Is Your Stuff Holding You Back from Traveling?

I just spent most of the day helping my sister move into her new house. I owed her, because she once stored all my stuff (and my wife-to-be’s) in her basement while I went on my first round-the-world trip. But man does she have a LOAD of stuff. A dozen of us took four hours to move it all. Does one person really need all that? Does anyone?

When I interviewed Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, we spent a good bit of time talking about how most people can’t imagine long-term travel or living abroad because they are such slaves to their possessions. They’ve built a cage around themselves of debt, material goods, and jobs they can’t afford to step off of even for a week. Staying at home, surrounded by your increasing pile of stuff, is no way to live. Time to revisit this excerpt from Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune:

A study of 1,500 women by the Marshfield Clinic found that the fewer vacations women took, the more likely they were to suffer from insomnia or depression, to be stressed out, and to be dissatisfied in their marriage.

What’s worse, if you’re working too much and are too stressed, your memory deteriorates. A study in the journal Aging and Mental Health found that people with the highest reported stress performed 11 to 14 percent worse on memory tests than those under less stress, regardless of age group. You may find that when you finally get to retirement age, you can’t remember what it was you wanted to do!

In the world where economics and psychology meet, there’s a principle called “hedonic adaptation.” The premise is that a salary increase or financial windfall will produce a temporary boost in spirits. After a while, however, your ability to adapt takes over and you get used to the new situation. You probably raise your spending in some way, buy something extra, or increase your monthly bills. Soon, despite the added wealth, you feel no better off than before. This can continue for decades, as a kind of “hedonic treadmill.”

There is hope though. Most studies show that best cure for this pattern is to spend your spare time doing something that is active, not passive. Exercising your mind and body in different ways, making a point of trying activities that are enriching or challenging.

Savvy entrepreneurs and CEOs know that the ground-breaking ideas rarely hit them while they are in the office or burning the midnight oil at home in front of a computer screen. They need to get away: to walk in the woods, to bike through unknown lands, to stroll in a new city. Our mind needs a jolt on a regular basis. It needs to be challenged. If we are to be more than boring creatures of habit, our assumptions need to be rattled by the unfamiliar. As guidebook publisher and PBS television host Rick Steves says, “Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.”

My sister is a schoolteacher, so she does manage to get away for a while each summer, but she still needs to have a yard sale pronto and then make a trip to Goodwill! How about you?

  1. Mike

    I know that for myself, every single time I return from a trip the thought is the same: Holy Crap I have a lot of clothes! WAY more than I need. I go though my closet looking at shirts I’d forgotten about & redundant sweatshirts… just a lot of useless stuff.

    Another problem with being attached to stuff is paying for it – that big TV or mortgage or new car pretty much ensures you can’t get away for a long-term trip without figuring out how to pay bills in absentia.

    Here’s an excellent related article:

  2. Sheila at Family Travel

    I’ve found that you really have to do regular purges or you turn around and there’s crap everywhere. As my kids get older I take great delight in getting rid of/donating outgrown clothes and toys, for example.

    Still, I’m a paper hoarder, and other than getting more storage file boxes at Office Depot, I admit that I don’t toss enough or do enough about it. Being a writer doesn’t help either — you wouldn’t believe the pile of research material that’s next to my chair right now as I prepare for a multi-week road trip across the Midwest.

    Who knew that someday I’d own both “Off the Beaten Path Kansas” and “Off the Beaten Path Missouri.” :)

  3. Steve

    Right on, Tim. My mind is so much sharper, my memory and creativity so much expanded while travelling as compared to working this g.d. 9-5.

    But I think I’d go a step further than the soulless corporate-minded getaway-schemes of “savvy entrepreneurs and CEO’s”, and even further than you or Rick Steves are suggesting as relief for the common workaday commuter. I’ll give a personal anecdote here….

    When I got back from a 7-week trip to South America in mid-March, there were lots of friends to catch up with, places to go, fun times to be had. Work was an afterthought, and after being inspired by my great new party-people acquaintances 5000 miles south of here, it was nothing to stay out until 3:30 and get up at 7 to commute into the office. The five day work week was bearable for a while once again, after being refreshed by that 7-week respite from the corporate world.

    But let’s not underestimate how awful the corporate world is….by early May, it was creeping up on me again – I was dreading Mondays, while still greatly enjoying the weekends. But when you’re dreading 70% of your time from week to week, in my view that is no way to live life. I work for a reasonably responsible software company, but our company does more business with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman et al. than with any other companies that might have even marginably honorable operations. (There sure aren’t many in this age of the gargantuan military-industrial complex). Lately I’ve been walking around hunched over, and it’s all I can do to make it through the day. Some days I just seethe with anger, and resort to playing heavy rock from my office at an unacceptably loud volume, daring “them” to fire me, knowing that my connections here will prevent that, yet hating that meaningless “comfort” just the same, and knowing that whatever pushes me out the door will probably, ultimately be in my best interest.

    I’ve built up a small business on the side over the past 4 years, and by the end of the year I’ll have paid off my house, and I can live off the rental income after that. That’s the only hope as I see it. The thought of being trapped in the workaday lifestyle and accumulating possessions – I don’t care if you’re a lawyer, banker, software engineer, laborer, or Dunkin Donuts “barista” – to be stuck in the workaday lifestyle in any form seems like absolute hell to me at this point. And looking back over the past few months, any redundant job lasting more than a month is almost unbearable to contemplate. I walk through our office of 1400 people, most of whom are much older than me, and frankly it is a frightening scene to behold. Whether it is affable geeks discussing code, or young professional women blathering about how they can’t wait to “be married”, or slimy sales guys spinning anything, it is downright depressing.

    I guess the answer is do whatever it takes to get out of the corporate world entirely, with your soul still intact. Or turn into a gleeful zombie, stripped of any non-delusional sense of meaning or purpose in life.

    Any thoughts on this, Tim?

  4. tim

    Thanks for the comments folks. The work vs. happiness thing is a hard issue to solve and family obligations make it harder. Then when you add a bunch of stuff to the mix (or even worse–pets) the shackles get heavier. And Sheila you bring up the issue I personally have the hardest time with as well: research materials. If you’re a writer, it’s almost impossible to keep your office from looking like a wreck. If you’re working on a book, an article, and a website or two, that’s a lot of stacks of stuff you need to do your job. I laugh when I see the advice from those “keep your desk spotless” gurus. Maybe if all you do is talk on the phone and send e-mails that works.

    Steve, I left the corporate world five years ago and haven’t looked back. (And spent four years between corporate gigs traveling the world.) I think I’m out of it forever unless someone offers me a zillion dollars to come back. There is more income uncertainty as a result, but a much better quality of life. And far less driving too. So I know where you’re coming from. Maybe you can manage to get laid off right about when you’re ready–so you’ll get a nice severance package!

  5. Jon

    Great article. Thought provoking.

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