Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Make Space for Happiness With Tracy McCubbin
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 387 of Live Happy Now. If you’re like most people, you probably have a little bit of extra stuff laying around the house. But by the time you finish listening to this episode, you just might be ready to let it go.
I’m your host, Paula Felps. And this week I am joined by decluttering expert, Tracy McCubbin, author of Make Space for Happiness: How to Stop Attracting Clutter and Start Magnetizing the Life You Want. Tracy has some surprising things to say about the relationship between clutter and happiness. And what straightening up the space in your house can do for this space in your head. Check it out.
[00:00:43] PF: Tracy, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:45] TM: Paula, thank you for having me. I love the title of your show. I love it.
[00:00:51] PF: Thank you so much. Yeah, it pretty much tells what we’re about.
[00:00:55] TM: You know, I think there’s this – I see it. I’m a professional declutter. I own a decluttering company. And I see with so many of my clients that they are waiting for something to happen to get happy, “Oh, if I get that bigger house, then I can start being happy.” Or, “Oh, if I just get my kids out of middle school, then I can be happy.” And my feeling from my own life is that there’s no waiting. It starts now. You’re not guaranteed tomorrow. You’re not – so much can happen. And so, sort of putting off finding the happiness, I think we waste a lot of time.
[00:01:32] PF: We do. And so, that’s why we’re here. We’re here to give the little shortcut.
[00:01:36] TM: I love. Happiness hacks.
[00:01:38] PF: That’s right. That’s right. Well, you have several. I’ve got to say, I spent time with your book over the weekend, and I love everything about it. Because you connect decluttering and happiness in a way that I just have not seen done. And it’s so concise. And you simplify it. And I guess before we really dive in, can you tell me how you discovered that connection between clutter and mental health?
[00:02:05] TM: Well, I kind of came to being a professional declutterer. I’ve had my company for 15 years. I have nine people who work for me. We are unbelievably busy. I’m so grateful for all of our clients. But over the years of doing this, I just started to see – I live in Los Angeles. I have a lot of very – like, celebrity clients, and wealthy clients, and all stratas. And I just started to see that there was no correlation between stuff and happiness.
And actually, what I really saw is that the more stuff people had, the more burden they are. It wasn’t storage units full of stuff, or big giant houses, that wasn’t equating happiness. And another component is I’m a child of a hoarder. My dad is an extreme hoarder. Diagnosed. And we’re dealing with that right now. I’ve also watched the extreme end of someone really being a prisoner to their stuff, and how it’s affected every relationship in his life. Everything about it.
For me, just working with people, and then starting to do my own research like you, like, “Well, how can we be a little happier? What can we do?” And sort of realizing that it comes back to the same principles. Get some exercise. You don’t have to run a marathon. Just take a walk around the neighborhood. Move around. Just move your body. Be of service. Help somebody outside of yourself. Connect with your friends. And have a gratitude practice. And know where in that stuff is buy more things. Nowhere in that as shopping will make you happier.
[00:03:48] PF: That’s such a great point, because how big of a problem is clutter in our world? I mean, when you said you have 15 people working for you?
[00:03:57] TM: Yeah, yeah.
[00:03:58] PF: Started answering my question right there.
[00:04:00] TM: Yeah. Yeah, we are in a clutter crisis. This country especially is in a clutter crisis. And it’s a perfect storm of a lot of things. And one of the things that I talked about in the book, Make Space for Happiness, is that what we don’t realize today, 2022, that we are being marketed to 24 hours a day.
Back in the old days, when I was a kid, I’m 57, there were three TV channels. You knew the commercials came on at 18 minutes. And you kind of knew the drill. And now, we are – commercials marketing to 24/7. And it’s also never been easier to shop. You don’t even have to put pants on now to go shopping. We’re just buying, buying, buying at this breathtaking, breathtaking speed, and we’re not any happier.
[00:04:56] PF: Yeah. One thing, as I was reading your book, it made me think about how – as a kid, you and I are about the same age. And as a kid growing up, you get the newspaper. And if there was like a sale going on, that was a big deal. Like, Sears has having a sale on something. And now it’s like you get the paper every – Okay, what’s on sale at Target this week? What’s on sale here? There’s just a constant barrage of print as well that’s hitting you.
[00:05:21] TM: Yeah. And we have a thing around our house. I was at the grocery store the other day, and it was like, literally, almost everything was on sale. Buy three, get – And I was like, “Wow! If everything’s on sale, nothing’s on sale.” That it’s sort of this. And also, speaking to you went school clothes shopping. I wasn’t getting a new outfit every weekend. You went school clothes shopping. And you got some stuff for holidays and your birthday. But this constant I need, I need, I need, I need something new, it’s really flipped our priorities.
And so, for me that was taking the jump of working with so many clients. Dealing with my dad. Just going like, “This isn’t fixing things. This isn’t fixing things.” And look, I say this, I’m not saying that you’re never going to shop again. I’m not saying there are some amazing people have done in podcast about not spent money for a year. And I think those are fantastic. I’m not saying that. I’m saying I want us to have an awareness. What are we bringing into our homes? Are we being mindful about it? Are we just shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping? And thinking that it’s going to give us happiness?
There’s a little bit of science – there’s a lot of bit of science, around shopping. And what happens, especially if you online shop, is you get a hit of dopamine when you put the thing in your cart and you hit by now. You get a hit of dopamine when the package shows up on your doorstep. You get a hit of dopamine when you open it. You’ve kind of had these little events where you’re like, “Oh, I’m a little happier. I’m a little happier. I’m a little happier.” But it’s not sustainable. It doesn’t stick around. So, then you’re like, “Oh, well, I got to buy more to get that feeling back.” Not unlike that first cookie made me feel good. Maybe the fifth one will make me feel better. You know?
And so, it’s understanding the shopping, the acquisition cycle, and really seeing what it does to go like, “Oh, right. I’m actually not getting any happiness from that.” And getting a good feeling for a few minutes.
One of the things that I want people to realize about clutter, especially about bringing it into your house, is that there are forces working against us. It’s not necessarily that you’re weak, or that we’re lazy, or we’re bad housekeepers. It’s that we’re being told to buy all the time. All the time. And I think when people kind of realize that, they can sort of see their part in it and also not beat themselves up so much.
[00:08:05] PF: Mm-hmm. Well, it happens once they look around and they say, “Well, I have all this stuff.” Do they then want to stop? Or do they keep going? Typically, when you’re working with people, what happens?
[00:08:16] TM: I define clutter as the stuff that gets in the way of what you really want to do. If you want to, every morning, cook yourself a really healthy breakfast so you can start your day off right, but your kitchen counter is covered with appliances that you don’t use, and mail, and all this stuff, and it’s not set up to cook, then that becomes clutter.
If your closet is so stuffed with clothes that getting dressed in the morning literally brings you to tears. I cannot tell you how many people are like, “I cry in the morning.” I’m like, “That’s not a good way to start your day.”
[00:08:49] PF: No, it’s not.
[00:08:50] TM: That’s when your stuff becomes clutter. It’s realizing when it’s crossed over, when it’s become clutter, and how that clutter is affecting you. Your home should be the place of respite. It should be the place of refilling your well. That you come home, and you sleep, and you nourish yourself, and you connect with your family, or your partner. Or if you’re by yourself, you take some downtime. But if you’re moving your stuff back and forth laterally to make room for yourself, that is adding stress to you. It’s understanding the effect that the clutter has on you. And in this book, it’s really about understanding why you’re bringing the clutter in. What do you think that’s missing? What’s the hole inside of yourself that you’re trying to magnetize something to fill it?
[00:09:38] PF: And one thing in your book, and you identify seven clutter blocks that keep us from getting rid of things that we don’t need, we don’t want, we don’t use. I loved the way that you break those down. Can you talk about those a little bit?
[00:09:53] TM: Absolutely. The clutter blocks are the emotional stories we tell ourselves about why we can’t let go stuff that we don’t want need or use. It’s a complicated story. And the funny thing is we all tell ourselves the same story. This ranges from everything from clutter block number one, which is my stuff keeps me stuck in the past. This is maybe you have grown kids, and you still have their rooms exactly the way they were. This may be clothes that you don’t fit into anymore.
And let’s acknowledge, let’s acknowledge that there is gravity, and your body is going to change over time. It’s going to change over time. Things that you wore 20 years ago, you may not be able to wear anymore. And I see so many people hanging on to that stuff, especially those clothes, “Well, I used to be that size.” And I remember – what that stuff does is tells you that your best days are behind you.
[00:10:52] PF: Oh my. Wow! What a powerful way to look at it.
[00:10:57] TM: Yeah, that you’re not moving forward. Another clutter block is clutter block number three, the stuff I’m avoiding, which is, full disclosure, that is my clutter block. That is I hate to open mail. I hate emails. Everything about being a grown up is really stressful for me. And so, I avoid it. But it doesn’t get better. That letter from the IRS, ignoring it is not going to make it better.
[00:11:26] PF: I got to confess, that’s my thing, too.
[00:11:29] TM: Yeah, it’s funny. Oftentimes, very productive, successful people fall into this, because they kind of are doing so much other stuff that they don’t deal with being a grown up. We got to be a grown up.
Another great clutter block, this is one of my favorites, and this came up so much during the pandemic, I’m not worth my good stuff. This is my people who have beautiful things, but don’t use them. They don’t burn the fancy candle. They don’t wear the nice sweater. They’re saving for a special occasion. It’s always this time down in the future.
And what I like to say is use the nice stuff. You’re worth it. Even if you’re just heating a piece of pizza, put it on the piece of China. Burn the nice candle. Why have all these beautiful things if you don’t use them? What are you saving them for?
Big part of my company, dClutterfly, our business is that we help families after someone has passed away. We’ll help empty out the house. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in homes where, literally, their wedding presents from 40 years ago that were never opened, that were never used. That they’re sort of waiting for that special occasion. And then life comes and goes and they never used it. I’m like use it today. Today is the special day. Today is the special day.
Another great one, and I really see this. This is clutter block number six. And I really see this with people, especially women kind of between 40 and 60. We’re really starting to kind of get the impact of being the sandwich generation. Still have kids. And your parents are aging. And clutter box number six is trapped with other people’s stuff. And this is really about inheriting. Someone has passed away. Someone has gifted you things that you’re sort of got all this stuff from someone else and you feel guilty letting go of it. But you have no use for it.
I work with people all the time who have rented a storage unit to pay to store the furniture that they don’t want from their parents or grandparents, but they can’t imagine getting rid of it. They’re really trapped in this cycle of holding on to things that they don’t – will never use, but can’t let go of them.
[00:13:53] PF: In that case, you’re really dealing with a lot of guilt, aren’t you?
[00:13:58] TM: Yeah, so much guilt. So much guilt. And what I really say, this one, is start to have the conversations now. Everyone is so nervous, or they think it’s morbid, or it’s too emotional to talk about what happens when someone passes. But I am very big on getting your house in order, getting your stuff in order. Telling people what really is valuable. Not what’s imagined valuable. Who you want to have stuff?
I have a lot of my – I call them my little old lady clients. They’re sort of 85 and above. And they’re at their last chapter. And they’re enjoying it. And they have started – I see more and more. They’re starting to give their jewelry away now before they pass with the idea being – And one of my first clients said it to me. She was like, “I’m never going to wear this ring again. I can’t get it on my fingers. But I want to see my granddaughter wear it.” I don’t want to wait until I’m gone. I’m going to go to lunch with her and see it on her finger and know that she’s enjoying it. And so, I think that we, when this generation starts to do that, accept it. Understand. Don’t shy away from it. Really know, “Oh, they’re celebrating. And this is something that we can share together.”
[00:15:16] PF: I love that. And you don’t have to wait until you’re 85 to do that, right?
[00:15:19] TM: Nope. No, no, no. My niece just went up to visit my mom. And she’s like, “Nana was giving me all this stuff. What does that mean?” And I was like, “Because Nana doesn’t need it anymore. Nana’s retired. Take the cute clothes. She wants to enjoy it with you.”
I think that if you’re out there, and you’re listening, and you’re trapped with other people’s stuff, remember this. You don’t really want this stuff. You want the connection to the person who’s passed. And so, we think by keeping all the stuff, we’re going to keep the connection. And what I say is, if you’re keeping more stuff than you’re comfortable with, if you’re keeping stuff and it’s a financial burden, if your garage is full of stuff, you start to actually lessen the connection because you start to get resentful.
And so, what I’m saying is maybe you just keep a small amount so that you can truly be happy. And when you look at it, you remember that person enjoying. Not like, “Ugh! I have a $400 a month storage in it full of my grandma’s furniture. You know? That really honor that connection. I think that people are so – they think they have to keep everything. And it really becomes a burden. I mean, it’s called trapped with other people’s stuff for a reason. That people are really stuck. And I do gently joke with my clients, because they’re like, “I don’t know how I’m going to get rid of this. My mom would be so mad.” And I was like, “I’ve been doing this for a long time. No one has ever come back from the great beyond to be mad at you about –”
And I feel like if people – Honestly, if people – If you were able to, let’s say, have an hour with someone who passed away just by magic, they would want you to be happy. They wouldn’t want you to be burden. They wouldn’t – I really know this with all my heart, because they’re at the end with so many people. And so, if you’re in this, if you’re trapped with this, just change your lens on it. Just look at it a little bit of a different way. Would that person really want you to be beholden to their stuff?
[00:17:28] PF: Yeah. Yeah, because you tell a really compelling story in the book about the woman had a whole storage unit full of precious moments, figurines, and it was costing money, and it was creating problems in her marriage.
[00:17:40] TM: Yeah, exactly, exactly. That she was paying to store these things that were her mother’s. And she had a very fraught relationship with her mother. And she was like, “Well, this was so important to her.” But it was really financially a big burden to them. And so, here she was financially putting her and her husband. And they were trying to start a family. They were trying to do all these things. And they have this giant storage bill for stuff that she didn’t even want. And so, it’s like she had to get real with what she was doing and the choices that she was making. And that those precious memories weren’t her precious memories.
[00:18:15] PF: Right. And so, how big a shift is it? Because it’s not as simple as you sitting down with someone and saying, “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do.” And then they say, “Oh, that works.” And now everything’s fine. How big a shift is it to turn around? Because we didn’t get into this spot overnight.
[00:18:33] TM: Well, I’ll use my favorite expression. Rome was not cluttered in a day. I think that it’s a shift. It’s a mindset shift for sure. And I think to start – before you even start decluttering, before you even get into it, the most important thing is to figure out why. Why do you want to make this change? Because the change will never stick if you don’t have a compelling why. Do you want to declutter and have less stuff because you want to have friends over for dinner and feel comfortable at that? Do you want to be able to shut the door and go on vacation and not worry about it? Do you want to downsize to a smaller house? What is your why?
And notice, in all of those whys that I list, it’s never about, “Well, I want to just be a good housekeeper.” It’s not what it’s about, right? It’s just not there. And it’s not about the shame. It’s about what’s the positive actionable thing that you hope to do by having less stuff?
One of my favorite phone calls I ever got from a client, she had a cute little apartment, but the stuff had taken over. She had two bedrooms in it that she couldn’t use. She hadn’t had friends over in I think she said like 10 years. And so, we decluttered. And she did great.
And a couple of weeks after we worked together, she called me and she said, “A friend of mine called me and said, “Hey, I’m just down the street. Do you want to meet for coffee?” And she said in the first time in 10 years, “I could have them come over to my house and have coffee.” And she said, “The joy that that brought me, that I wasn’t like rushing to meet them at a coffee shop, or embarrassed about my house.” She said it changed everything.
[00:20:25] PF: That’s amazing.
[00:20:26] TM: Yeah. That for me is what’s your why? Why do you want to go on this journey? And you know, Paula, it can also simply be as simple as like I just want a little empty space. I just want a little corner to breathe. I just want some peace. Right? It can be that. And so, it’s definitely click into your why. Go easy on yourself. Start small. Be aware of why you’ve held on to the clutter. Why you’re bringing the clutter in. Just start to make some changes. And don’t be a weekend warrior. Don’t think you’re going to get it done in one weekend. It’s just not. You’re just not. I think we got to go a little easier on ourselves.
[00:21:14] PF: And then how do we remind ourselves about our goals and our purpose in this journey? Because just like a diet, or an exercise program, you can get gung ho at the beginning, and then get off track.
[00:21:27] TM: You know, sometimes it’s as simple as writing it out on a piece of paper and sticking at your desk where you see it every day. It’s some visual reminder. It’s also when you do declutter, like, let’s say you do a shelf in your linen closet, or you do the junk drawer in your kitchen, take a moment to see how good that feels. When that the next time you’ve got to go find a rubber band, you know exactly where they are and they’re not old, broken ones. Go like, “Oh, right. That’s why I wanted to get decluttered, because it works. This just made my life easier.” If you celebrate those wins, if you celebrate how it feels and the change that came out of it, then the behavioral change starts to stick.
[00:22:09] PF: That’s terrific. And what about, at the top of the show, we talked about the constant marketing? The emails? The text alerts? All these things? How do we kind of put a bubble around ourselves to minimize or eliminate as many of those as we can?
[00:22:27] TM: I think it’s understanding, especially around social media. Look, I love social media, I have a big Instagram and TikTok presence. I love connecting with people. I do these five things you can declutter in under five-minute challenges. It’s great. But also, having literacy, media literacy and understanding it’s still a sales platform. People are still selling to you.
Somebody went said to me about television years ago. They said, “Oh, the shows, we’re just the filler between the commercials.” You know? And so, I think it’s having literacy and understanding, “Oh, right, that influencer is not my friend. I may like them, but they’re not.” Even though it looks like it’s my girlfriend saying to me, “Oh, try this thing. That’s not the case.” And so, understanding the reality of it, right? Understanding the cycle of acquisition. When you order something online, “Bing!” You get a dopamine hit when you buy it. The next day, “Bing!” When it shows up on your doorstep, you get a dopamine hit, “Bing!” It’s this. And that dopamine hit doesn’t last. So, you’re like, “Oh, I got to buy more to get it again.” Just really understanding what – just educating yourself. Like, everything, right? Educating yourself. How can you – when you understand, “Oh, these things can hack my happiness.”
One of the most fascinating things, they did a study, and I think at Yale. And they found out, if you write a handwritten thank you note, you raise your serotonin for 30 days.
[00:24:14] PF: Oh, my gosh!
[00:24:16] TM: One handwritten note, you raise your serotonin for 30 days. That’s amazing. Like, amazing, amazing, amazing.
[00:24:26] PF: That’s a heck of a payoff for one night.
[00:24:27] TM: It’s a heck of a payoff. And if you think about that, happiness hack, that not only are you raising your own serotonin, but you’re also doing it for someone who gets the note, right? You’re being of service. You’re having a gratitude practice. It’s those little things that makes such a big difference.
[00:24:48] PF: Yeah. And let’s talk, because I know I have to let you go, but I don’t want to. Talk about the payoff in this of reducing clutter and what it does for our happiness? Because you spelled it out so beautifully in your book. Can you tell us that?
[00:25:03] TM: Absolutely. First of all, on the kind of simplest scientific clutter equals stress. They’ve proven it. They’ve done millions of studies. Visual clutter, it raises our cortisol levels. And women especially, and especially women who are perimenopause and menopausal, it is – You know, it’s a real thing, this cortisol. It’s kind of where the tummy comes from. And more clutter raises your stress.
The other important piece of information is that every piece of clutter in your house is a decision you have to make. Do I want this? Where does it live? Will I ever use it? Do I spend too much money for it? And all of those constant decisions put you in decision fatigue, which is basically your brain is just tired of making decisions. So, what will default to making bad decisions.
If you think about the science of this clutter, it’s definitely working against you. This isn’t – I really want people to take this in. This isn’t about being a perfect housekeeper. This isn’t about looking like a page from Pinterest. This is about creating a home that supports you. A home that makes you happy.
[00:26:22] PF: And everybody has a different level of what they consider cluttered. And I have a friend who is very proud of being a maximalist. And I’m very much of a minimalist. And for her, it’s not stressful. It stresses me out to go to her house, but she’s great with it. Different people do have kind of like this different barometer of what they consider clutter, right?
[00:26:45] TM: Of course. Yeah. And like in our house, my partner, his kids are older. I don’t have kids. We’re two people. But if I go into a house where there’s a family of five, it’s a very different amount of stuff. That’s why there’s no recipe for, “Oh, you should only have 30 books. And oh, you should only –” No. What works for you. But the caveat to that is, is it really working for you?
[00:27:09] PF: Right?
[00:27:10] TM: Is it really working for you? If you walk in your closet in the morning to get dressed, and you burst into tears, I’m going to tell you, it’s not working for you. And that’s another thing on the decluttering journey that I tell people, is just spend a day or two going through your house, living your life, and seeing where the log jam happens. Where are you not cooking a healthy meal because the kitchen is too cluttered? Is your bathroom full of expired makeup? And all that kind of stuff. Where’s the log jam? And start there.
[00:27:47] PF: That’s terrific. Tracy, you have so much we can learn from you. I really am excited to tell our listeners about your book. We’re going to tell them how to get your book. How to follow you on social media, because they can get all kinds of tips and great advice that way. And thank you so much for coming on the show. Because like I said, you’ve just got a lot that we can learn from you.
[00:28:07] TM: Thank you. I love it. I love connecting with people. And I really love connecting with people who are on a happiness journey, and realizing that so much of it is in our own hands. And there are things – Look, life is hard. We just got through – I don’t know if it’ll ever be replicated in my lifetime what we just went through, you know? And so, the things that we can do within our power to bring ourselves and our community a little more happiness, I think we got to be both feet in. I think we got to – how can I make my world a little bit better?
[00:28:45] PF: Yeah. And this is such a great way. It’s simple. Not necessarily easy, but it can be done.
[00:28:52] TM: Exactly.
[00:28:55] PF: That was Tracy McCubbin, author of Make Space for Happiness: How to Stop Attracting Clutter and Start Magnetizing the Life You Want. If you’d like to learn more about Tracy, follow her on social media, or download a free chapter from her book, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. And until then, this is Paula Phelps reminding you to make every day a happy one.