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Clutter-Free Holidays: Top Ways to Celebrate Without the Stress of Stuff

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Clutter-free holidays - Dr. Axe

How do you feel about adopting the “clutter-free holidays” mentality? Does the idea bring a sense of calm? Perhaps it would allow you to focus on what truly matters: Loved ones … and not buying loads of stuff!

Or maybe you feel just the opposite: Your chest tightens at the thought of not spoiling everyone on your gift-giving list. The notion of a Christmas tree without a sea of presents underneath it seems unfathomable. Downright Scrooge-like!

Wherever your opinion falls, one thing is clear: There are many proven physical and mental health benefits that stem from stepping away from materialism.

And before you close out this screen in protest, take a deep breath. You can still give gifts. You can still support your local economy. It just won’t look like traditional holiday gifting, and that’s okay. (Your friends who really don’t need those clunky bread makers and toxic scented candles thank you in advance!)

Giving Is Good for Us

When it comes to your personal health, it’s still a good idea to remain active in the gift-giving game.

Researchers who study the act of giving presents and related emotions (yes, that is a real job!) highlight some interesting findings:

  • Giving a gift to someone else creates more joy than buying a gift for yourself.
  • That gift doesn’t have to be a wrapped-up package; money, experiences and the gift of time together boosts happiness for the giver and receiver, too.
  • A gift-giver’s joy remains strong for days after giving.
  • Giving to others doesn’t seem to get old — happiness levels remain high even with repeated giving.
  • Experiential gifts produce greater relationship improvements compared to material gifts (AKA “stuff).
  • Interesting finding alert! You don’t have to participate in the experience  you gift someone for your relationship with them to grow in a positive way.
  • We’re more socially connected but lonelier today, but giving experience gifts help close the loneliness gap.

Generosity through giving, including volunteering your time, is connected to the following health benefits:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Less depression
  • Lower stress levels
  • Longer life
  • Greater happiness and satisfaction

One Quick Note

Now, before we go any further, let’s clarify something: There are millions of people currently living at, below (and even above) the official poverty line in the U.S. who are struggling to survive and thrive. I’m not suggesting skipping on physical gifts in this instance. (Perhaps, though, the greatest gift we could give would be to read and act on The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee.)

This article focuses on reducing excess stuff in our gifting — unnecessary clutter that’s actually holding us back, maxing out our credit cards and messing with our mental health.

What Does Clutter-Free Mean?

One definition of clutter is a collection of things lying about in an untidy mass. In a New York Times article, clutter researcher Joseph Ferrari, PhD, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, defines it as “an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces.”

So how do we give and receive in a way that doesn’t clutter up people’s lives, which can actually lead to physical and mental health troubles. We embrace the clutter-free holidays frame of mind!

Benefits of Less Clutter

In its extreme form, clutter can build up to the point of hoarding, which can pose immediate life-threatening risks. But even “everyday” clutter can trash our happiness levels.

Feeling like you’re living in a cluttered home elevates the stress level cortisol. Chronically high cortisol is linked to all sorts of health concerns, included:

  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood swings
  • Fertility problems
  • Acne
  • Increased anxiety
  • Higher risk of osteoporosis
  • Muscle aches and pains

The Procrastinator Angle

People who procrastinate are also more likely to already live amongst clutter, according to research. For these folks, delaying decisions about what to get rid of compounds the problem.  That means it’s even more important to focus on experiential gifts for the procrastinators in your life.

Avoiding material gifts may be a good idea for the more mature people in your life, too? Older adults with too much stuff report a significant decrease in life satisfaction.  A 2020 study published in Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services found that reducing clutter is beneficial for the aging brain.

The Climate Factor

Buying less stuff with a clutter-free holidays mentality is also a more climate-friendly approach. After all, it takes a lot of energy to mine materials, manufacture and ship out the “stuff” we clutter our homes with.

According to The Nature Conservancy and many leading schools of thought, the average carbon footprint for a person in the U.S. is 16 tons. That is one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050. Use Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Calculator to see where you fall.

How to Have a Clutter-Free Holiday (and Home)

You can cultivate a more clutter-free home for the holidays when it comes to giving and receiving.

Make it clear to your friends and family members that you don’t want any physical gifts for the holidays. Otherwise, who knows what gifts could arrive. A third pressure cooker? A juicer you won’t use? Unwanted clothing you may forget to return on time? Yet another #1 Dad mug?

You can avoid all of the awkward, unwanted gifts by being politely direct and providing “non-stuff” alternatives. (Remember, it’s good for people to give.)

Here are some examples:

  • Create a fundraiser for a charity you believe in and direct people there. (Make sure it’s a Charity Star Navigator 4-star rated nonprofit.)
  • Ask people to volunteer to a cause close to your heart and share their experience with you.
  • Suggest a coffee and library date or dinner date instead.
  • Ask for a membership to a cool museum or arboretum in your area.

Aside from reducing unwanted gifts, you can also minimize your own holiday decorating. It will be less to stow away later. Only keep holiday decorations that truly elicit joy and special memories and don’t add to your stress levels.

Clutter-Free Gift Giving Ideas

‘Togetherness Presents’:

  • Organize a family (or friends) volunteer effort — and make sure to include your favorite elders! A University of California, Berkeley, study discovered that elderly people who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers, regardless of if they smoked or exercised or not.
  • Set up a Project FeederWatch subscription to become “community scientists” and have fun tallying official bird counts for Cornell University scientists.
  • Coordinate a family nature stroll. Being in nature, also known as forest bathing, lowers blood pressure, improves your immune system and improves your brain in many key ways.
  • Take your kids, nieces or nephews out for a geocaching adventure. (Adventure Lab has fun “missions,” too.) When you get really good, you can create your own caches for others to enjoy.

Here are a few ideas to get your creative, giving mindset flowing…

  • Public library dates with your friends
  • Massage sessions
  • Volunteer in someone’s honor to a cause they care about
  • Donate to a cause your recipient is passionate about
  • Orchestra tickets
  • Sessions with a cleaner or professional organizer
  • Set up monthly visits to a retirement home with your friends (paint nails, do henna tattoos, share stores, etc.)
  • Movie passes
  • Theatre tickets
  • National or state park passes
  • Passes/membership to a museum or aquarium
  • Dinner dates (homemade or going out)
  • Bowling passes
  • Gentle yoga and relaxation classes
  • Gas cards
  • Oil changes
  • Babysitting services
  • Train passes
  • Sessions with a certified personal trainer (Look for trainers certified through the National Strength & Conditioning Association, National Academy of Sports Medicine or American College of Sports Medicine)

Final Thoughts

  • The holidays can bring many material gifts, which adds to our already cluttered lifestyles.
  • Clutter is bad for our health, both mentally and physically.
  • Living in a cluttered atmosphere can lead to higher cortisol levels.
  • High cortisol is linked to high blood pressure and anxiety, skin problems, increased risk of osteoporosis and more.
  • Giving gifts provides even more happiness than receiving them, but giving experience gifts creates the most happiness compared to material gifts.
  • Giving more clutter-free experiential gifts helps people keep their living spaces less cluttered, thereby reducing their stress levels.

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