Considering our stuff: what to buy, what to give and throw away, and the concept of death cleaning.

It is quite amazing how much STUFF we can accumulate, at least those of us fortunate to be reasonably well off and live in the United States or another first-world economy.

I recently served as a middle-man to take baby-items from one recent mother to a soon-to-be mother; two friends who don’t know eachother. I was amazed by the number of items that have been invented as an attempt to make parenting in those first few months a little easier. Quite the niche market for the business world! Among other items, I picked up a baby bed that looks like a pillow but has a slightly ridged side to nestle baby in, and an electric chair that is designed to move to soothe baby with settings such as a car ride or a kangaroo (hopefully a little more gentle than a live kangaroo!) While I know I would get all I could find to make things easier if I were to be a mother, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how in the heck mother’s managed without the kangaroo chair 100 years ago. These items may be helpful – but the are not necessary.

The thing with baby items is that, unless you are going to have another child, you know when you are done with your STUFF. Not only that, it’s easy to pass along to another expecting mom who will be grateful for stuff that might make her coming life easier. You accumulate, and then you gift or sell to move things out of your home.

But how do we decide when to part with our other stuff? When do we realize that we don’t wear those shirts enough to keep, or that we will never fit into that pair of jeans again? How do we decide when all the stuff for an activity that we no longer engage in should be removed from the house because we are unlikely to engage in that activity again? For example, I have some really nice hockey equipment sitting in my attic. I haven’t played hockey in nearly a decade. But what if I play again? It would be a real hassle and expense to get the equipment again! Furthermore, if I wanted to get rid of it, there is a cost (time and hassle and stress) attached to finding someone, or many people, who would enjoy these items and might even be willing to pay a little for them.

Which brings up another point. Trash.

Some of that hockey equipment is not something that anyone is going to want from me. It belongs in the trash. But to throw away something is to face my own wasteful practices. We want to believe that we can help someone by donating our old, arcane, dirty, outdated, used, items, rather than acknowledge that we created more trash that will sit in our landfills.

So what to do?

Each of us must find our own comfort level with obtaining new stuff. We must first decide carefully what we want to bring into our homes.

And we must find our comfort level with having things around us. We all have differing capacities for clutter, often different even between spouses, and we must find that balance. At some point space and order is more important than holding onto our stuff. This of course requires a lot of steps, the time spent, deciding what to let go of, and the logistics of getting it out of your house.

The Marie Kondo’s Kon Mari Method has received a lot of press recently, and become a tv show. This is a great resource.

Another resource I am really enjoying is the book: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnussun. This is a lovely read, and I am considering gifting it to some of my estate planning clients. The idea behind death cleaning is to go through your lifetime accumulation of stuff and to get rid of it in your retired years – so that your family doesn’t have to do it for you. However, the same concepts apply to any of us, regardless of age, who find an overabundance of stuff surrounding us. The book is written in a simple light and playful, slightly humorous way,  making it accessible and a joy to read.

Of course, if you bring a new book into your home, perhaps a current book should be gifted (or thrown away) at the same time!

Happy clutter clearing and good luck!

Finding the grateful moments: Reflecting on over 1.5 years keeping a gratitude journal.

In 2018 I completed my own Happiness Project, inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s book by the same name. Before the year began, I decided on one focus for the month. Goals ranged from learning to garden, working on total immersion swimming, to doing something out of my routine every day of the month. (I wrote about the project here, and wrote about each month’s goal on my blog as well).

In September, my goal was to develop a gratitude practice by starting a journal in which I wrote down three things each day that I was grateful for, and wrote about it here. I have maintained that practice, and as I just finished that journal (literally, filled up every page), it presents as a good time to reflect on the practice. Why have I kept this up for so long when so many habits so easily go by the wayside?

Here are some of my thoughts about why this has stuck:

  • It is really easy. It takes me just a minute or two and I do it the very first thing when I crawl into bed at night.
  • I like reflecting on my day each and every day. It’s amazing how often I might be grumpy in the evening, forgetting something joyful earlier in that very same day.
  • When I have trouble finding something to write, it gives me good feedback. Some days aren’t bad, but they also are just not memorable. Or maybe my mood is bad. I can take a moment to reflect on why, and continually do that which brings me joy more often.
  • Sometimes I am surprised at the items I write down. I am quite a hermit, but spending time with people whether on a call or meeting for an outside adventure, always makes it to the list – so maybe I should make sure to do more of it!
  • I like looking back. If you keep a journal, you can look back and reflect. I’m sure I would love that, but it would take a lot more time and while it has been a practice, it isn’t currently. But with the simple, quick, gratitude journal I can get enough snippets to remember what was going on in my life this time last year, etc.

Am I a happier person because of it? 

The touted purpose of a gratitude practice is often to shift your mindset to being more positive and seeing events as positive. However, actually measuring that in myself is a difficult feat. I do not go about my day thinking – oh, that is something to put in my gratitude journal. Indeed, I do not think I give it a moment of thought before I start writing. But, I cannot imagine that examining my day to look for the positive moments is going to do anything but make me a little more positive. If each day I go to sleep remembering something I am grateful for, even though I cannot measure it, I think it adds up to help keep me positive.

What now? 

I write this in 2020 amidst a global pandemic, in a country with some of the highest infection rate numbers where wearing a mask has become a political issue. In the midst of global protests for race equality, in support of Black Lives Matter, and calls to overhaul our policing system and to use resources differently. With uncertainly of the future ahead, heightened for people who have lost jobs and those with children who may or may not have a school to attend in the fall.

It is possible that you struggle in this moment to find the positive, to find things to feel great about, and to find joy everyday.

Starting your own gratitude journal could help you thrive in this period of time. As I wrote about here, I have seen others benefit tremendously from the practice, and what do you have to lose?

Let me know if you do try it, and if you stick with it! What do you like or not like about it?

Is it harmful to your health to handle receipts?

At a recent doctor’s visit, my doctor spent considerable time covering health topics with me. She informed me that I am obese (as if I wasn’t already aware) and that it would be healthier for me to lose weight. She proceeded to tell me things I already know about eating whole foods. I tried to explain that I eat well (a moving target, but based on my extensive research and listening to my body), exercise often, have tried every diet out there – and right now I am focused on loving my body, fueling it well, and not focused on the scale.

While it was a frustrating conversation, without the time to really dig into this broad topic, I do appreciate that she is taking some time to talk with patients about a broader aspect of health than the basic exam.

But she did mention something I didn’t know, but found intriguing. She said it is harmful to touch receipts. (This was part of a conversation about how environmental exposure can affect one’s ability to burn fat).

I decided to look further into this. What’s in the paper receipt? Is it actually harmful, and if so, why, and what can we do about it?

It is overwhelming to think about the potentially harmful chemicals in all of our products from soap, to lotion, to makeup, to deodorant, and so much more. However, if we focus on one thing at a time, in the case of a product, choose something that is safe and effective, then we can stick with it and move on to the next item when ready, possibly when it’s time to replace.

So, for now, let’s look at receipts.

The reason that some people say they are harmful to touch is because they are coated with BPA, about 94%.

Do you recall hearing that you should avoid BPA? Did you throw away your Nalgene water bottles because they contained BPA? Do you specifically choose the ‘BPA Free’ products on the market? Let’s look at why avoiding it became so popular.

[This post gets a bit long, for a somewhat dated, but to the point, abbreviated article, read this from The Week instead.]

What is BPA?

BPA stands for Bisphenol A. It is a chemical used to make polycarbonate, a hard, clear plastic. It is also used in the epoxy resin lining canned goods.

Small amounts of BPA seep out of containers such as plastic water bottles and canned goods into the beverages or food we consume. We can also get exposure through contact (like receipts, as well as some other small ticket-like items such as airline and movie tickets). It is estimated that 90% of us have BPA in our bloodstream.

Is it bad for you?

There remains controversy over effects of BPA in the body.

It is fairly widely believed to be an endocrine disrupter. Possible harmful effects include its possible ability to act like a hormone in the body, particularly estrogen and thyroid function, which may effect cell repair, fetal development, energy levels, and reproduction. It may have an effect on the brain, particularly for infants and young children. It may increase the risk of cancer, heart problems, obesity, and diabetes. It may effect fertility in both men and women. Some studies have shown effects to babies born to women with higher levels of BPA as opposed to the control, including hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, and emotional reactivity.

The use of BPA has been restricted by the following governments, though I do not know to what extent: EU, Canada, China, and Malaysia. In the United States, the Federal Drug Administration’s current guidelines provide that small amounts of exposure from consuming food products with some leached BPA are not a concern. However, they have restricted the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, and the packaging for infant formula. The FDA says that these restrictions are not due to safety, but rather because industry stopped using BPA in these products, and therefore they removed the allowance to use them in response to requests to do so.

BPA-free products replace the Bishenol A with Bisphenol-S or -F, and it appears unknown whether these substitutes act any or significantly differently than BPA. Most people appear to think these other chemicals will have a similar effect.

Back to receipts?

Skin exposure to BPA through a receipt may last longer, therefore causing a higher exposure than BPA ingested from food products. Studies have also shown that we absorb more BPA after using hand sanitizer and some lotions and other skin products. However, a good basic hand wash after touching receipts can reduce your contact.

What now?

With the information here, you can decide what you want to do about it.

Receipts are hard to avoid, but you can decline them when you do not need to track expenses, and some places now offer electronic receipts.

You can also choose to wash your hands after coming in to contact with receipts, along with other tickets.

Personally, I will try to handle receipts less (choosing emailed receipts or no receipts when possible), and I will make an effort to wash my hands after handling them when I need to handle them. I am not one to get overly cautious because it makes my life too complicated, but I am happy to have this information – both related to receipts, and BPA in general, to understand why it is being avoided, and to realize that BPA-free products are probably not a great alternative. I will continue to use glass or other non-plastic materials when easy to do so. With these changes, my own BPA ingestion should be minimized.

What are your thoughts? Will you change your actions with this information?

Sources

  1. Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in food contact application, Federal Drug Administration.
  2. Check your receipt: It may be tainted, by Rachel Nuwer.
  3. The sneaky thing you handle everyday that could be bad for your health, by Erin Bunch.
  4. The Facts about Bisphenol A.
  5. What is BPA and why is it bad for you? by Alina Petra, MS, RD.

Benefits of spending time in nature.

My father had a lot of faults, but one thing he did do was get me out into nature on a regular basis. I was backpacking at age 2 (riding along in a pack of course), and we would go camping and backpacking on a regular basis. When I went off to a boarding school at age 15, we took six weeks driving from California to Colorado, stopping at numerous national parks and other wilderness areas. We spent a week backpacking in Glacier National Park, a number of days in Yellowstone National Park, and another week in the Wind River range in Wyoming, to name a few of the places I recall. It wasn’t painless to travel with him, but I deeply appreciate that we did those trips that I still remember fondly. Even the time that we climbed Fremont Peak in the Wind River Range and he decided that he saw a better route (you know that never ends well). Instead, I am not actually sure we made the peak, but I recall being so dehydrated that I was licking moisture from the rocks late in the day.

This early start in nature led me to numerous back country trips throughout my high school and college years as both leader and participant. Backpacking, mountain climbing, back country skiing, and canoeing became quite commonplace. It was a little more difficult during college in Indiana, but I found a way, and I surrounded myself with people who did the same things.

With this background, I know that nature is powerful for me on a personal level. I have veered from long back country trips as an adult, but when I get back to the woods with a pack on my back, I remember that I need to do more of it. It does something to me that is inexplicably wonderful.

It turns out that it isn’t just good for me. Studies have shown that getting outside in nature, even for a short time, has measurable health benefits.

A study in Japan tested people after a leisurely forest walk and after a walk in an urban setting. They found that compared to the urban walkers, the forest group had an average 12% reduction in cortisol levels (a stress hormone), a 7% reduction in sympathetic nerve activity (another stress marker), a 1.4% drop in blood pressure, a 6% drop in heart rate, and subjective reports of increased mood and lower anxiety. The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. Another study discussed in this same book found that 30 to 40 minutes walking in nature appeared sufficient to bring about physiological mood changes. They recommended at least 5 hours per month spent in nature. (Read this article for a description of The Nature Fix and some of its other takeaways).

Even without time to get to the woods, green spaces have been found to have a positive effect on people’s perceived perception of health. I suspect this is heightened by spending more time in the green spaces surrounding you, if available.

How often are you getting outside? We all have different access, but can make an effort to spend more time outdoors and in nature. Perhaps that’s a walk in a park at lunch, or hiking on the weekends. Maybe it’s standing in a garden in your community or at home.

Know that getting outside more has great benefits to your health. Feel you don’t have enough time? You may find that the time spent outside boosts productivity making it worth your time, or it may calm you making you a better person to be around.

As a group of researchers put it after spending time together in nature and studying its effects: “After days of wandering in [nature], resting the executive branch and watching the clouds drift across an endless sky, good shit happens to your brain.” The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

A year with my gratitude journal.

In 2018 I did my own happiness project. I explained it here. In brief, there is a book by Gretchen Rubin called the Happiness Project in which she writes about her year of trying new habits. I created my own version and attempted a new habit or focus each month for the year. I posted updates throughout even though many months I didn’t quite do what I had planned at the beginning of the year.

One habit, however, has stuck with me, and I realized recently that I have been keeping a gratitude journal quite consistently for over a year now. Here are my reflections on the practice and encouragement to consider your own.

What I do for my gratitude journal

I keep a journal by my bedside. Each evening I write down three things that I’m grateful for. Usually this ends up being three things I enjoyed most about my day. I don’t bring it when I travel, and sometimes forget to start again when I return. I put it in a drawer out of sight if house sitters stay at the house. Eventually I remember, take it out, and resume the practice.

Why I keep doing it

I look forward to it when I crawl into bed. I’m not precisely sure why, but I think I like being forced to reflect on the day behind me. Sometimes I surprise myself when I would think that I had a fine day, but then struggle to come up with anything to write down. Those moments help me to reflect on what really brings me joy, and I have found that this can differ from what I would have previously expected.

I also really enjoy looking back in time. What was going on six months or a year ago? It reminds me of the good times, since that’s my focus, but also gives me points of reference that put me back into that time period to allow me to recall other things going on in my life at the time.

What else do I keep in this journal?

At some point I started a “manifestation journal” in the back of the journal I currently use as my gratitude journal. This is where I put my ginormous big-picture goals that I have in my life. It is less than a page long at the moment. I enjoy looking at it. Sometimes I add to it. Sometimes I chuckle at the audacity of the goals I wrote down that now seem unattainable. But….who knows what will come true before I die. (This podcast with Samin Nosrat was my inspiration for a manifestation journal).

You might consider trying your own

There are numerous journaling activities. If you don’t already have a journaling practice that works for you, this is an easy way to start. If evening isn’t a good time for you, you can do it first thing in the morning, or any other time that suits you (and that you can maintain fairly consistently). I worked with one client who did it whenever they thought of something positive. This isn’t ideal and is likely to wain over time, however, when they were doing it, they reported a huge shift in mindset. This client struggled with depression and this practice gave them a big boost.

When we begin to look for the positive, it can change our mindset. You probably have negative stories in your head that you do not realize are there.

If this practice resonates with you in any way, give it a shot. The worst that can happen is if you decide it isn’t for you.