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Can You Find Freedom by Owning Less?

This next post is a guest post from Fabian of Elementarist Magazine. It’s a fitting post to release this time of year, with Black Friday upon us once again and consumers ready to consume mass quantities. Fabian details how owning might not make you happy though. So go on, kick back and enjoy a good read about owning less…

How I found freedom by owning less

owning lessIt was winter 2006 and I just moved into my first place in Karlsruhe, Germany – two rooms, a kitchen, and 600 total square feet a great price. I had pulled all of my belongings in from a van and spent the entire evening carrying stuff up to the second floor. At midnight, I was finally done, yet my place still felt kind of empty. One couch, a table, some filled shelves, a fridge, dozens of books, and some kitchen appliances were apparently not sufficient to make me feel “home”.

So I did, what everybody does – at least, I thought so at that time – I went to IKEA first thing Friday morning to get some stuff. A few hours later, my van was PACKED with IKEA goods – chairs, tables, couches, cushions, paintings, frames, sideboards, a mirror, and tons of other bits and pieces were piling up onto my laps while driving back. I thought; problem solved!

Once home, I started piecing together my new furniture. It was one weekend of war against IKEA, and I proudly won late Sunday night. Everything was set up, the empty boxes, packaging, and wood chips were cleaned up and I was the proud owner of a fully furnished apartment. I somehow still didn’t feel comfortable. I thought it was due to lack of sleep, so I went to bed (in my new beautiful IKEA bed). But this feeling didn’t go away. Not after one night. Not after one week. Not even after one month.

What was happening? All my fellow students loved their places. They kept buying stuff, sharing pictures, and organizing dinner parties. So I started changing my furniture arrangement. I bought some more stuff. But it didn’t get any better. It got worse.

A year past by and I felt increasingly uncomfortable without knowing why. I felt pressure without knowing where it was coming from. What did I do wrong? Did I buy the wrong things?

In the summer of 2007, I decided to hit the road. Busy with getting settled and working on having a home, I didn’t travel for an entire year. Within two days I booked, packed my bag, and flew to the Canary Islands. When I arrived at my new place (a very basic hostel) I instantly felt great. I spent four months working at sea as a sailing instructor, having nothing more than my hand luggage and a small bed. I was happy.

But winter arrived and I needed to head back to take my classes and exams. As soon as I arrived, this unpleasant feeling popped up again. I got home and there I was sitting on my couch and asking myself: What am I doing here? Why am I feeling bad?

I made it through the year, worked a lot, but never felt free. That is until that fateful day – I got a call from Mexico asking: “You up for project around here?”

I sub-rented my place and was gone within a week!

Again, I lived in a basic shared flat. I just had my backpack, a small bed and a shared shower. But I felt great and had the most amazing rooftop in Mexico City that one could imagine. I experienced amazing people and places each day, time was simply rushing by. In fact, time rushed by so fast that I didn’t even see the end of my project coming. All of a sudden I was asked whether I would prefer to fly back on Friday or Saturday. Quick like a shot I answered: Don’t worry, I don’t need one.

In a second I had understood what truly made me happy. It was not about owning – it was experiencing. It was not having a home. It was feeling at home everywhere in this world.

I booked a flight to California, then crossed over to Southeast Asia and spent several splendid months just travelling around. However, I still needed to finish my studies, so I eventually flew back to Germany. But this time, with a great feeling.

I had understood two crucial things: First, ownership does not make me happy. Second, I don’t need to own. I don’t need to own because others do. I don’t need to own to be happy. I don’t need to own for whatever reason.

It might seem like an easy thing to say but to me it probably was the most important mind shift of my life.

Back home, I now knew what to do. I started selling all the stuff I didn’t need. I got my apartment ready to be handed over easily. I got rid of everything that could possibly tie me down. Heavy stuff, stuff I didn’t use, contracts. I sped up my studies and focused on skills to make me more independent. I also kept travelling during that time, subletting my apartment that now pretty much looked like a hotel room. And I eventually graduated in the spring of 2012. I was free to go wherever I wanted to.

In the past few years, I had the chance to live and work in many different places – Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, Dakar, Istanbul – to name just a few. I have never owned much in that time. On the contrary, I keep sizing down. Sometimes I live out of my hand luggage for several months and never miss a thing!

When we are young, we are made to think that ownership is the Holy Grail. That you will be happier when you own. That owning is the sole purpose of our lives.

It isn’t – at least not for everyone.

I urge everyone with doubts to dare not to own. To me, it has been the key to freedom and happiness. The trait of needing to own is deeply rooted in us. But it doesn’t always suit everyone, and after all, we do have choice!

So, as Black Friday comes and goes, along with Christmas, birthdays, and other celebrations where gifts are the norm, if none of these days make you feel happy, maybe it’s not the gifts, maybe it’s owning less in general – be it a home, or a bunch of stuff. Maybe it’s time to give owning less a second thought. Sometimes it doesn’t always make cents to own!

Now go sell all your stuff and start owning less!


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