by Sylvana Smith
At 44 years old and only a few months away from completing his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy, Scott Brockmeier had an epiphany. He didn’t want a career in academia. It was summer, and the mountains were calling. So he moved all his belongings into a storage unit, gave his cat to a trusted friend, and set out with his dog, Sierra, to live large and unburdened. They headed west, living at times out of Scott’s Subaru Outback, sometimes with friends or family, but always with only the bare essentials.
Scott’s immediate goal was the Hardrock endurance run, a 100-mile circuit across Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, crossing 13 passes above the timberline. With a 48-hour cutoff, many runners see the sun set twice before finishing. It’s an unimaginable challenge for most mortals—a dissertation on the extremes of human potential.
“Besides being rugged, these are some of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen either in person or in picture books,” said Scott. “I found this course inspiring like no other that I’d ever seen or heard of.” After enduring icy snow-melt stream crossings, climbs of 3,000 to 4,500 feet at a stretch, and an unexpected monsoon at 12,000 feet, Scott finished in 41 hours.
A few nomadic years later, Scott hatched an audacious plan to break the known record for the number of sanctioned 100-mile runs completed in one calendar year—then 25. Scott and then girlfriend, Liz, planned to complete 30 of them, including epic runs such as Hardrock, Salt Flats, Zion in the Utah desert, and the Graveyard 100 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They would live out of a suitcase or a motorhome for a year.
When Scott and Liz finished the Houston 100 on December 29, it marked Scott’s 27th 100-miler for the year. He had shattered the record. Liz had done 36. “It was an exciting year,” Scott recalls. “We pushed our bodies and our minds to places that we’ve never gone before and met so many wonderful and interesting people. It was a year to remember, but definitely not one to repeat.” Certainly more memorable than a year pursuing tenure in a college lecture hall.
Since walking away from academia, Scott has lived his life on the premise that the epic adventures of our journey do not happen where our stuff lives. At home, surrounded by our possessions, we can find restoration, comfort, and community, but not the grand, defining moments and memories.
In fact, our possessions can possess us, especially when they cross the line from necessary to clutter—as they invariably do. We spend our 20s acquiring the trappings of being grown-up, our 30s acquiring the paraphernalia of young professionals and new parents, and our 40s acquiring the fruits of our success. By the time we reach our 50s, we have likely lost one or both parents and realized that you really can’t take it with you. All that stuff means very little in the long run, and there’s too much of it.
“Clutter saps your energy and erodes your spirit,” said Stephanie Roberts, author of Fast Feng Shui: 9 Simple Principles for Transforming Your Life by Energizing Your Home. “Clutter makes it difficult to get things done, enjoy peace and quiet, or spend time the way you want to. It adds to your stress, slows you down, and drains your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength. Clutter is disempowering.”
So that stuff we bought isn’t making us deliriously content?
“The paradox of possessions is that we assume that the happiness we get from buying something will last as long as the thing itself,” said Travis Bradberry, author of the best-selling Emotional Intelligence 2.0. “It seems intuitive that investing in something we can see, hear, and touch on a permanent basis delivers the best value. But it’s wrong.”
Just ask Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor who has been studying the perennial question, “Can money buy happiness?” for more than two decades. Apparently the answer is yes—if you invest in experiences rather than things.
Gilovich’s research shows three reasons why that is so. For one, we gain pleasure from anticipating a vacation or event, whereas waiting for delivery of a purchased object is more likely to cause frustration.
Second, the memory of past experiences brings greater pleasure than the daily reminder of present things, Gilovich found. When asked to self-report their happiness with major material and experiential investments, people showed similar levels of satisfaction with both types of purchases—at first. But over time, their satisfaction with the things they purchased went down, while satisfaction with the experiences they had purchased went up. Things tarnish, break, or become mundane. Reminiscences have unending value.
Most profound is the social factor. Experiences become part of how we define ourselves and how we bond with others. “We consume experiences directly with other people,” says Gilovich. “And after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell one another.”
Two people who both hiked up Mt. Whitney or saw the same Rolling Stones concert will share a more authentic and meaningful connection than two people who have the same luxury car or television. Blogger Tarun Mittal put it succinctly: “Common interests are a great way to bond with people, while common possessions are almost irrelevant in the social sphere.”
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” said Gilovich. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”
In our culture of consumerism, shedding our affinity for stuff is easier said than done, says tech entrepreneur and writer Ilya Pozin. “Everywhere we look, we are inundated with the same message: ‘BUY, BUY, BUY your way to happiness!’ While buying a new gadget or the first drive in a new car may be satisfying or thrilling for a short while, the thrill always fades, and we find ourselves back in the same place seeking the next purchase to keep the feeling going.”
We get caught up in the desire for more—particularly more money to buy more things. But that quest can get in the way of living a happy life. By having less in your life, you make room for more of what matters, such as people, moments, and memories.
The obvious conclusion: Go ahead and buy that coveted car or entertainment system, but realize that you’ll gain more enduring happiness from your investments in experiences such as travel, education, and cultural events.
What if you don’t want to run 100-mile mountain trail races? Experiences don’t have to be extreme, just fulfilling. Go to the theater. Hike in a state park. Take a liberal arts course. Create art. Learn a trade or hobby. Plant a garden. Host a garden party.
That’s the path graphic designer Susan Redmond took, partly by design and partly by default. Susan and her husband, Michael, built their dream farm in North Carolina in 1993, with 14 acres, a garden, nice house, and riding arena. When Michael was laid off from Nortel in a massive downsizing in 2003, the couple downsized their lives too. They carved seven acres from the front of the farm and put in a cozy modular home. The downsizing wasn’t voluntary, but it worked.
The garden party wasn’t voluntary either. It was a memorial gathering for Michael, who died at 62, a few days after bypass surgery. For the next two years, Susan held the smaller farm together, but the mowing and maintenance became a burden, weighed down by a 66-mile commute to a full-time job in Research Triangle Park. The farm and everything that went with it had become an impediment to living.
This summer, the farm went on the market on a Wednesday and sold by Saturday for more than asking price. Within days, Susan found the perfect house in Washington, North Carolina, population 9,800. Then began the process of trading possessions for freedom. The pressure washer, rotary tiller, generator, and a heap of Chapel Hill gravel went first, all given to friends and neighbors.
The process was easy, Susan said, even joyful. She gave a stack of lumber to a young friend who helped with the clearing-out process. He was delighted, because it was enough wood to build a shed on the land he’d just bought. He is embarking on the building-up phase of life.
What about heirlooms or other objects of sentimental value? “I gave away my grandmother’s wrought-iron standing lamp that I never liked and nobody in the family wanted,” Susan said. “It might have been worth a lot of money; I don’t know, but I gave it to my neighbor, and he was thrilled to have it. It has really pleased me to see people value things that I either can’t use or don’t want. People light up, and it’s so cool. I feel so light. There is no doubt in my mind about what I’m doing.”
With newfound freedom, Susan is resuming her painting, taking more yoga classes, developing her new dressage horse, Rhapsodie, and learning Spanish. The new home has the perfect painter’s studio—a sunny living area that opens onto a backyard with a koi pond and fig trees. A separate unit will bring in rental income. Nearby Goose Creek State Park beckons for long walks in the palmettos. Her brother’s bass boat is ready for outings on the Pamlico River that runs through town. And that Research Triangle Park job can be done as a telecommuter.
In a curious twist, the seller of Susan’s new oasis is also downsizing, leaving behind anything that doesn’t fit into the travel trailer in the driveway. A retired nurse, she and her parrots are embarking on a cross-country trip to visit friends and family. One quest to simplify life enables another.
“As you live phases of your life, there are always boundaries,” Susan said. “You have boundaries in a relationship. You have boundaries if you own a farm. You’re always dealing with the physicality of farm life, and the needs and emotions of the animals you own. You have definite boundaries with work.” And possessions impose their own boundaries.
“Now, I want to find out how far I am,” Susan said. “I want to find out what I can do. I want to find out how far Rhapsodie and I can go. I want to find out what I can do with painting. That’s all open-ended, a wide-open world. I’m ready for this phase of my life.”
“We want to experience all that’s in life,” Susan said. “I wanted to experience having a child. I wanted to experience being married. I wanted to experience living on a farm. I am grateful that I’ve had all these things in my life. It doesn’t get any better than this. So, in a way, that makes it okay to let it go.”