Finding meaning without consuming

How do you experience meaning in your life?

Is it through experiences or stuff?

Have you even thought about it? I mean really thought about it?

I have.

When I was younger my life was centred around ‘stuff’ and I wasn’t even aware of it. I associated having lots of stuff with being successful and worse being ‘liked’. For me, material possessions represented my status in life and had a huge impact on my happiness, this was partly due to societal expectations and partly down to my upbringing; for my family, gifts represent love. Each Christmas and birthday were brimming with toys and gifts and we always thought it was amazing, that is until we got bored of that particular toy and gave it away a few months later.

As I got older I started to cherish the things that truly matter: time with family, helping others and looking within myself to find my purpose in life.

I quickly realised that the more material possessions that I had, the more time I would spend looking after them versus spending time with family and friends and on real meaningful work.

I decided that my purpose in life wasn’t to be a ‘consumer’ and I didn’t want to be part of the consumerist culture any longer; it was up to me and not society to determine the meaning in my life. So I flipped the expectations and funnelled more of my time and energy into people rather than things:

Time spent on stuff

Don’t be under the illusion that it was a quick realisation; it took me years to figure out that I was externalising my happiness and putting power into the hands of corporate marketers that were trying to sell me my happiness through the latest products.

However, there are a few questions that helped me to speed up this realisation and they might help you too, ask yourself the following:

  1. Do I place my happiness in material objects?
  2. Do I associate my identity with the number of material possessions that I have?
  3. How much value do I actually get from the money that I spend?
  4. Could I get more value (happiness, function, meaning) by spending my money or time on experiences rather than taking care of ‘stuff’?
  5. Could my time and money be better spent pursuing the real purpose of my life?
  6. How much waste and environmental damage are all my possessions creating?
  7. Could I improve my happiness by reducing this environmental burden?
  8. If my house burnt down what would I rescue and why?


My responses to these questions are below:

  1. Yes I believed that more stuff = greater happiness (Note that I said ‘believed’, past tense.)
  2. Yes, I absolutely used to do this. Those books I had on Chaos Theory that I never read made me look intelligent to anybody who visited my house. Or so I thought. Those 100 nail varnishes that I had just-in-case my girlfriends would sleep over – they made me a good hostess. Or so I thought. Then I realised that I each time I visited my friends and family I wasn’t judging them based on their ‘stuff’, I simply wanted to spend time with them and surely they thought the same when they visited me? So all that stuff that I was keeping to impress other people and reinforce my identity as the intelligent person and good hostess had to go!
  3. The truth was that I had never even evaluated the real value that I was getting with each purchase. I didn’t assess each pound spent against a set of criteria, but I should have done. I should have asked myself if I was getting any real meaning from the purchase or not.
  4. The answer is HELL YES to this one. Since I have made more room in my life by having less stuff my time is now spent 90% on having meaningful experiences and doing meaningful work vs 10% on taking care of stuff (you cannot eliminate this completely obviously). I don’t spend hours cleaning and organising my stuff because I hardly have any stuff and organising it doesn’t add value to my life. Instead I spend time finding ways to help people less fortunate than myself, spending time outdoors, spending time with family and friends and making real connections with people rather than fake connections with stuff.
  5. ABSOLUTELY. Since I became a minimalist I have more time to pursue things that are in line with my core values and beliefs,hence I started this challenge. I would have never had time for the Million Tonne Challenge if I had a house full of stuff to take care of!
  6. It scares me to think about the answer to this. I don’t dwell on the past waste that I created but it must have been HUGE. My current lifestyle reflects my drive to make up for past mistakes and do better by producing less waste in the future.
  7. YES. Every time that I find a way to have a lower environmental impact my internal happiness increases exponentially. I feel lighter and more peaceful with each material possession that I eliminate, and each time I find a zero-waste option to replace something wasteful in my life it lights me up.
  8. If, god-forbid, my house burnt down I would rescue my boyfriend and my cat and if I had time I would try to rescue the fishes from the tank. Everything else would mean absolutely nothing to me in that situation. These are the only things I truly need in my life apart from food, heat and shelter. When you evaluate your life in this way it puts all other belongings into perspective. It is particularly useful for those times when you are agonising over getting rid of a particular item, if you wouldn’t rescue it from a house fire then you can probably do without it day to day.

Every time I asked myself deeper and deeper questions it resulted in the reduction of my possessions and the mental and physical clutter that went along with them. Whenever I discovered meaning in my life through non-material means I felt like I could release more stuff. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of positive action.

If you find yourself surrounded by stuff, feeling overwhelmed by the time and energy it takes to take care of it, dispose of it in a responsible way or replace it. Ask yourself the above questions, they should hopefully provide a fresh angle from which to approach the task of de-cluttering and paring down possessions.