with this point or be more excited that it’s been proven true. I think about my apartment here in Buenos Aires and how despite it being a bit more expensive than I had hoped, the huge rooftop pool and barbecue make it worthwhile for all the fun moments I will share with friends once summer comes. I also think about my plan to book a few months of travel at the end of my time in Argentina, no matter what my money situation, has now been justified.
I can’t help but think back to the days when I made a six-figure salary and all the freedoms and luxuries that money brought me. But I don’t remember those purchases making me any happier and my higher standard of living made me feel trapped in my cubicle. At times my spending habits were more an outlet to de-stress or disguise my frustration at having worked too many hours that week. When I quit that job and started working at National Geographic, for less than half my previous salary, I found that somehow I still had enough money and also the time to take the Spanish and photography classes I had been interested in and that brought a whole level of happiness and creativity to my life outside of work.
Of course I would have to agree with a part of the article that mentions the fashion lovers who think that clothes are a “means of self-expression” and can never be something utilitarian. I don’t think I will ever abandon my love of clothes or obsession with fashion and the way a great outfit makes me feel, but I know through all these experiences living abroad and seeing how others live, I’ve learned to live with a lot less.