Where True Happiness Comes From: How We Gain by Having Less


“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ~Chuck Palahniuk

Small is the new big. That is to say, minimalism and living with less is becoming a growing movement in America and it’s starting to catch on over here in the UK too.

With the global economic crisis and changes in social attitudes, people are starting to realize that the more stuff we have, the more miserable and trapped we become. After all, stuff leads to debt, stress, and even increases our carbon footprint.

Plus, living in larger homes with space we don’t really need only equals more stuff, more spending, and more worry. Then, when we run out of space, we move to a bigger property—or even rent storage space.


Stuff doesn’t make us happy. We might get that initial glow of excitement when we purchase new things, but it doesn’t last. 

True meaning and happiness come from experiences. From family and friends. From hobbies such as photography. It comes from the things that we do, rather than the things we own.

Like most people, I followed the American Dream. I wanted the big house and garden. The nice car. The expensive clothes. I also wanted to portray an air of success to “get ahead” in the business world.

As someone who runs their own business, there’s a perception that if you’re not moving along a certain path, you’re not considered to be successful. That if you don’t turn up to a meeting in a decent car or wearing expensive clothes, you won’t be taken seriously. That you’re not worth the money you’re charging.

I guess this perception of wealth extends to our self-worth and confidence. We feel more empowered if we’re attending a meeting wearing the right clothes and carrying the right handbag, for instance.

But then this false sentiment extends to our private lives, as well. We want our peers to think we’re successful. We’re embarrassed, for example, if we’re driving an old car or wearing last season’s fashions. We feel like we’re going backward rather than forward if we’re not “keeping up.”

Of course, it’s easy to fall into this trap—assuming that we really must drive expensive cars, wear designer clothes, and buy things we don’t really need.

It’s the way brands and big companies want us to feel. They want us to spend money, constantly consume, and place all our self-worth, confidence, and happiness on “stuff.”

They want us to be on an endless mission to be happy through consumption and spending. I’m just relieved I’ve worked this out now and discovered the truth.

Through my own endless pursuit to be happy and seemingly successful, I was miserable and constantly running on a treadmill to keep up with my excessive lifestyle. When I say excessive, it probably wouldn’t seem that way to others. Most people would see this typical way of life as pretty normal.

At some point though, it stopped being normal to us and we had a “Eureka!” moment. We realized that we didn’t need all that space, let alone all that stuff. So, we sold our big house, got rid of our expensive car, and started to think about minimal living.

What could we get by without? What did we really need anyway?

Well, we’ve just bought a 600 square foot apartment in the city. It’s got one bedroom, one bathroom, an open-plan living space, and a little balcony.

We’ve downsized our stuff and now only have what we need. Sure, there are a few luxuries but for the most part we’re a lot lighter than we used to be.

How do we feel? We have no debt, we have less stress, and we don’t have to work as hard to maintain our lifestyle. Because we live in such a small space, housework takes no time at all. And with no garden, we don’t spend hours maintaining a lawn or borders.

This means we have more time. And that time is dedicated to ourselves. To hobbies, experiences, and family and friends. We also have more money to spend on doing things like travel, concerts, or even French lessons.

Because of our new lifestyle, we’ve never been happier or more comfortable. Our lives are rich with meaningful experiences and relationships. And many others who are following this minimalist lifestyle are enjoying the same benefits.

I personally think the age of consuming could be coming to an end. It’s certainly starting to lose momentum. People are realizing there’s a big difference between “want” and “need.”

And with an increasing population and higher land prices, the future could be quite small compared to the way we live now. It might be that minimalism becomes a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice.

Do you feel like you’re weighed down by your things? Do you find yourself constantly working to pay for the expensive things you own? Are you lying awake at night stressed and worried about debt? 

Why not try a little minimalism? You don’t have to go to the extremes I’ve gone to. You could just downsize a few bits and bobs. Buy less stuff. Or even swap your car for a cheaper mode of transport?

And instead of spending money on things, why not invest in experiences? In relationships? In the times that set your soul on fire and make you jump for joy? Why not create those precious memories that have you grinning from ear to ear every time you recall them?

Because you know what they say: You can’t take it with you. But you can certainly be satisfied that you lived a wonderful life.

Photo by LemonJenny

About Katy Cowan

Katy Cowan is an author, journalist, and marketing professional based in the UK. She runs her own digital agency in Manchester and during her spare time she loves to help other creatives via her creative industries magazine Creative Boom.

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  • Mins

    I decided to start living my life minimalistic from today
    Thanks for wonderful insight

  • Mahesh

    Nice message. Thanks. It is the life lived by Sages in ancient times and happy that people are realizing the importance of minimalistic approach in life. I will adopt this method. This was in some corner of my thinking.

  • KatyCowan

    Thank you! I enjoyed writing this! It’s something I’ve been moving more and more towards over the past two or three years. Never been happier 😀

  • KatyCowan

    Thanks Mahesh – shame it took me a while to realise. But I’m glad I’ve learnt it early on! 😀

  • Just A. Guy

    It’s an uphill battle for this realization- a study I read indicates the average N. American sees around 3500 pieces of advertising a day, mostly for things we don’t, strictly speaking, need. Thoreau published Walden in 1854 and only a few out of every generation since have heeded the call.

  • KatyCowan

    I’m not quite going back to nature or living such a simple existence as this. I wish I could sometimes! But, due to the nature of my life and my work, I have to be in a city and close to clients and events, etc. I love my technology and little luxuries. But I’m trying to do without the usual things that we don’t really need. Sometimes I do wish I could throw on a backpack and spend several months in a gite somewhere in the south of France, far away from everyone. I guess that’s why we go on holiday after all 🙂

  • donnlmp

    There was a lot written on “simple living” and “voluntary simplicity” in the late ’90s and early ’00s, if you’re interested in reading more.

  • Guest

    Great article Katy! This too is my philosophy. Whenever I’d try to convey this to people, I’d get treated like I’m some old Bohemian who just doesn’t want to ‘work hard enough to have the nice things.’ The more you know, the less you need. Fortunately, as a young person I read a lot of eastern philosophy and that was a great influence, as well as Thoreau. I never recognized the concept of ‘fashion’. Basically it takes much courage and fortitude to live outside of the mainstream, as the drive to conform is very strong.

  • Mike Trivelli

    Loved this article, living in Scottsdale, Arizona I see everything you mentioned and I noticed it doesn’t equate to a happy life. Being content comes from doing this enjoyable and meaningful not from accumulating possessions.

  • GreatWhiteGoddess

    I needed this and am grateful for your insight. I have attempted to become a minimalist for about the past 10 years. I live within my means, have no debt and basically feel pretty grateful for what I do have. I have however, lately been feeling bad about my jalopy of a car. I do need a new one because this has a quarter of a million miles but, it doesn’t reflect on me or who I am as a person that I drive an old klunker, it’s simply an old klunker nothing more. Thanks for the reality check.

  • Valerie Rogers

    Great article Katy! This too is my philosophy. When I’d try to convey this to people I’d be treated like some old Bohemian who ‘just doesn’t want to work hard enough to afford the nice things.’ Many in this culture will unfortunately never figure out that the more you know the less you need, and possessions ‘possess’ us. Luckily I was influenced as a young person by reading eastern philosophy and Thoreau. Basically it takes much courage and fortitude to live outside of the mainstream; pay no attention to that constant drumming of materialism. Disregard opinions of others or else they become your master. In not paying for ‘luxury’ you have the freedom to be yourself, and that is priceless! Blessings to you.

  • BFLY

    600 square feel of space? I’d be divorced. Therefore, for me more space is cheaper 🙂 I appreciate your message, just feel the example is extreme. I drive a 5 year old car, own my house, refuse to upgrade. Stuff doesn’t make you happy.

  • I couldn’t agree more with your message. I’m a Professional Organizer
    here in the U.S. and am fascinated at how attached we humans are to our
    stuff. I really enjoy the process of helping my clients see that they
    are not their stuff and that their possessions, by and large, bring them
    stress and discontent. Personally, we run a fairly minimalist household
    and are very contented to do so. It’s so refreshing that our kids
    understand the difference between want and need and to know when enough
    is truly enough.

    Enjoy your life!

  • KatyCowan

    You mistake me. This isn’t about feeling guilty if you need to buy a new car. When I can afford to – and buy it outright – I’m going to upgrade my current car to a much newer model. I still buy nice clothes. And I still love my treats and luxuries. My sentiment here is simply to offer a downsized life. One that isn’t considered normal compared to ‘normal’. Normal being for most – the big house, the debts, the stress, the fancy car, the designer handbag, etc… 😀

  • KatyCowan

    Interesting to hear Mike. No matter where we’re based in the world people are still falling into the trap of consumerism.

  • KatyCowan

    Thank you! I’m sure there is! I will explore some more 🙂

  • KatyCowan

    Oh I love being in such small space. It’s a weight off my shoulders. Less to maintain, less to pay for – more to enjoy the finer things in life. King of my castle? I’d rather enjoy more of experiences 😀

  • KatyCowan

    Thanks Lisa – appreciated. I love how you’re a Professional Organiser! Sounds like a fascinating job. Have a great weekend!

  • KatyCowan

    Thanks Valerie! I’ve actually just realised as well – seeing some of the responses elsewhere regarding this article – that I might’ve offended people. Unwittingly of course. I’m not attacking a way of life. Or saying I’ve found all the answers. None of us have. I just think this works really well for me. And on the day that the UN announces that climate change is most definitely caused by humans – the elephant in the room is that people aren’t prepared to give up their lifestyles. They aren’t. Because if we’re going to help the environment, then we’ll all have to change our lifestyles. On so many levels that people don’t want to adhere to. What’s wrong with 600 square feet? Or living with less?

  • KatyCowan

    I’m realising this! It’s a concept that is met with a lot of anger actually.

  • Talya Price

    This is sort of the story of my life. It has been a year since I have made the decision to become a minimalist. I used to think that the more you have the better you are. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth It wasn’t until I started to change my focus, things became clearer in my life. I think society puts too much emphasis on material wealth. Material wealth doesn’t mean that you are successful. In my opinion success is a state of mind.

  • Ability to distinguish between need and wants is very important, indeed. Mostly because the way the marketing and sales system works is by manufacturing desire. What’s important to realize, however, is that there are people who have a lot to lose if everyone starts going the minimalist way, and we should be aware of why that is and how they can make your life miserable. Specifically, I am referring to back lash in the popular media that will antagonize those who want more stuff against those who just want to live a healthy and happy life, calling them lazy and inept. Forewarned is forearmed. Be prepared for all of that, learn to neutralize other people’s anti-social emotions and, most importantly, meditate!


    It’s like you are writing directly to me! I first started my minimalistic lifestyle about a year ago, and my life has changed COMPLETELY! My life is lighter, and I have time to pursue any hobby or interest I choose! It is so liberating to be a minimalist.

  • Faith B

    I am in the process of downsizing right now and agree with everything in this article. I’ve always been the ‘frugal’ one in the group, but now I’ve really committed to reducing all this consumption from plastic bags to cleaning products to clothes. People accumulate so much in their lives and competitive shopping is like a sport sometimes. I think it’s damaging to the environment and to our sanity, and I want no part in it! My boyfriend and I are currently saving up to live in an RV (20ftr ideally) and eventually build a tiny home– the ultimate small space! I can’t wait.

  • I really liked this article. I might think to translate it in my language (Italian) if you don’t mind. 🙂

    I didn’t know that people were starting to explore minimalist lifestyle. It reminds me a little the digital nomad lifestyle (which I’m exploring): when you travel or move frequently you can’t have too much things. Better invest in experiences instead, as you said.

    Anyway just wanted to let you know I really liked this article and I added you on google+. 🙂

  • KatyCowan

    Thanks Jonathan! Of course I don’t mind you translating – but check with Lori, the owner of this website first! 😀 As for digital nomads, I enjoyed that for a while. Not to the extreme of living from a suitcase but we moved around for a while and really benefited from the lifestyle. Now we’re settled we couldn’t be happier 🙂

  • KatyCowan

    Thank you. For me, it’s also about massive changes to my day-to-day lifestyle. Because I no longer live in the suburbs with over two hours of commuting and driving into the city every day, I’ve got more time for myself – and less stress from never being behind the wheel. Today, as I live in the city – I walk to work, so I get some fresh air and exercise and no stress! I also get to help the environment a little too! It is so liberating to realise that a lighter life is a happier one.

  • KatyCowan

    Consumerism is what the UK economy relies upon. They want people to spend money and put it back into the system. And I agree, minimalism is a threat to this way of life. But I highly doubt most people will

    Yesterday, the UN revealed that we are the absolute main cause of global warming. That human activity is changing the climate. So the biggest elephant in the room here – more so than challenging economies, jobs, etc – is our planet and that the way we currently live is causing the most damage.

    But no one wants to give up their lifestyles. Sure, we’ll do our recycling, try to buy ‘local’ and we’ll ‘do our bit’ but it’s clearly not enough. If we continue down the same path we’re on, future generations will never forgive us. Fact is – we shouldn’t be eating bananas if they’re out of season and have to be flown in from thousands of miles away…. We shouldn’t be purchasing our groceries at convenient supermarkets, we should be growing our own or buying direct from local growers.

    But until huge changes are made to the food system, manufacturing system and all the other systems that keep the cogs turning on our very comfortable lives – things that we don’t want to give up (me included) – and the governments make it happen, we’re pretty much heading in the direction no one wants to admit. That’s why minimalism should be a consideration – and is part of a much wider problem.

  • This is so true. And I have the feeling, more and more people are waking up to the truth that buying more stuff, sacrificing every free minute to make more money, constantly trying to impress ones peers with bigger purchases… isn’t the way to happiness. Actually it is the opposite, because chasing all those glass pearls is very tiring and in the process we completely disconnect from our true self and our soul.

  • Yeah, I guess one has to stop eventually living a digital nomad lifestyle.

    I actually feel like I just started but I’m sure I will stop if I find my spot. 🙂

    Nevertheless when all your life is in a suitcase and a hand luggage… it’s a good training for minimalism! 🙂

  • RandyH

    “the more you know the less you need”…hmmm… truest thing I’ve heard in a long, long time! Thanks for sharing, Valerie!

  • RandyH

    Bravo! Well said, Robert!

  • RandyH

    Wow, Katy! Props to you and yours for not only beginning this way of life but also for sharing your story! I started a more minimalist lifestyle just a few years ago and my only regret is that I didn’t start years sooner. Living debt-free is surely the biggest stress reducer of them all. I am down to one 8-year old but long-ago-paid-for car that I drive only when necessary. I actually ride a scooter on my 8/mile each way trek to work every day. I spend a whopping $5 per week in gas riding back and forth in the beautiful Florida sunshine while not only cutting fuel emissions but also making my tiny contribution to help lower our dependence on foreign oil.
    “True meaning and happiness come from experiences. From family and friends”. Well said, my dear!

    “Small is definitely the new big”…thanks for sharing!


  • RandyH

    What a great idea! Good luck on your journey! Peace…

  • Nomad

    My husband and I live in 350 sq.ft. We love it! Since we have become minimalist it has cleared our way to actually manifesting our dreams instead of just dreaming them. We plan on living on a sailboat soon – something we could never have planned for or achieved spending all our money on space and possessions we don’t need. We are able to freelance now. We are more spiritual. It has brought us closer together. We are a team. We now have a simple mantra of win-win in our home. I am now working on a personal uniform. Have you heard of those? Minimalism is amazing!!! Keep it up!

  • KatyCowan

    Well, you don’t have to Jonathan. But I think there’s something in our nature that requires a settled place to call ‘home’. A base, if you will. Nothing wrong with that. But if you keep it small and affordable, you can spend the money you save on travelling! So you get the best of both worlds! 😀

  • KatyCowan

    Thanks for the very appreciated comment! 😀 I have a much simpler life these days and I love it! Very happy because I’m not lying awake at night to fund a mortgage I don’t really need. I’ve just actually exchanged on my new apartment – and move to our new home in two weeks. Got some stuff left to downsize and give away, but we’re nearly there! 😀

  • KatyCowan

    Thanks for your comment Robert. I think people are waking up. It’s probably on-set by the global economic downturn and how it affected us all. I just hope this also contributes to lessening our impact on the planet!

  • lsismor

    One need only interpret my moniker to know that I have long believed, and live by, this philosophy. However the “trend” is non-existent in “The City of Angeles”, proven by the front page article in this morning’s Los Angeles Times (28 Sept 2013, “History Lost in Beverly Hills”). Sadly, bigger and more continue to, not only be the norm for which the masses strive, but the rule that they obey.

  • Valerie Rogers

    You’re welcome. The saying comes from the Australian aborigines, and is one that always resonated with me. Simple basic philosophy from the salt of the earth that we’ve evolved away from and forgotten.

  • lsismor

    I hope reading this article renewed your standing decision to drive your “jalopy”. In living within your means and having no debt you have lived the minimalist lifestyle, only purchasing as a necessity and not a desire. I suspect that when you do replace your vehicle, you’ll do so with a practical one and not one that comes with the latest “OS”.

  • Otis Campbell

    Excellent post. Here in America consumerism is a disease. You’ve got it right. It’s all about relationships, experiences, and I’d add, faith. These values were common to the counterculture of the 1960’s. I was a child during that era, but even then found myself respecting them. Here’s to them spreading…

  • Very good! So then minimalism alone is not going to save us, especially if the people who do not have much in the first place will continue to reduce their consumption while the people in power continue to lead opulent lifestyles with huge mansions all over the world and private jet planes and boats, or will it? Minimalism can be a good start, but it’s not the end. Because the fact is that we can all enjoy very “rich” and interesting lifestyles without having to sacrifice our health, happiness and the health of this entire planet 🙂 The question is, can we all work together to achieve that, because that’s what it would require to get there 🙂

  • KatyCowan

    It’s not going to save the planet, no. But this wasn’t my main intention of the post. In actual fact – it’s just a way of reducing day-to-day stress, debts and commitments. But actually – it’s only tackling a fraction of the issue of modern life isn’t it? There are so many wider issues!… Can we all work together? I think it’s human to wait until we have no choice but to…

  • The fun part of being human is that we are free to make the choice to either wait or to act. Successful people act, while the rest wait 🙂

  • John Andersen

    Eisenhower’s Farewell Address is the most important lens to look through if you seek deep reasons for living simply.

  • John Andersen

    We’ve been car-free for almost 2.5 years, and aren’t missing the stress. We live in a neighborhood with a 92 walkscore.

    Life is so much better with fewer things to slow us down.

  • Josh Emmanuel

    Thanks Katy!

    Definitely agree there is a huge difference between “want” and “need”. Although I disagree that minimalizing leads to “things we own end up owning us”.

    I could own nothing save my cell phone and that “owning” me just as much as a nice car I can’t afford.

    Afraid people will miss a great point. That you found more happiness by not searching for it directly.

    At a point in time I gave away 99% of everything I owned. I was still miserable. Even worse off.

    I believe it has less to do with the “stuff” and more with a shift in consciousness.

    Thank you!

  • KatyCowan

    Isn’t it wonderful! When I think of the stress I used to put up with. And driving isn’t a very nice experience, in my opinion. Life is indeed good! 🙂

  • John Andersen

    For me, as I’ve studied, and gathered life experiences, I’ve gained confidence, and greater confidence has reduced my need for “training wheels” in the form of stuff.

  • KatyCowan

    I’ve not heard of that no!! Sounds intriguing! Tell me more 😀

  • KatyCowan

    That’s a very good point Josh. I guess in my case – like a lot of people – I was trying to seek happiness from things. From material gain. But it wasn’t happening. It was just causing debt and suffering. So from realising this – I’ve allowed myself to be happier. I no longer rely on ‘stuff’ or ‘things’ to put a smile on my face. And thus, I no longer have debt or lie awake worrying about money. It’s a load of benefits from just realising a simple truth.

  • Luca Samson

    Awesome Katy!

    So many people now days get caught up in materialism and having to own everything in order to be happy. But that doesn’t help people be truly happy and often those that live simple lives derive happiness from love and joy, not owning possessions.


  • Sandra Louise walsh

    Excellent! I always love to read about kindred spirits.

    My minimalistic tendency led me to sell up and leave the materialistic and overcrowded ‘busy’ness of UK for NZ in 2001 for 9 months. Returning to UK i sadly got ‘sucked’ right back in and bought another house and ‘achieved’ another ‘big’ job! Eventually I learned the lesson and immigrated to NZ in January 2005. I’m now back in UK with my gorgeous kiwi husband, having sold up again and ‘de-stuffed’, and since April 2013 we’ve lived aboard our 60′ narrowboat on parallel the inland waterways.

    We are finding ways to make a sustainable income, few outgoings, spend quality time with each other and family and friends, do things we love that cost little, and have never felt more free and alive.

    Well done for making the move 🙂

  • Brandon

    Grow your own food! Doing away with a garden can be a step in the wrong direction. Other than that, wonderful article.

  • Tina

    I have been trying to buy nothing new except food and household supplies for a long time now. I am pretty happy with the experiment. We live in a condo- an apartment we own- near Chicago. I grow food and flowers on the balcony. My daughter gives me clothes that other people have given to her. Books and magazines come from the library. We have 1 small TV and watch maybe 1 or 2 hours a day. My plants are growing in old pots, old cottage cheese and yogurt containers or whatever people have given me or I found at rummage sales. We have a 7 year old car we will give to our son and then we will have 1 car for the 2 of us. That will make me happy as I don’t like the idea that we own 2 cars.

  • mariam

    You are all right by those qoutes you wrote because happiness doesn’t fall on your head from a tree it comes by the actions you do

  • mariam

    Thanks by the way for posting those lovely quotes and my name is mariam and I’m 11 years old