Three years ago this month, as I ordered an espresso in a small café in Rome, I made the decision to sell 90% of my earthly possessions in exchange for a life in Italy. It was a decision that has brought me joy, freedom and adventure; but it came at the price of living very small.
Making a conscious decision to choose experiences over possessions, I deliberately let go of anything that couldn’t fit in two suitcases, especially if it came with a monthly payment. I was seeking a different type of happiness… the kind that changed my soul.
I have since read enough about the science of happiness, to know I am on solid ground here. Dr. Thomas Gilovich, professor at Cornell University, recently said in an article about spending money on experiences, “You can really like your material stuff, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”
Downsizing doesn’t have to be drastic to create a huge difference in your life. Letting go of possessions and living smaller, on any level, frees up time and income for experiences. Good experiences, the soul changing kind!
The 8 biggest lessons I have learned from living in spaces ranging from 290-600 sq. feet:
1. There’s no room for clutter: While clutter can spread out, and even hide in large spaces, it is a non-negotiable in tiny apartments. Anything I don’t use on at least a weekly basis doesn’t get to stay.
2. Clothing: Just the good stuff, please! Living small actually meant that when I did buy something to wear, it was of great quality. I no longer have 10 different pairs of black shoes that rotate through my wardrobe. One beautiful pair of handmade black boots, and one pair of black flats see me through the seasons. They were expensive, but artfully made, and take the beating of walking miles a day.
3. I can look, but not buy: I have found the pleasure of just ‘window shopping’. Not owning a home means, literally, I have no place to put home furnishings! Knowing there is no wall on which to hang a picture, or any place to put new dishes, has taken away any need to do anything more than look and appreciate.
4. Money for experiences: There’s more money for fun when living small. My monthly expenses once included a house and car payment, plus insurance and maintainence for both, so experiences were carefully calculated and planned for. These days, I never hesitate to say yes to a weekend, or a week-long, outing.
5. Stuff is stuff: Making an annual trip across the ocean keeps me paring down my possessions again. Seasonal clothing and the inexplicable plethora of scarves are given away or thrown away before the trip begins. It’s helped me unattach to almost everything I own, and find real joy in that nothing ‘owns me’.
6. Prioritizing: It’s often surprising what matters most in my small pile of possessions. Very often, it has little to do with what is monetarily valuable. Rather, it is the comfort it affords me. The hideous wool sweater that I drink coffee in every morning is a perfect example. It is part of the ritual in my day to day life, no matter where I wake up, and so it stays.
7. Memories: We think they are in ‘things’, but they are actually within us. I couldn’t imagine parting with so much of the material world, until I did. And, in doing so, I found my memories had not changed at all. They were still with me, deeply imprinted like a tattoo, whether I carried them in my heart or in my possessions.
8. Freedom: I no longer can give beautiful dinner parties with 12 place settings of Lenox china and crystal. However, I can tell you where to stand to catch the last whisp of the pink light in a Tuscan sunset. I know exactly where to find a meal of handmade pasta with ricotta and pinenuts, topped with fresh tomatoes and basil, in the tiny town of Cortona. I have hiked along the Italian coast and swum in the crystal clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea to my heart’s content. I turn the key to lock an apartment I do not own, sometimes weeks at a time, to taste the freedom of a new adventure. I have never once thought it was a poor trade.