A happier closet?

“I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.” — Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

With autumn on its way, I’ve been pitching and sorting; letting go of things that no longer serve my lifestyle. On Labor Day weekend, I stuffed nearly half of my wardrobe and a pile of books into five giant trash bags, then dragged them to the front porch for the Vietnam Veterans of America donation pick-up.

I’ve been inspired by The Happiness Project, a self-help guide I’m reading for our neighborhood book group. It’s the perfect time of year for a book about discovering what makes us happy — and how to employ simple changes that add up to contentment.

Author Gretchen Rubin is a practical soul with a real life — pretty much like the rest of us. She admits she’s inspired by “more radical happiness projects,” including Thoreau’s solitary sabbatical on Walden Pond (which I’ve always admired) as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s exotic spiritual wanderings in Eat, Pray, Love (which I found a little flaky). But Rubin is a working wife and mother, and not the sort who’s inclined to do anything outlandish on the path to enlightenment. She simply wanted to to squeeze more juice out of her life — in her own apartment in New York.

So she embarked on a year of researching “happiness.”

As Rubin discovered, most people get a huge energy boost — which leads to happy feelings — when they create a sense order in their physical surroundings. If your eyes are starting to glaze over, take heart: De-cluttering is only one stop on the author’s quest for happiness. Later in the book, she also tackles the deeper philosophical theories on the subject.

But happiness begins at home, so that’s where she started.

“I went straight to the festering heart of my household clutter: my own closet,” Rubin explains.  While she didn’t hire an architect or a closet organizer to redesign her storage space, she employed what she calls the most “essential clutter tool” available to everyone: trash bags.

“Instead of making people feel more satisfied, a wide range of choices can paralyze them.” — Gretchen Rubin

“When I finished, I had four bags full of clothes, and I could see huge patches of the back of my closet,” Rubin recalls. “I no longer felt drained; instead, I felt exhilarated.”  After purging her closet, Rubin suddenly had easy access to pieces she would actually wear. Which meant she had more to wear.

“Although people believe they like to have a lot of choice, in fact, having too many choices can be discouraging. Instead of making people feel more satisfied, a wide range of choices can paralyze them.”

Amen to that. A longtime collector, I tend to hoard old prom dresses, “skinny” jeans that used to fit, Halloween costumes, and bridesmaid gowns that could pass for Halloween costumes. And having spent the last two years working as a background extra in Michigan films, I’ve accumulated an “extra” wardrobe of thrift-shop costumes that compete for space in the closets of our spare bedrooms. I wear only a fraction of these “choices” daily. I end up wearing the same pieces because I’m too lazy — or overwhelmed — to weed through my own wardrobe jungle.

Following Rubin’s example, I brought several trash bags upstairs and got busy. In the process, I discovered buried treasure in the back of my closet, plus dozens of pieces that had gone out of fashion ages ago. Not to mention all the stuff that wouldn’t fit.

So I divided my potential discards into two piles: Clothing I could wear at our three-season home in western Michigan, and clothing to donate to charity. I find it’s much easier to part with costly fashion mistakes when I know that someone in need will use and enjoy them.

As happiness expert Gretchen Rubin discovered, weeding out a closet is more than a simple act of getting organized for a new season. By making it easier to find the clothes I really want to wear, I free up the morning energy I need to devote to more important activities — and things that make me happy. The kitchen pantry is next on the list. — Cindy La Ferle