Contentment, aka “stuff”

On Monday of the first week of Ideal Life Exercises, I think about Contentment.

When I started this series about the Ideal Life Exercises, I was on week two…it just worked out that way. I will publish separately the printables which accompanied the different weeks when we first started talking about the Ideal Life Exercises, in case you are feeling a bit lost in where we are!! But for reference, this is where we are headed this week:

A wibbeldy-wobbeldy definition of contentment

I know that my use of the word “Contentment” for this category could lend to confusion. What I look at on the Monday of the first week is my relationship to stuff, what I own and where I live.

This goes back to the early days of my efforts at decluttering, when I needed to make space for little boy things in an apartment that had been just perfect for two people. Before we had little boys, I had given very little thought to how much stuff I was bringing into the apartment from my various trips to thrift stores or Ikea. I was attracted to a good deal, whether or not the item which was a “good deal” was really something we needed or not.

As I culled items that didn’t “spark joy”, or served zero purpose but to take up space, even as I removed things that I had once loved but no longer had a place in my life, I realized that contentment, that is, longer lasting and a more generalized sense of happiness was the result.

The equation went something like this:
More Empty Space+Satisfaction=Less Stress
Less Stress(Joy+Satisfaction+Usefulness)+(Empty Space²-State of Wear)=Contentment

In short, in this category I think about my stuff.

In my Ideal Life, I am a person who:

  • takes care of what she has
  • knows what she likes
  • isn’t swayed by fads or trends
  • Is willing to spend a little more money for something that lasts
  • prefers empty space to the presence of stuff
  • has a wishlist and isn’t afraid to ask for what she really wants
  • can tidy my home for guests in less than 30 minutes
  • never feels overwhelmed by the mess
  • keeps flat surfaces clear
  • doesn’t buy something just because it’s a good deal
  • keeps a running list of repairs that are needed
  • does not impulse shop

The Questions

What is working? Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I totally have an answer for this today! Yesterday was Mother’s Day here in France. When I saw the little box sitting at my place on the table, I had a little glimmer of excitement. I didn’t know what was inside. I had no idea, actually. But I suspected that I would be very happy about it.

See, my husband can be a very good gift giver. He is attentive…for example, for Valentine’s Day, I got an iPad Pro. (Yup…he’s a very very very good gift giver.) He noticed, once I opened it, that it didn’t have a headphone jack. He knows that I listen to podcasts all the time and I do it a lot to help me fall asleep (menopause mind race oblige), with one little bud in my ear. I wouldn’t be able to use my new toy to fall asleep.

Our family has a little wishlist that we add items to when thoughts come up. Our scalawags are the ones who add the most items to the wishlist, naturally, but I have a few things on there and so does the indulgent husband.

Having consulted the wishlist as Mother’s Day approached, the indulgent husband headed to the local electronics store and thoroughly researched all the options. I opened a pair of fantastic wireless earbuds to go with my new iPad Pro.

So what is working right now? The wishlist is working!!!!!

What isn’t working? Well, the scalawags have managed on multiple occasions to break the leg of our dining room table. Now the table wiggles when anyone sits down or moves and we are having regular coffee, soup, and cereal and milk spilling incidents. This is not working. A table will be going on the wishlist soon.

Other things that aren’t working could be literally things that aren’t working and need either fixing or replacement. (Lightbulbs, the bathtub drain…) or areas of the apartment that are feeling cluttered and starting to make me feel anxious (the top of my dresser, where I throw everything I confiscate from little boys who fight over toys, put items to be mended, “artwork” that I don’t know what to do with…

Things to consider: This week I will be considering ways to deal with little boy artwork. They are prolific little artists, and I love much of what they make. It’s the sheer quantity that is overwhelming. I want to find a way to put all that beautiful stuff to work without making myself crazy in the process.

Also, since our little boys will be attending a different school in the fall that is a bit further away, we need to start thinking about where would be the best place for us to live (we have been toying with the idea of a move for a long time…) in relationship to that school, and what are the criteria for our ideal place to live.

Other things to consider might be storage solutions for muddy little boy shoes or as I was considering lately, “what do I really love in a mug?” (Weird question, but was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend who has an amazing mug collection.)

Things to do: This week it will be to get serious about some mending projects (I literally put my hand through the armpit of a favorite dress when I put it on this morning. Grrr) and to finally see the surface of my dresser again, come what may.

Other things I have been known to put on my “to-do” list: Take confiscated toys to the basement, soak the milk-spilled rug in vinegar and see if that smell will go away, secretly throw out the too-stinky-to-wear little boy shoes, re-fold the items in my underwear drawer, declutter markers and craft supplies that are empty/don’t work and replace with new.

The Benefit

I very quickly get overwhelmed with mess, but don’t always know how to deal with it. It’s not necessarily cleaning that will help, either. Sometimes I need to make executive decisions…small ones, yes, but nonetheless decisions.

When is it time to finally throw out that pair of underwear that I have repaired more times than I can count and know I need to do again before it will be wearable? Perhaps on the day I re-fold my underwear drawer.

What do I do with all these various Ikea hardware pieces that have piled up on the kitchen counter? Pick a spot in the toolbox and forget about them.

By taking a few minutes every few weeks to consider what is working and what is not working, I can focus on a few spots that will reduce my overall sense of overwhelm. The peace and calm that come from just one cleared-off space is often motivation to work on others, little by little. Dana K. White calls this Decluttering Momentum, and it is a real thing.

If I had it to do all over again:

I am going to confess to you something. I have a little journal in my DAYONE app that is called “Stuff.” In it, I have entry after entry of what my Ideal Life, stuffwise, would look like if I could start over. It has Pantone Color palettes, it has a screenshot of an amazing live-edged round table and an amazing aqua velvet fainting couch. The idea of the journal is: if money were no object and I had to start from scratch on everything, instead of dragging my scraggly Salvation Army couches and my wiggly three-legged table to a new apartment, what would I want to fill my space with?

I know that any move we make will be done within our actual budget, and probably with most of the stuff we have in our current space. But allowing myself to consider what would make me really, genuinely content in an ideal world makes me less tempted to “settle” for something that is less-than-ideal.


The stuff we keep in our homes effects us on a daily basis, and by taking a few minutes every three weeks to take a birds’-eye view of how it is effecting us can give us some necessary perspective on how to make our stuff work for us, rather than us constantly chasing after our stuff.

In my Ideal life, I know what I like.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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