In her 2011 bestseller, “The Happiness Project,” self-improvement guru and biographer Gretchen Rubin shared the story of her year-long effort to boost her happiness, boiling down guidance from philosophy, science and pop culture to yield concrete wisdom she could apply to her own life.
Now, with perhaps an even firmer handle on personal happiness, Rubin is turning her attention to matters domestic. In “Happier at Home,” she looks at how to make a living space not just cleaner, more organized and better-decorated, but also more personal, emotionally meaningful and engaging.
Her findings may surprise you. Challenging conventional wisdom at every turn, Rubin devises a philosophy of the home that puts personality above presentation and spontaneity above order. Here are nine unique tips for de-cluttering, re-organizing and, most importantly of all, enjoying your home.
Less isn’t always more
“Keep it simple” is a useful motto to have in mind when organizing or redecorating, but Rubin warns against letting it become law. There’s a difference, she argues, between “disciplined, thoughtful simplicity” and “[simplicity] created by indifference and neglect.” Conventional wisdom about simplicity fails to account for the nuances of our possessions and when we blindly accept that less is more, we risk cutting away too much. “Applied too broadly, my impulse to ‘Keep it simple’ would impoverish me,” Rubin writes.
Be mindful of the “endowment effect”
One way to simplify with authenticity is to be aware of what Rubin calls the “endowment effect,” the phenomenon by which an object takes on instant personal value once we own it. The principle explains why we hang on to objects we no longer need and allow clutter to accumulate, according to Rubin. “I might not have particularly wanted that purple freebie coffee mug,” she writes, “but once the mug was mine, I’d find it hard to give up.”
Show off the special stuff
If you cherish an object, give it prime real estate in your home, Rubin tells readers—even if it doesn’t seem presentation-worthy. An old china pink flamingo of her grandmother’s seemed like a junk item when Rubin found it in the back of a messy drawer. But when placed next to other family mementos on a prominent shelf, the keepsake took on the splendor of an heirloom. Setting aside extra-special items makes it easier, too, to discard real junk. “The power of objects doesn’t depend on their volume,” Rubin writes. “In fact, my memories were better evoked by a few carefully chosen items than by a big assortment of things with vague associations.”
Eke out spaces of “super-engagement”
Rubin is a big advocate of creating “shrines” within your home. Finding her grandmother’s pink flamingo inspired Rubin to create a shrine to her family. She created a “Shrine to Fun and Games” by pulling together her kids’ toys and puzzles into an attractive but accessible display. Shrines create hubs of family activity, Rubin advises, and they also help to weed out what’s unimportant. Rubin amassed old books from law school (where she and her husband met) with the intention of creating a “Shrine to Law School,” but realized the texts lacked charm and gave them away instead.
Devise your own decimal system
Rubin took a “shrine” approach to books, as well: Instead of displaying her family’s books in one big collection, she created mini-libraries, as in her “Shrine to Children’s Literature.” “Here was a shelf of nothing but ‘Harry Potter,’” she writes. “Here, my worn copies of the ’Narnia’ books, there, my beloved ‘Little House’ books.” Rubin found that she wasn’t the first to take creative license with book displays: a friend “organized her books by color, in a band [circling] her studio apartment.”
Display photographs sparingly
Even the most charming family photos lose their luster after sitting on display for a few months. Because “photos were a permanent part of our apartment landscape,” writes Rubin, “we usually walked right by them without seeing them.” She suggests creating seasonal photo collections to display for a month or two out of the year. Rubin framed photos from old Valentine’s Day cards to put out each year in February. “I know that we’d appreciate them more,” she says, “if they weren’t continually on display.”
In the interest of clearing clutter, abandon unfinished projects
Unfinished projects—whether it’s a scrapbook, a model boat or a piece of custom furniture—take up room in your house and create feelings of regret and anxiety. Be realistic about what you’ll really finish, set aside the whatever materials can be reused and bid farewell. As Rubin wisecracks, “One very effective way to finish a project is to abandon it.”
Wear all your clothes
Even for the otherwise tidy, closets can be a clutter warzone. To determine which clothes she would keep and which she should throw away, Rubin made an effort to wear all of them. Whatever items she felt hesitant about, she got rid of, clearing valuable space in her crowded closet.
Master your electronics
Not understanding how household electronics work can lead to feelings of frustration and powerlessness (not to mention long calls with tech support or expensive repairs). Rubin made it a rule to always read instructional manuals. “When I acquired a new gizmo, or had trouble with an old gizmo, I’d push myself to learn to operate it,” she writes. Rubin’s crash-course in technology allowed her to make use of gadgets she’d previously given up on, like her video camera, and motivated her to throw away the ones with no hope (R. I. P. toaster).