The Rabbit Hole of Stuff: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to Happiness

“Happiness can only be found if you free yourself from all other distractions.” ~Saul Bellow 

When I was twenty I bought my first serious piece of furniture.

It was a sofa covered in a nubby sort of fabric, a creamy shade of white with tan and light brown threads woven through that made the modern style seem warm and welcoming.

It was beautiful. And on the day my sofa arrived, I celebrated. I celebrated not only a beautiful addition to my little apartment but also a step into adulthood.

After all, I bought it on credit, and I was thrilled that a social authority as important as a fancy furniture store should give me and my waitress job a nod of approval.

But my joy was tempered by a sobering thought that felt like a weight on my shoulders: I can’t fit this sofa in my backpack.

I’d been traveling, working, writing, and figuring out life for a few years already, but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. And I didn’t have the words to express the feeling that I was only vaguely aware of. But I was feeling something. And I ignored it.

Over the next ten years or so—and almost as many living situations—my sofa and I took in a bedroom and a kitchen set along with an entire house full of furniture.

A husband, too. I had just (finally) finished grad school, and my goal was to write full-time as a freelancer instead of part-time as I had been. I wanted to write more poetry. Teach writing. Play my guitar. Travel. Live my life as I’d dreamed of living it.

The sparkle of shiny new toys pulled me in directions that made my goals almost impossible.

But two incomes suddenly made lots of other stuff possible: a lavish wedding, a big house, complete remodeling, and a new patio. Redecorating, buying just the right outdoor furniture, planting flowers, trees, and bushes… I even built a koi pond with a waterfall.

I taught for a few years, but I was hardly writing, and I was losing my focus. I was getting confused with too many choices, no planning, and too little experience. I struggled with time management, and I usually failed.

I became a wine expert, and I drank it far more often than I wrote about it.

I fell into the rabbit hole called stuff.

I’d never had much, but now, closets were stuffed with games and skis and skates and snorkeling gear.

Expertly organized closets promised to restore order, but they sagged with the weight of suitcases and carry-ons, cameras and camcorders, and clothes for every situation. Tools stuffed a garage and a shed, while the finest wine glasses, china, and gadgets took over the kitchen.

An enormous 100-year-old piano rolled into place in the mélange.

The house was bulging and sinking at the same time.

I wasn’t writing. I was falling apart, and I couldn’t work. I saw doctor after doctor for muscle pain, chest pain, and insomnia. Nightmares, even.

The hot tub was supposed to help with the stress, but it was just more stuff. There were other problems in my marriage, too, serious problems, and I finally gave up trying to get things back on course.

And I got rid of the last of the stuff just a few days ago.

I have other, more important things to do than take care of stuff.

I’m a bit older now, a bit wiser, and I’m listening to that inner voice I ignored so long ago. I’m catching up on what I should have been doing—writing, improving my writing, and teaching it—what I wanted to be doing but couldn’t because I wasn’t focused.

It’s time to strap on my backpack again—it was never meant to carry a sofa, but my laptop fits just fine.

I’m glad I recognized the crazy path I was on while I’m still relatively young.

My lessons were painful, and I wish someone would have given me a good, swift kick and made me look in a mirror. Why didn’t anyone shout, “Why aren’t you writing? What happened to your goals? Focus!” Maybe I had to learn my own lessons, but I’m not afraid to shout them out now, nice and loud.

1. The stuff you can buy is a distraction that won’t help you reach your goals.

It’s like an addiction or a temporary fix. And no matter what you see online, in magazines, or on TV shows that promote home and garden ideas or lifestyles—even simple or minimalist lifestyles—remember, it’s a business trying to sell you products that promise happiness. Don’t fall for it.

2. Stuff creates a false sense of self.

I’m creative, and I love beauty. But somehow, unconsciously, by creating a beautiful home—with lots of stuff—I was also fashioning myself into someone I thought I wanted to be, something others wanted me to be.

But I was already myself, and the path with the least resistance, the path that offered the most immediate reward didn’t leave time for the hard stuff: my goals and my writing.

3. Stuff can blind you.

The friends I made back then are long gone. I was naïve, and if I hadn’t been seduced by stuff—expensive dinners, flowers for every occasion, a huge diamond engagement ring that really wasn’t me—I might have seen that my relationship could never work.

I was the poet in black trying to fit into someone else’s upscale suburban lifestyle, and there wasn’t room for anything else much less me.

4. Material stuff keeps you busy with…material stuff.

My life plan didn’t include all the stuff money can buy. But the money spent wasn’t the problem; the problem was that I worshipped at the altar of materialism, and I sacrificed myself and my goals.

What’s the point of spending time and effort on stuff when it leaves little or no time for your real goals?

5. Stuff distracts us from ourselves.

A solid relationship is created with empathy, love, and communication, not stuff. But we nurtured our marriage with Home and Garden TV or the Food Network, furniture showrooms, and glossy magazines with products that promised the good life. And underneath it all, I just wanted the space to work on my own goals, not another set of china, a new TV, or a new iPod.

Some stuff is important, and there’s nothing wrong with buying what you need.

But it’s about priorities and the price you might pay for stuff that doesn’t support your goals and dreams. Think about it.

Are you working toward your goals and the things that truly matter to you?

Or are you down the rabbit hole?

Stressed woman shopping image via Shutterstock

About Leah McClellan

Leah McClellan is a freelance writer, copyeditor, and writing instructor who is finally living life and reaching goals as she planned. Learn more at Simple Writing http://simplewriting.org, and sign up for a free, 6-week writing course called The Fast Track 6-Week Mini Course http://simplewriting4nonwriters.com.

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