Happiness guru Gretchen Rubin has been thinking about stuff.

Specifically, what do with all of the stuff we amass over the course of a lifetime.

Do you graciously accept your Great Aunt’s casserole dish, or do you give it to Goodwill? Do you make room in your studio apartment for your grandmother’s humongous oak armoire, or do you use it for kindling? What about the blender that hasn’t worked since the Nixon administration?

The way Rubin sees it, there’s no right way to organize a home, or tidy a room, just as there’s no right way to age. Rather than give one pat answer, she wants people to do whatever feels organic and right for them, which is the same message she espoused in her mega-hit The Happiness Project and what she talks about in her latest tome, Inner Order Outer Calm

Find your own way, she says, but with a little guidance. (In other words, you don’t have to hew to a system that finds joy for one person, but perhaps not you. Ahem.)

Here, in her own words, her insights to successful aging, fearless organization, and happy living.   

1. Decluttering isn’t just a task, it’s a phase of life

“Ever since I started writing about happiness and good habits I’ve noticed that when people talk about outer order—like decluttering or making their bed—they get fired up in a surprising way. People tell me, ‘I finally got control over my closet and now I have control over my life.’ There’s this disproportionate energy from creating outer order. A friend of mine once said, ‘I cleaned out my fridge, I finally feel I can switch careers!’”

Gretchen Rubin

Research shows that for every decade over 50 you’re much less likely to spend time clearing clutter. You hear about people who need to go to assisted living and they can’t face the basement, the attic, the garage, the pantry. Some people keep everything because they’re emotionally attached, some keep it because it’s easier than to dump it. Some keep it because they think it’s important to someone else. But have you asked your son if he wants the swimming trophies? Just ask.  

But either you clean it out now or you kids are going to after you die. It is such a huge task that it’s very hard for people to conceive of what needs to be done. You need to have a plan. “ 

2. It’s ok to just give stuff away

“People often can’t face the pain of giving a beloved object away, especially in later life, but that doesn’t mean you have to hang onto it. You can always accept your Great Aunt’s salt and pepper shakers and then bring them to Goodwill, without her being the wiser.

One thing is to be respectful of the fact that something is important to someone else and you need to show them that you understand the value of it. So, say something like—‘This is a beautiful dining room table and I know that you have really loved having it but I don’t have room in my house’ rather than ‘I don’t want any of your junk.”

3. Practice creative disposal

“It’s hard to figure out what do with things. My mother had all these elaborate gowns and she didn’t want to take them to thrift stores. She couldn’t consign them because no one wanted them and they could sit there for two years. So she called the drama department of a little college outside Kanas City and asked them if they wanted them for costumes. It was a satisfying way for her clothes to have another existence.

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I stockpile cheap glass vases. There was a florist shop down the street and I finally gave them a huge box.  You can save a lot of time and energy just giving things away.”

4. Happiness is other people

“Research suggests that people are happier when they’re older. One thing that contributes to happiness is maintaining and broadening relationships. It’s a key to happiness and good health.

 “You’re better off being in a bridge group than playing online games; relationships hold us together. It’s true that as you get older your social network gets smaller because people die more. But people are happier with friends of all different ages, across generations. You can start a group and meet every month for coffee, or join a book club.  If you don’t like meeting new people—revive a dormant relationship, like a friend from college. That can feel less awkward then meeting someone new.”

5. An empty nest is an opportunity

I’m very interested in seeing how people are handle life stages. I’ve known people who move to a different part of town when their kids go to college, just to do something new. I don’t know that I’d do that, but it’s an interesting idea. Another friend started a big job when her kids graduated high school. She wanted to be super busy and overwhelmed with a new experience so she didn’t feel lost. I think that makes a lot of sense.”

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