Does having less make us happier?


Libby Hakim talks to people who have culled their way to an incredible lightness of being.

Let it go: Melbourne couple Ross and Melanie Townson culled "about half" of their possessions in three months.

Let it go: Melbourne couple Ross and Melanie Townson culled "about half" of their possessions in three months. Photo: Simon Schluter

Being surrounded by too many things can make us feel overwhelmed, says psychologist Aleks George. Getting rid of things, on the other hand, can give us more energy and a sense of freedom. Our psychological attachment to possessions involves an investment of energy, he explains. "It's like an imaginary cord with weight. Once the cord is cut, the weight is lifted."

Professional organiser Susanne Thiebe sees people "break down in tears of joy" during the de-cluttering process. As the physical debris is removed, the mental mess often disappears too, and people feel calmer. The best approach to paring back, according to Thiebe: "Ask yourself, 'Do I need it?' and 'Do I love it?' If you answer 'no' to both, let it go. And really question the love. If you love too many objects, you don't love them enough."

Here's how some have shed material possessions and in doing so, found more room for happiness.

Paring back: Leonie Cuneo says de-cluttering her Sydney home was almost like "an endorphin hit".

Paring back: Leonie Cuneo says de-cluttering her Sydney home was almost like "an endorphin hit". Photo: Nic Walker



"I came across a blog post from these guys in the United States who call themselves 'The Minimalists'. I sent it to my wife, Melanie, and she got very excited about it and so that night, we actually did this massive de-cluttering of our house.

"At that stage, we had a tremendous amount of stuff. We were sort of stuck in this cycle of wanting the latest and greatest thing and not really stopping to think, 'Why?' When something costs a relatively small amount of money compared to what you earn, then you don't really think about it. If you want it, you go and get it.

Treasures: Anne Aleckson of Brisbane with some of the few personal belongings she chose to keep.

Treasures: Anne Aleckson of Brisbane with some of the few personal belongings she chose to keep. Photo: Glenn Hunt

"We did the de-cluttering in waves. We'd take a couple of carloads down to the op shop and throw out a bunch of stuff. Then, a few weeks later, we'd kind of get the urge to do it again, and we just cut deeper and deeper. In the first three months or so, we managed to get rid of about half of our stuff.

"Having less has freed us up to focus on the things that actually matter in life. For me, it's also about decoupling the modern view of success - having lots of stuff, the nicest furnishings, the latest technology and gadgets - from what actually makes you happy, which, for me, is more likely to resemble reading a book while listening to the rain outside.

"Sure, it was pretty hard at the beginning. We had lots of things with sentimental value. Melanie and I each kept a little box which contains our treasures. My treasure box includes some letters from relatives who have passed and cuff links that my grandfather got for his 21st birthday. But most of the sentimental stuff we managed to get rid of when we realised we were attached to the memory associated with the thing rather than the thing itself.

"Now, when I walk into someone's place and it's full of junk, I have a physical reaction to it; I feel stifled and claustrophobic and genuinely sorry that that person isn't experiencing the feeling of freedom that we're increasingly enjoying.

"We're not self-righteous or anything. We just feel like we found the right thing for us. It's just so liberating to have escaped the cycle of 'keeping up with the Joneses'.

"We want to get down to just a laptop, a phone, a Kindle and a bag of clothes. That is what freedom looks like to us."


"I had this real yearning. I saw other people living better and being happy and I thought, 'There's got to be something I'm missing. There's got to be something more.'

"I'd been in an unhappy marriage, and I was working jobs that I didn't really enjoy. Then I found myself alone one day in my large house. My oldest son had gone off and was living his own life by this time. My youngest son was at his father's house for the week.

"I was heading downstairs to my large washing machine and I thought, 'Oh my gosh. This is ridiculous. There are people out there in the world who don't have a roof over their head and wear dirty clothes all the time.' That thought led me, over the following year, to sell all of my furniture and most of my other possessions and downsize my house. Initially, I moved in with my mum and listed most of my things at very cheap prices on one of those classifieds websites.

"One of the first things that sold was the washing machine. It was just wonderful for me to be able to help this young guy who was moving out of home. When he collected it, he saw my barbecue and asked, 'Oh, are you selling that?' and I said, 'Yeah, you can have that, too.'

"I got rid of everything, except some clothes and personal belongings.

"I eventually moved out of my mum's place. My new place is much smaller. But that's what I wanted. People come in and say, 'Oh my God, look at the size of your kitchen. That's tiny.' I no longer fill the fridge up with stuff. I just buy what I need when I need it.

"What I did was drastic, but I felt I needed to do it in order to let go of my life the way it had been - and figure out what I really wanted. I've found a whole sense of inner peace."


"I'd moved several times and just kept dragging this stuff around with me. It was just frustrating the hell out of me. There was a lot of it and there was also a lot of attachment to the past.

"My husband died when my daughters were really little. Then I had another relationship. We later separated, and then my mum died. I just really felt I wanted to get rid of a lot of the stuff I'd accumulated over those years.

"When I moved again, a friend showed me where my local Vinnies depot was located. We unloaded a car full of my stuff. I'll never forget that feeling as I took it all out. It's that same feeling of losing weight. It was almost like an endorphin hit. I just felt so good, so I went home and then I did it again. I forced myself to be ruthless. I felt this intense feeling of freedom and I had to keep going with it.

"In some areas, like my clothes, I've got rid of about 50 per cent of what I owned, while in other areas, it's probably more like 30 per cent. I am still working through the house and getting rid of more. I guess by the time I'm finished, I would like to end up with a quarter of what we once had.

"Some of my husband's belongings I needed to keep for our daughters, but there were many other things that I didn't need to keep. I had two little tables that my daughters would sit at and eat, draw or play when they were tiny. I was so reluctant to give them away, as every single memory they held was when my husband was alive. Beautiful memories of two tiny, gorgeous little girls with their dad.

"I had some kind of thought that my daughters would want the tables, although when I asked, they just gave me that teenage rolled-eyes look. So I gave them away. It was a mix of emotions from relief to sadness, a parting and letting go of just a little bit more of my husband, which I guess I tried to keep hold of. But it's definitely a step forward. Giving away unnecessary items that reminded me of him took a very big weight off me.

"Getting rid of stuff is akin to the feeling of new love, travelling for the first time or just plain feeling younger. It's given me a new sense of adventure, a realisation that the stuff bogs us down. It's just a great process and it's given me more energy and made me a lot happier. It really is quite amazing."