How To Have Things Correctly

I think peo­ple who are not made hap­pier by hav­ing things ei­ther have the wrong things, or have them in­cor­rectly. Here is how I get the most out of my stuff.

Money doesn’t buy hap­piness. If you want to try throw­ing money at the prob­lem any­way, you should buy ex­pe­riences like va­ca­tions or ser­vices, rather than pur­chas­ing ob­jects. If you have to buy ob­jects, they should be ab­solute and not po­si­tional goods; po­si­tional goods just put you on a tread­mill and you’re never go­ing to catch up.

Sup­pos­edly.

I think get­ting value out of spend­ing money, own­ing ob­jects, and hav­ing po­si­tional goods are all three of them skills, that peo­ple of­ten don’t have nat­u­rally but can de­velop. I’m go­ing to fo­cus mostly on the mid­dle skill: how to have things cor­rectly1.

1. Ob­tain more-cor­rect things in the first place.

If you and I are per­sonal friends, you prob­a­bly know that I have weird gift-re­ceiv­ing pro­to­cols. This is partly be­cause I hate sur­prises. But it’s also be­cause I don’t want to have in­cor­rect things, clut­ter­ing my space, gen­er­at­ing guilt be­cause they’re gifts that I never use, and gen­er­ally hav­ing high op­por­tu­nity cost be­cause the giver could have got­ten me some­thing else.

This prob­lem isn’t only with gifts. Peo­ple get them­selves in­cor­rect things all the time—se­duced by mar­ket­ing, seized by im­pulse, or too hur­ried to think about which of sev­eral choices is the best one for their wants and needs. I have some in­cor­rect clothes, which I got be­cause I was sick of shop­ping and needed a new pair of pants even if it was ter­rible; as soon as I found bet­ter pants (or what­ever) those clothes were never worn again and now they’re just wait­ing for my next haul to Good­will. I bet a lot of peo­ple have in­cor­rect print­ers, mostly be­cause print­ers in gen­eral are evil, but partly be­cause it’s ir­ri­tat­ing and dull to in­ves­ti­gate them ahead of time. Cars may also tend to fall into this cat­e­gory, with a lot of peo­ple neu­tral or am­biva­lent about their self-se­lected ob­jects that cost thou­sands of dol­lars.

If you are not cur­rently liv­ing in a clut­tered space, or feel­ing guilty about not us­ing your ob­jects enough, or tend­ing to dis­like the things that you have, or find­ing your­self want­ing things that you “can’t” get be­cause you already have an in­fe­rior item in the same refer­ence class, or just buy­ing too many not-strict-ne­ces­si­ties than is ap­pro­pri­ate for your bud­get—then this might not be a step you need to fo­cus on. If you have ob­jects you don’t like (not just aren’t get­ting a lot out of, that’s for later steps, but ac­tu­ally dis­like) then you might need to change your thresh­olds for ob­ject-ac­qui­si­tion.

This doesn’t mean some­thing stodgy like “be­fore you get some­thing, think care­fully about whether you will ac­tu­ally use and en­joy it, us­ing out­side view in­for­ma­tion about items in this refer­ence class”. Or, well, it can mean that, but that’s not the only crite­rion! You can also in­crease the amount of sheer emo­tional want that you al­low to move you to ac­tion—wait un­til you more-than-idly de­sire it. If I were good at math, I would try to op­er­a­tional­ize this as some sort of for­mula, but suffice it to say that the cost of the ob­ject (in money, but also so­cial cap­i­tal and stor­age space and in­con­ve­nience and what­not) should in­ter­act with how much you just-plain-want-it and also with how much use you will likely get out of it.

Speak­ing of how much use you get out of it...

2. Find ex­cuses to use your stuff.

I have a cloak. It cost me about $80 on Etsy. It is cus­tom made, and re­versible be­tween black and gray, and made out of my fa­vorite fabric, and falls all the way to the floor from my shoulders, and has a hood so deep that I can hide in it if I want. If I run while I wear it, it swoops out be­hind me. It’s soft and warm but not too warm. I like my cloak.

I also have sweaters. They didn’t cost me any­where near $80, not a one of them.

When it’s chilly, I reach for the cloak first.

I’m play­ing a game with my brain: I will let it make me spend $80 on a cloak, if it will pro­duce enough im­pe­tus to­wards cloak-wear­ing and cloak-en­joy­ing that I ac­tu­ally get $80 of value out of it. If it can’t fol­low through, then I later trust its wants less (“last time I bought some­thing like this, it just hung in my closet for­ever and I only pul­led it out on Hal­loween!”), and then it doesn’t get to make me buy any more cloak­like ob­jects, which it re­ally wants to be able to do. (I don’t know if ev­ery­one’s brain is wired to play this sort of game, but if yours is, it’s worth do­ing.) My brain is do­ing a very nice job of helping me en­joy my cloak. Even­tu­ally I may let it buy an­other cloak in a differ­ent pair of col­ors, if it demon­strates that it re­ally can keep this up long-term.

Peo­ple some­times treat not us­ing their stuff like some­thing that hap­pens to them. “I never wound up us­ing it.” “It turned out that I just left it in the base­ment.” This is silly. If I’m go­ing to use my cloak—or my mi­ni­a­ture cheese­cake pan or my snazzy let­ter opener—then this is be­cause at some point I will de­cide to put on my cloak, make mi­ni­a­ture cheese­cakes, or open let­ters with my snazzy ded­i­cated de­vice in­stead of my nail file. You know, on pur­pose.

Sure, some things seem to prompt you to use them more eas­ily. If you get a new video game, and you re­ally like it, it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing turn out that you never think to play it. If you get a cat or some­thing suffi­ciently au­tonomous like that, you will know if you are not pay­ing it suffi­cient at­ten­tion.

But if you get a muffin tin and you have no pre-in­stalled prompts for “I could make muffins” be­cause that im­pulse was ex­tin­guished due to lack of muffin tin, it will be easy to ig­nore. You’re go­ing to need to train your­self to think of muffins as a make­able thing. And you can train your­self to do that! Put the muffins on your to-do list. Lead your friends to ex­pect baked goods. Pre­heat the oven and leave a stick of but­ter out to soften so you’re com­mit­ted. If that doesn’t sound ap­peal­ing to you—if you don’t want to bake muffins—then you shouldn’t have ac­quired a muffin tin.

Speak­ing of your friends...

3. In­vite oth­ers to benefit from your thing.

I’ve got a pet snake. Six days of the week, she is just my pet snake. On Satur­days, dur­ing my fa­mous din­ner par­ties at which the Illu­mi­nati con­gre­gate, I of­ten pass her around to in­ter­ested vis­i­tors, too. The din­ner par­ties them­selves al­low my friends to benefit from my stuff, too—kitchen im­ple­ments and ap­pli­ances and the very table at which my guests sit. It would be less use­ful to own a stand mixer or a gi­ant wok if I only ever cooked for my­self. It would be less pleas­ant to have a pet snake if I had no chance to share her. It would be less im­por­tant to have pretty clothes if no one ever saw me wear­ing them.

You’re a so­cial ape. If you’re try­ing to get more out of some­thing, an ob­vi­ous first hy­poth­e­sis to test is to see if adding other so­cial apes helps:

  • Loan your stuff out. (Peo­ple seem to ac­quire phys­i­cal copies of books for this mo­ti­va­tion; it is good. Do more of that.)

  • Ac­quire more stuff that can be used co­op­er­a­tively. (Own games you like, for in­stance.)

  • Find cre­ative ways to use stuff co­op­er­a­tively where it was not in­tended.

  • Tell peo­ple sto­ries about your stuff, if you have in­ter­est­ing sto­ries about it.

  • Fetch it when it is a use­ful tool for some­one else’s task.

  • Ac­cept com­pli­ments on your stuff glee­fully. Let peo­ple have ex­pe­riences of your stuff so that they will pro­duce same.

Also, cir­cling back to the bit about gifts: I bet you own some gifts. Use them as ex­cuses to think about who gave them to you! My grand­mother got me my blender, my mom made me my purse, my best friend gave me the en­tire signed Fable­haven se­ries. In­ter­act­ing with those ob­jects now pro­duces ex­tra warm­fuzzies if I take the ex­tra cog­ni­tive step.

Speak­ing of how you go about ex­pe­rienc­ing your stuff...

4. Turn stuff into ex­pe­riences via the senses.

Re­mem­ber my cloak? It’s made of flan­nel, so it’s nice to pet; it’s fun to swoosh it about. Re­mem­ber my snake? She feels nifty and cool and smooth, and she looks pretty, and I get to watch her swal­low a mouse once a week if I care to stick around to su­per­vise. I get candy from Trader Joe’s be­cause it tastes good and mu­sic that I like be­cause it sounds good. If you never look at your stuff or touch it or taste it or what­ever is ap­pro­pri­ate for the type of stuff, you might not be hav­ing it cor­rectly. (Raise your hand if you have chachkas on your shelves that you don’t ac­tu­ally look at.)

Caveat: Some purely in­stru­men­tal tools can be had cor­rectly with­out this—I don’t di­rectly ex­pe­rience my Dust­buster with much en­thu­si­asm, just the clean­li­ness that I can use it to cre­ate. Although noth­ing pre­vents you from di­rectly en­joy­ing a par­tic­u­larly nice tool ei­ther—I have spat­u­las I am fond of.

And of course if you choose to fol­low the stan­dard ad­vice about pur­chas­ing ex­pe­riences in a more stan­dard way, you can still use stuff there. You will have more fun camp­ing if you have de­cent camp­ing gear; you will have more fun at the beach if you have suit­able beach things; you will have more fun in the south of France if you have travel guides and phrase­books that you like.

1It’s an op­tional skill. You could ne­glect it in fa­vor of oth­ers, and de­pend­ing on your own tal­ents and val­ues, this could be higher-lev­er­age than learn­ing to have things cor­rectly. But I bet the fol­low­ing steps will be im­prove­ments for some peo­ple.