I am standing infront of my open wardrobe and a small but intriguing truth is revealing itself to me. As I run an appreciative finger over the plump padding of the dress hangers and the shiny heaviness of the wood ones, I realise that the spartan minimalist calm that lies within this small space makes me happy to the core. There are so few items here that each one can be properly found, loved and looked after. I think it would be fair to say that I have less clothes than any woman I know and yet this has given me a surprising sort of happiness. Visceral, intrinsic, absolute.
Happiness, or the lack of it, is big business. Ultimately it’s what every self help book is striving to deliver. A palliative care nurse recently wrote about the five regrets that people have on their death bed. After their predictable initial concerns about too much time spent in the office and not enough time having sex and catching up with old friends, the most prescient revelation was “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” It is curious, this idea that one would sabotage one’s chances of being happy, and yet happiness is often so unbearably illusive. Indeed the American philosopher Thoreau believed that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I am sure our collective prognosis is not as dire, although it takes some of us years to uncover what truly makes us individually happy.
So, how do we ‘let ourselves be happy‘? The old adage of ‘health, wealth and happiness’ may no longer ring true. One could sensibly presume that health is a prerequisite for happiness, and yet people enduring terminal illness often eulogise about their new found appreciation of ‘the small things.’ And as for wealth? Well, without health it is often futile and impotent. Some of the richest people in the world are the unhappiest. Perhaps they have come to understand first hand the ennui of affluence.
And so now, at my open cupboard, I am coming to realise that my own private happiness, aside from the obvious source of friends and family, lies in little disciplines and small things. Or should I say ‘less things’? I am not evangelising about big disciplines and control in everything – I can be as much or more of a hedonist than the next person at given moments – but the concept of space and sparingness versus clutter in my life has become as integral and basic to me as a hoarder’s need to amass and possess.
Advertising has brainwashed us to jump on the celebrity juggernaut of accumulation. And so dutifully we consume more. Women preen over their unwearably large shoe and hand bag collections, displaying them as a badge of self worth. We have been encouraged into debt because “we are worth it.’’ The fashion industry reinvents itself every six months, perpetuating a hunger in its consumers that can never be satisfied. And these things we are consuming and surrounding ourselves with are no longer made of the same good stuff. On the contrary this rapid obsolescence dictates that our possessions are made not to last. Houses now smell of take-aways, food flavourings and Febreze, instead of beeswax, burnt logs, baking, fresh flowers, line dried linen, brewing coffee and fresh air. In the same way that we are losing these glorious sensual memories, we have been condemned to equate style with consumerism, acquisition and ‘stuff’. But it was Socrates that said, “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” I think that’s it.
In some ways I’ve always felt like this. As a child I would marvel at my mother’s Janet Reger underwear, the silk pieces individually laid between sheets of tissue paper in an eighteenth century commode. She was obsessive about not having items touching each other, and as a result was always giving clothes away to friends once they started brushing up against each other in her cupboard. Consequently none of her gorgeous vintage clobber has made it down the decades and into my wardrobe. She observed the rule that I do today – only buy a new item if you are prepared to give one away. This way I always have the same number of pieces. I have shoe racks for eight pairs of shoes so that is all I allow myself at any one time.
This urge to purge has not only been focused on my bedroom. I am a manic discarder of everything from bank statements to photographs. I once started dismantling unnecessary sections of my fitted kitchen and got so carried away I ended up with a single shelf. I am a huge enthusiast when it comes to car boot sales – I’ve off loaded so many things that I have even found myself selling things I still like and use. During more manic purging episodes I’ve been known to bin drawers full of unlabeled household keys and even foreign currency. These over zealous and cathartic frenzies are followed by a sense of immense relief, satisfaction and renewed energy. It is, if you like, the opposite of consumption. It is a form of fasting.
I am I suppose the opposite of a hoarder. Their desperate trials and tribulations are anathema to me. They let their possessions hold power over them until they lose sight, perspective and control of their own lives. And where do they get the money to fund all this madness and mayhem in the first place? I shudder to watch them wrestle unsuccessfully with their initial traction to buy and possess something useless. It is almost that the more they shore up and barricade around themselves the less they can move, both physically and emotionally. And ultimately this obsession perpetuates a relentless, unwinable quest in one’s life. As for me? I’ve got nothing to wear but I’m happy.