Do things make us happy?

I’ve thought a lot about happiness recently. What makes us happy? And if we can answer that question, is happiness sustainable?

I think a lot of people know the “right” answers: family, friends, community, doing something that feels meaningful with your life. I agree, a lot of my sense of happiness comes from my relationships. The connection I have with others, and enjoying the privilege of watching the people in my life as they grow, mature, and experience the good things of life is so rewarding. Interacting and being part of family and community is a big part of my experience of the good things of life.

Who doesn’t love all that?

One thing I’ve come to know in recent years: happiness is not about things, stuff, toys, and all the material possessions we work so hard to acquire and manage.

I can say this with some authority at this point in my life, having lived for long periods over the past decade without my “stuff.” That is, I’ve lived in temporary housing for work, and with mostly random furnishings and surroundings, while my stuff, the knick-knacks, lovely kitchen gear, favorite pairs of shoes, framed photos, special collections, keepsakes from my life and my kids’ lives…all the accumulated things I’ve acquired and chosen to keep throughout the years…lived in boxes, in storage in another state.

Readers of my blog may know that I live and work in SE Alaska, and for the past two years have been working in temporary duty positions. My husband and I work between three clinics, and stay in clinic housing when we’re working. We sold our last house two years ago, put what we kept of our household furnishings in storage, and have lived a mostly nomadic lifestyle since. The first two years we lived in Alaska were much the same…not traveling, but living in clinic housing, with my stuff stored, and out of reach.

So that’s four years out of the last ten I’ve lived bare.

He loves living with a bag and a backpack. I manage, sometimes with more grace and ease than others. He’s the nomad at heart. I’m the nester, and no one is more surprised than I am that I’ve been able to hold on without a melt down for the past two years. Please understand, I’m not bragging on myself or patting myself on the back. I’m just acknowledging the role of possessions in my life, and their priority.

After all, I am a lover of things, in many ways.

I have a weakness for pretty, and for matching, and for new. I particularly like new.

But a funny thing happened when I gave up my things. I did it willingly, because we were ready for a change, and yet in flux…not sure of what would come next, and just living a day at a time, for a while. And with the locums lifestyle, it’s possible to live without all the trappings of the “normal” American life.

I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve thought about all the things in storage, and how little I can recall of what’s stored. I know categorically what’s there, of course. But I know, from the first time I went through this, that pulling everything out will be a bit like Christmas…I’ll see things I’ve literally forgotten about. I’ll find things that I haven’t missed, and wouldn’t think about if I never saw again.

And yet, these are things I’ve enjoyed owning.

But once again, now at the point of taking everything out of storage, I know without doubt, it’s not the stuff that makes me happy. The stuff makes me comfortable, and adds some pleasure to my life for sure.

But when my marriage was in distress, my pretty things didn’t comfort me, couldn’t cheer me, couldn’t make me smile. I barely saw the things I was surrounded by.

When my dad was dying from cancer, the things didn’t mean anything.

When I’ve worried about my kids, thinking about my newest outfit or Amazon buy hasn’t soothed me.

There have been times in my life when I wondered if I was too materialistic…if I valued things more than I should? And while I’ll admit I’ll always love pretty, I don’t question what really makes me happy any more.

I know when I smile across the table at the man I love that I’m happy, with or without my stuff.

When my kids are happy, I’m happy.

When my littles are growing and healthy, I’m happy.

When I do a good thing for someone, I’m happy.

When I go to bed tired and satisfied with my work, I’m happy.

With or without my stuff.


Most people don’t have the opportunity to experience life without their possessions for an extended time, I know that. But I challenge you to sort through this question in your own way. When you really separate possessions from people, and you recognize happiness isn’t dependent on things, you begin to live differently, think differently, even value differently.

You see the people in your life differently.

There’s a freedom that comes from living this that’s amazing.

And I can answer: things do not make us happy.

Real is the root of happiness, and real is all about people, and has nothing to do with the stuff.

This life I’ve been living, this journey, it’s not one I envisioned for myself, nor particularly sought. But it’s been valuable, astonishing, and yes, reassuring.

Because when you know you love things, you sometimes wonder if you love them too much.

I didn’t set out to answer this question. It answered itself with the living.

What about you? Do you know what makes you happy?

~ Sheila





Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.