One of the standard pieces of advice for wanna-be minimalists is to learn to value experiences over things. Think concerts and dinners out and a really great vacation over more clothes and furniture and things you don’t need.
And it is good advice. Years ago, long before minimalism was even a thing, Alan and I decided to stop buying each other gifts and go out for a nice dinner on special occasions, instead. It took a lot of stress and disappointment out of birthdays and anniversaries. We both really sucked at choosing gifts.
But that advice isn’t, on the face of it, very helpful when you’ve already got the things and you’re looking to downsize, is it?
Well, I’m here to help!
Physics tells us that matter and energy, which the uninitiated see as totally different things are, in fact, one and the same. So, borrowing from the laws of physics, let’s declare that things are, in fact, experiences.
I know, right? A bit of a mind-boggler for a Sunday morning.
But here’s what I’m thinking. You have a thing that you’re looking to let go of. I’ll use a pine chest that we’re thinking we might not need any more as an example. There’s a story that goes along with it. This chest came from one of my Aunt Dorothy’s convents. And my parents gave it to us when Alan and I bought our first house. It lived in our kitchen there. In other houses, it held the stereo (ha! remember those??) in our living room, sweaters in a bedroom. Art supplies in our last house. Right now it’s in the corner of our dining room, holding the modem and a lamp and not much else.
We have experienced this pine chest for over 30 years and if we choose to let it go, we will have the memory of that experience any time we want to call it up.
Because it was second-hand and a gift, we don’t have any of the sunk-cost struggles that can get in the way of lightening the load. But sunk-costs are a red herring. Those costs are sunk the instant you pay for that item and they’re never coming back, much the same way that a new car loses half its value the instant you drive it off the lot. The money is gone whether you keep the thing or let it go, so why bother hanging on to it if it no longer serves you?
We don’t worry about sunk costs with experiences, do we? We don’t say “Look, I spent a lot of money on these concert tickets, so I’m just gonna sit in this auditorium until the police throw me out because I can’t bear to let the experience end.” The music fades, we give the performers a standing ovation and then we gather our things and head for the door.
If the music has faded on your stuff, it’s time for it to head for the door.
Another thought occurs to me about this equation. Valuing, going after and acquiring new and better experiences isn’t actually the path to happiness, any more than valuing, going after and acquiring new stuff is. They both start with a certain dissatisfaction with what is, a feeling that who I am and what I have or what I do aren’t quite good enough. If you’ve had a conversation with a group of people about their travels or plays they’ve gone to or art exhibits they’ve seen, you can start to feel a bit bad about yourself if you’ve only been to Texas or haven’t seen the play or exhibit everyone’s talking about.
But just as taking a more minimalist approach to our stuff can help us appreciate the things we do keep without needing to chase the newer and better, I think that taking a more minimalist approach to our experiences can help us to appreciate what we experience every day without needing to chase those peak experiences everyone keeps talking about.
Because after all, experiences and things are the same.