Here at Global Action Plan (GAP), an environmental charity, we know that society’s pre-occupation with buying stuff to feel good is unsustainable. By August 8th last year, we’d already used up more of the Earth’s resources for 2016 than it could renew.

Ironically, seeking joy through shopping isn’t making us happy either. It’s linked to reduced mental health and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. So we commissioned a report into people’s relationship with stuff to understand the positive ways that we could encourage people to find alternative routes to happiness that didn’t involve hitting the shops. The answer was fourfold:

Take time out – a way of being

Mindfulness is all the rage at the moment, with good reason: it helps to reduce stress levels. We’re fortunate to have the lovely Natasha at GAP, who happens to be a trained mindfulness coach – a skill that was put to good use in our recent away-day, to bring us together as an organisation. We’re now introducing the concept into meetings, as a way to help people to park their mental junk at the door. Please don’t imagine that our office is a place of total Zen calmness, but it is a place where staff feel empowered to take short moments throughout the day to pause and consciously relax. Plus, it helps us stay on charitable-mission. When you are calmer, the pull to go and buy a new shirt in your lunchbreak to get a mood lift fades away.

Treasure what we have – a way of having

‘Thank you’, two simple words that can transform your day. Appreciation of the good things and people around you in life makes you happier with what you’ve got – which results in less need to seek external gratification through possessions. I started a daily thank you log just before Christmas. Every evening, I write three things that I’m grateful for. The research says that I’ll feel the benefits of improved well-being for up to six months. I noticed a change almost immediately, especially in my sleep patterns.

The culture of gratitude is present at work as well. We have a ‘Thank You’ wall where staff can publicly state their gratitude to others for the help that they’ve received. It is a very public way of saying, ‘I appreciate you’ – and feeling appreciated is a powerful motivator. Psychologist Dan Ariely demonstrated this in an interesting experiment where free pizza proved to be a more powerful motivator to increase productivity than money.  

Choose experiences, not things – a way of doing

Ask me to recall a happy time in life and the things that come to mind are partying with friends, white water rafting in Costa Rica and the time that my daughter tried to fly (a whole other story)! When it comes to what really makes us happy, creating memories that last a lifetime beats the quick highs of a new purchase every time. At GAP, this manifests itself in the Birthday Creep. There’s no pressure to mark colleague birthdays with presents. Instead, your designated birthday buddy arranges a card and the Creep – a fantastically funny and creative group effort to sneak up and surprise the birthday boy/girl with cake. It’s a simple and lovely way to ‘do’ rather than ‘buy’ something to mark someone’s special day.

Declutter life – a way of living

Modern life is hectic. There’s 24 hour news (fake and real) and we can shop ‘till we drop from the comfort of our own home. We’re simply overloaded with mental and physical stuff. The fact that the average British woman buys 59 items of clothing each year and has 22 things in her wardrobe that she has never worn suggests that we don’t really need that new outfit. Our research found that there are benefits to well-being if we choose a simpler existence that was truer to what really matters to us. For example, the organisation we work for reflecting our own values. For our recent #walkingthetalk campaign, GAP staff made an environmental New Year’s Resolution and then charted their journey for a month through pictures and blogs. Giving everyone the chance to share what mattered to them, alongside our core mission of preserving the planet for future generations, was hugely rewarding.

Of course, we all have our personal routes to happiness. What our research showed was that the path to inspiring happiness is not littered with stuff. Instead, less was best. So the question I will leave you with is, ‘Could you have a healthier relationship with stuff?’  You can download our report and join the movement on social media.

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