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74: Is Your Stuff Stressing You Out?

Apr 13, 2021

Minimalism could improve your mental health. Psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Chan tells us more. Plus, the guys agree to take the 30-day declutter challenge and see how it impacts their emotional well-being.

Episode Transcript

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Dr. Chan: If this hypothetical person, if they're doing well and they don't think it's a problem and the people around them don't think it's a problem, well, it's not a problem. But if they're struggling and the people around them feel that they're struggling, I think this minimalism idea is a perfect way to start unpacking, uncluttering, and improve their mental health.

Scot: Here, we like to think about your health as a currency that enables you to do all the things you want to do. The podcast "Who Cares About Men's Health," giving you information, inspiration to better understand and engage in your health so you'll feel better today and in the future.

My name is Scot, I'm the manager of, and I'm a guy who cares about men's health.

Troy: I'm Dr. Troy Madsen. I am an emergency physician at the University of Utah, and I care about men's health.

Dr. Chan: I'm Dr. Benjamin Chan, a child psychiatrist here at the University of Utah, and I care about men's health.

Scot: So I saw a documentary at the first of the year called "The Minimalists." And I found this really, really fascinating because they make the claim in "The Minimalists" that I'm engaging in a minimal lifestyle can help with your mental health. So that is today's topic, mental health and minimalism.

Now, when they talk about minimalism, it's not about living with just the bare necessities. It's basically this philosophy that you ask yourself what things add value to your life and how might your life be better if you owned fewer material possessions.

So I wanted to go around the room, first of all, and find out everybody's philosophy on their possessions, if they've ever gone through like a purge of some sort. So let's go ahead and start with you, Mitch. Talk to us.

Mitch: Oh, hey. I'm here. I'm back.

Troy: We got Mitch back. We miss you, Mitch.

Dr. Chan: I missed you too, Mitch.

Mitch: I'm here. So I actually did a huge purge a couple of years ago. I was in between jobs. I was at kind of a low point in my life and I was reading self-help books because that's what you do. And one of the ones I came across was all about the joy of minimalist living. And I'm like, "Okay, sure." I looked around and I'm like, "Oh, I suddenly hate all my stuff."

And this particular book, she isn't like . . . I know Marie Kondo is really big right now, but she was not this one who was trying to find joy in your items. There was this seven-step process where you took everything out and there was a step where you took 10 to 15 minutes to look at all your stuff and question how did you get to this point? Why do you have these things in your life?

Scot: Wow.

Mitch: Oh my god. I'm like, "Why do I have 40 micro USB cables? What have I done in my life to need all of those?" And I got rid of maybe 75% of everything I owned. I donated it to local charities, Big Brothers Big Sisters stuff, gave away furniture, gave away everything, and I kind of cataloged my whole journey online and it was piles and piles and piles. It was almost a dumpster full of stuff by the time I was done. And since then, I've had a relationship with stuff where if it doesn't have a purpose, I get anxious that it's in my home.

It's interesting when you are in a relationship with someone else who likes to hold on to every cool box that something comes in and likes to have things up on their shelves and buys things that just fill up the house. And so there's always been this new kind of tension that I think may have swung the complete opposite way.

Scot: Troy, what's your relationship with stuff?

Troy: See, I'm not quite the polar opposite of Mitch, but probably close. I'm kind of a packrat. It's funny. Laura, my spouse, just said to me the other day, "We need to start clearing out some of your stuff. I don't know why you still have high school biology papers."

And I said, "These are important. This is part of my life and my training." And she's like, "You really don't need to look back at this, at the process of meiosis or whatever you have in here." And I was like, "Well, that's probably right, but still."/p>

So I'm kind of a packrat, and I'm struggling with this a little bit because I did go through a bit of a purge about three years ago. We did some remodeling as we were moving stuff out. Laura's like, "Hey, you've got to get rid of some of this stuff."

And just recently, I was looking for some suitcases and we had a couple of really big suitcases and I'd gotten rid of them because we never used them. You never take them as carry-on, and I needed the big suitcases. I was like, "Why did I do that purge?" Or I'm looking for a pair of pants like, "Oh, I got rid of the pair of that pair of pants." I've got to say I struggle with this a bit.

I tend to hold on to things, and maybe it is kind of more of that sentimental thing. Mitch, when you talk about Jonathan and how he holds on to things, I understand where he's coming from because I kind of do the same thing. And now, obviously, I have a spouse who is saying, "Why are you holding on to all of this?"

Scot: Dr. Chan, how about you? What's your relationship with stuff?

Dr. Chan: Oh, I can tell you about a purge fail. When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards and comic books. And I think this is perfect venue to talk about this, because this is a men's health podcast. I think there are a lot of men out there who collected baseball cards and comic books.

Mitch: Baseball cards, yeah.

Dr. Chan: And I just remember hours and hours of going to the local 7-Eleven, the comic book store, collecting all of these things.

And I liked what Troy said. I think there is a nostalgia there. When I really think about it, my dad collected baseball cards and comic books. And I still remember to this day when I was 8 or 9 years old, he produced all these comic books and baseball cards from the '50s and '60s and he gifted them to me. I just remember reading them with him, and so there's just this memory I have with these. Just the smell and certain issues, and I struggle to get rid of this.

Troy has talked about it causing problems with his spouse, and I can say the same thing because I have this . . . I just have boxes and boxes of these baseball cards and comic books and I can not make myself give them away. When I rationally think about it, they're just pictures on a piece of cardboard and they're just these stories and a little tiny book, and they mean so much more to me.

There's such an emotional value I attach to these baseball cards and I just have this image, "I'm going to give these to my son one day." I don't think kids nowadays are into baseball cards or comic books. They're more iPads and playing "Among Us" and all this other stuff. So yeah, that's a purge fail.

I don't know. Do any of you have baseball cards or comic books? I'd be curious . . .

Troy: Oh, yeah. Comic books. I loved "Garfield" growing up. Loved "Garfield." Got all the comic books. I mean, I can't get rid of those things. I totally agree. My brother collected baseball cards more than I did, but I've got like these old basketball cards and baseball cards in my stuff too. Same thing. Can't get rid of them.

Scot: It's amazing the story that you tie up in those. So I had comic books too I collected. I recently got rid of them. I just kind of let go of that whole thing. Part of what allowed me to do that is I learned that if you wanted to read them, you can do it all online now for like a monthly membership fee. When was the last time I ever took one out? I moved those comic books to five different cities and never opened the box.

A long time ago, I had a stuff rant. I called it my stuff rant, this urge to get stuff. And then this urge to get stuff makes us have a job so we can earn more money to get more stuff. And then we have to buy a house so we have a place to keep that stuff. And then pretty soon we've bought so much stuff we have to add on a garage to store more of that stuff. And then I have to buy insurance to insure my stuff. And then that kind of keeps me tacked down to I always have to have a job to earn money to keep and store my stuff and buy more stuff.

Dr. Chan: Scot, to add upon that, I think it's very unique in our society is then people buy storage facilities. Again, it just blows my mind. Again, no judging anyone on this call who owns a storage facility, but that I feel is uniquely Western and American that we own so much stuff we can't keep it in our house, we can't keep it in our garage. We have to buy space elsewhere and store stuff. It just blows my mind. So, yeah, I agree, Scot.

I was thinking about before this podcast what I could talk about. Pat Riley, he was a coach of the Lakers back in the '80s. He's still involved in basketball now. He called it the "disease of more." Scot, when you were talking about everything you've got to keep on adding, I just feel it's very applicable.

As humans, we tend to just want more and more and more, and we're never really satisfied with the status quo. We live in a very large consumer society, and it's so easy now with Amazon and everything is at our fingertips and we almost expect that . . . it's a hit. It's a dopamine hit, to bring in psychiatry.

Scot: Totally.

Dr. Chan: When buy it and then it shows up on our doorstep and then we unpack it, it's like Christmas morning 300 days of the year, and it's incredibly addictive.

Scot: And then just like Christmas morning, you play with it for an hour and then all of a sudden it's all gone and you're just left with the regret of the money you spent on it.

Troy: But it's such a dopamine hit. Ben, I usually forget what I've bought by the time it arrives. So it truly is a dopamine hit. I'm opening this package like, "What is this?" And there it is.

But speaking of storage units, that was the wake-up for me when we did our big purge. I was thinking about getting a storage unit and I said, "Wait a second. Your house is big enough. There are not a lot of people living here. Why do you need a storage unit? This is crazy." Yeah, that was a wake-up for me. I thought, "Wow, okay. We need to get rid of some stuff."

Scot: Let's talk about this notion of stuff then and the notion of minimalism and our mental health. There are a lot of different avenues we can go down about this, but, Dr. Chan, I'm going to go ahead and let you take the lead. When they say that getting rid of stuff can help you in your mental state, what do you think they mean by that?

Dr. Chan: It's a saying we have in psychiatry, that you think about the past too much and you get depressed, and you think about the future too much, you get anxious.

So the items can we kind of talked about, that anchors to the past, for better or worse they sometimes get in the way. And so by letting stuff go, it's a powerful symbol that you're turning away from the past and you're not thinking about those things as well.

Now, I don't think any of us on this call think we should get rid of everything in our life because all of us probably have something beautiful from the past that ties us to those really wonderful nostalgic memories. But if there is so much stuff and it's just cluttering your house, in a way it also clutters your mind. So that is what they talk about just letting go. Minimalism is just thinking and pivoting towards the future, not being tied down by all these items.

Mitch: One of the interesting things that the purge that I did talked about was letting go of the things that you thought you would do. And so there's this kind of . . . where they're like . . .

Scot: That's like what garage sale is. It's just a yard full of broken dreams and operations.

Dr. Chan: Well, that was kind of it. They have you do this mental health check. It was vaguely cult-y as I'm reading through this, and you go on the blogs and these people have given their lives over to it. But there were these ideas that it was like, "Did you decide you were going to get way into a hobby and then you bought all this stuff and then you found out you didn't actually enjoy it and it's not a part of your now, but you hold onto it because you might one day?"

This idea of, "Did you use to play guitar in high school and you haven't played it in 20-something years, but you keep the guitars and all of the amps and everything else? And how much of your now is being taken up by potential future?" And so at that point, that object becomes an object of anxiety and of guilt of regret and everything else.

And then same with even, "Why do you have 50 cables?" Why do you have 50 of the same charger? Well, I might have a device I need it one day. There is a potential I might need this thing one day, and then it gets into prepper behavior and things like that. It was really interesting to take a real look at the stuff and be like, "Oh, man, how much of the stuff I keep around is anxiety objects? How many of it is nostalgia and depression objects? How many of it is . . ."

Troy: Fascinating. I'm feeling super guilty. I'm sitting right now about five feet from a closet that has at least five phone cords in it, like old landline cords. When am I ever going to need a landline cord again? I've got old cell phones in there. When am I ever going to need those? For whatever reason I've held on to them. Maybe it is nostalgia. I don't know. But your point is well made, Ben. As you're saying that, that really hits home.

Part of my big purge when I did the purge was getting rid of a lot of things from my childhood: trophies, stuffed animals, and something called seed art. When I was in fifth grade, we had an art instructor who would cut out stuff in plywood, like my name and different basketball teams and stuff, and then we would use these little seeds and placed them on there one-by-one, colored seeds with glue. And I kept these things for 30 years and I finally got rid of them, but it was hard to get rid of them.

But looking at those, it was kind of anchoring in the past and maybe some good memories but also kind of holding onto the past. But again, it's kind of tough but as I look back now, it was all right to get rid of it

Scot: Did you take pictures of it? That was my strategy.

Troy: I did.

Scot: I took pictures of a few things because I figured it's more the image of the memories that it brought back. And if I wanted to ever go to that, then I could as opposed to actually keeping the thing.

Troy: Exactly. I did. I had read that, "Take pictures of it and then you've got that memory of it." So I did take pictures of it, but then I threw them in the trash. It was really hard to do.

Dr. Chan: I've also read too that sometimes people do ceremonies. There's a ceremonial goodbye. And again, just to kind of explore this to all of you because I feel that we're all similar, I get sometimes attached to cars that I've bought, like my 1990 Honda Civic. It got me through high school, college, and grad school. I loved that thing and it was just breaking down.

So I remember the last time I took it in because I knew I was trading it in and I was going to get $1,000 for it. I went on one last drive. One last drive, listened to my favorite songs, had the old CD player. Do all of you remember how the CD players used to be so important with the little album of CDs? And I just went for one last drive around the city before I turned it in, and it was hard. It was really hard.

Do any of you get connected to your vehicles? There are a lot of memories with vehicles.

Troy: You're killing me. This is a super emotional session for me.

Dr. Chan: I'm a psychiatrist. I'll send you my bill.

Troy: Exactly. I just said goodbye to my Mazda Miata.

Scot: You did?

Troy: I have taken so much heat for that car. A Mazda Miata. I bought this in residency and I've had it since then. A Mazda Miata is a completely impractical car when you live in a place where it snows for eight months of the year. So it would just sit in the garage forever.

And then I had it down at my parents' house and finally, my dad's like, "Well, what are you going to do with this car?" I said, "I haven't driven it in three years. It just isn't practical where we live," and gave it away. My dad has it. I think my sister is going to end up taking it. She's back East. But that was a hard thing to do. I get very attached to cars too. And I think it's inherited. My dad is very attached to cars. He keeps old cars around forever. So I think there's a certain inherited component to that, or maybe learned.

Scot: I had some identity stuff wrapped up. So I did a purge a couple years ago. And I was going to hold off on this because I'll tell you why in a second. But I had this realization I was creating identity with my things and that identity was I was trying to be my dad.

My dad was a rancher. Any time you needed a tool, he had the right tool at the right time. Any time you needed a piece of scrap iron, he'd go out to the scrap iron heap. So I kind of inherited those things.

And as I was getting rid of stuff because we moved and I had to downsize, the table saw, the power tools, the other tools that I hardly ever used, it dawned on me I was trying to be my dad. And that was particularly hard to let go of, that identity.

I found that identity tied up in a couple of things. I used to brew beer and I just kind of lost interest with that. I was a beer brewer. So that whole notion of losing your identity, I think, was something that played into it for me.

I just had an epiphany. I'm sorry. I'm going back to the creating my identity. I think that was powerful because it allowed me to go, "I'm not my dad. I am me," and it helped me kind of discover or allow me to then not always put myself down because I wasn't living up to some ideal in some way, shape, or form. Like, "I should be handy like my dad was." Well, I'm kind of not. I'm all right.

So it's kind of like letting go of the past, and when you let go of something, then you can replace it with something new. And that something new would be my own identity.

Dr. Chan: Scot, that's really profound. I love it. I don't know if we can top that. I think that was a precious moment.

Troy: It is.

Scot: Let's pivot for a second. So I want to know if you guys are up for an experiment. I want to do an experiment to see if minimalism, the process of getting rid of these things and then perhaps having fewer things, everything has its purpose, everything has its place . . . mental health and minimalism experiment. Are you guys game for getting rid of some stuff and tracking that journey and seeing how it makes you feel? So I don't know if Mitch has enough stuff to get rid of.

Troy: This isn't just a quiz. We have to take some action and actually get rid of some things.

Scot: Yeah. So here's my proposal. For the next 30 days . . . now this is what the minimalists proposed in their documentary. And you can find it on Netflix if you want to watch it. For every day for 30 days, you rid of something. But this is the trick. On Day 1, you get rid of one thing. On Day 2, it's two things. On Day 3, it's four things. On day 4, it's eight things. It doubles every day.

Troy: Scot, you're making me anxious. I was going to say one per day I think I could do, but this doubling . . .

Mitch: It's the 100 things challenge, isn't it?

Scot: This, actually, when you do the math comes up to 400 or 500 things.

Troy: Yeah. That's huge. I think I can do one per day.

Scot: Is a pair of socks two things? I mean, we'd have to set the rules, but then what I'd like to do is when we figure out what we're comfortable with purging as we do this journey, every episode we'll do just a little check-in and talk about what we experienced, what we went through, if it did impact our mental health, any observations we had.

Troy: Question. Does my biology paper count as one thing, or if it's 10 pages, does that count as 10 things?

Mitch: If you're holding on to all of those, I might count each one as one if it's going to help you move past them.

Dr. Chan: Troy, that's a deep question. I think we need to get IRB approval before we go.

Troy: Exactly. Yeah. That sounds like it needs a panel to review it and ponder it for about three months before they get back to me.

Dr. Chan: I think that's a great idea. I'm up for it.

Scot: All right. So Dr. Chan is in. Mitch, are you in?

Mitch: Absolutely.

Scot: All right. Troy, you in?

Troy: I don't know, Scot. Seriously, I don't know if I'm in. I can do one per day.

Scot: So we have to negotiate the number of things a day then for you it sounds like.

Troy: This is a huge number. I mean, this doubling every day is . . . wow.

Mitch: Well, maybe there's a point in which you stop, that you can't do it.

Troy: I think I would probably reach the end of the first week and I'd be like, "Okay, that's it." Because if we're doubling every day, that'd be . . . what? We'd be up to like 30 things by Day 7. That's a crazy number.

Scot: I think you'd be up to more than that because Day 5 you're to 16. Day 6, you're 32. Day 7 you'd be double 32, 64.

Troy: Sixty-four things by Day 7.

Dr. Chan: Scot, to be clear though, these are things that belong to us, not family members. Because I would love to go into my children's bedrooms and do a purge, because they have way too many toys.

Scot: I don't know. That's a good question, because Troy and I don't have families. You do.

Troy: I have dogs though and I can get rid of a lot of dog stuff. I wasn't going to say I'm going to get rid of dogs. I said dog stuff.

Scot: I mean, is that part of the problem? Is the stuff that other people in our lives own, like our kids, our pets, our roommates, part of the problem? Could you get away with getting rid of kids' toys, Dr. Chan, do you think?

Dr. Chan: If I pass this exam, I would love to get . . . let me share a dad hack with you right now. Then you can have me come back on another podcast and talk about dad hacks.

So something that we do is when they're asleep at night, we gather some of their toys and put them in a box and hide it downstairs. And then like a month later, we just rotate those toys back into the circulation and they're like, "Oh, these are new toys." Actually, these are toys that you had in your room like a month ago. But we have this circulation kind of.

Yeah, we have removed . . . if we don't remove the toys in front of them, they don't notice they're gone. If we remove them while they're in the room, then they start to kind of get upset.

Scot: The observation you made too is interesting. I've read before about this whole thing. Another benefit of getting rid of stuff is then you cherish the stuff that you have. Instead of having 86 things that have sentimental value back to your mom or dad, have one or two, and then you're able either put some . . . instead of them living in a box, maybe you can put them someplace in an area of prominence where you can see them and take them in and they just mean more to you.

And it sounds like the same thing with your kids. The toys mean more when there are fewer of them and when they're kind of new and novel. And in all of that clutter, I think a lot of times we lose track of the things that we have. We just don't see them anymore.

Dr. Chan: And technically, since my children are little and they don't work, I own all the toys. I feel really great about donating them because we just have a lot.

Scot: All right. Well, maybe the number of things is dependent on the person. Maybe Troy's not comfortable with that. Maybe he's more comfortable with whatever day number it is, that's how many things you have to get rid of. So on Day 8, you have to get rid of eight things. Maybe instead of the doubling, it just corresponds with the day. So you can start out with that first thing. Maybe Dr. Chan wants to do the doubling. I don't know.

Troy: It's tough. I'll give it a shot, Scot. And I'm not saying this just for radio drama. This is making me anxious, just thinking about this number of items. I'm just like, "What am I going to get rid of?" Yeah, I can start with the USB . . . or not the USB. The landline cables. Yeah, I can get rid of those.

Scot: There's four things right there.

Dr. Chan: Troy, in your kitchen, there are probably kitchen utensils or plates that you've not touched in a long time.

Troy: It's true. There are. They're definitely there.

Dr. Chan: Scot, you're not asking . . . I mean, ideally, if these items have some personal meaning to us . . . you're just talking about items throughout the house, right? I mean, they don't have to be from . . .

Scot: No, they don't have to have personal meeting. We're just talking about decluttering. If you choose an item with personal meaning that is just something you don't want to have in your life anymore, like the comic books or baseball cards, then that could definitely be part of it, but I'm not forcing you no.

All right. Here, let's do this. Troy, I'm going go ahead and let you take some time and think about what number you feel comfortable with, what framework you're willing to work within.

Troy: Thanks, Scot. I'm going to do one item per day. I feel comfortable with that. I feel like that's a good starting point, because I can say otherwise I probably would not have gotten rid of anything over the next 30 days. So that's a good starting point for me.

Scot: How about the number of items corresponding to the number of days that it is? Let's challenge yourself a little bit on this one. You're only getting rid of 30 things by the end of it. Come on.

Troy: I'll think about it.

Scot: Think about it. Dr. Chan, what's your structure going to be, do you think?

Dr. Chan: I think I can do it because I'm going to have a very broad definition. I'm already thinking of . . . and again, we're all there I feel like. There's stuff deep in my freezer that I have not touched in 30 years, and this is a great excuse. We all do this. I know we have stuff. We all each have stuff in our freezers that we can throw out.

Scot: I love how creative you're getting.

Dr. Chan: I'm going to have a broad definition. Children's toys, baseball cards, kitchen utensils, freezer items. We all have stuff. When was the last time you did a deep clean of your freezer?

Mitch: Two weeks ago.

Troy: That's a good one. Yeah, I like the freezer idea. I like the dog toys. We've got old shredded dog toys. I can definitely rotate some of those things out. So that'll be an easy start for me. And then some of these old cables and electronics. That's a good start.

Dr. Chan: I bet if I went to each of your houses and I tried to put something in your freezer, it's full.

Scot: You're still on the freezer thing.

Dr. Chan: It's a whole separate discussion. We go to Costco and we buy 500 blank, and we can't eat 500 blank, so we would put it in the freezer and it just sits there for months and months and months and years.

Scot: You gave me a great idea. I think there are four half-open bags of cauliflower rice in our freezer. I don't even know what this is.

Dr. Chan: Throw it out, man. And according to Troy's definition, you can count each of those . . . that's like 300 right there.

Troy: That's how I'm doing it. I'm counting every piece of rice I throw out, some old bag of rice.

Scot: All right. Mitch, what framework are you going to go with? Do you think you know yet?

Mitch: I'm actually going to have to think about it a little bit because you guys are catching me right after a big . . . actually, we purged our fridge just the other day.

Troy: Yeah, Mitch, you're not going to have anything left. You're going to be homeless after this.

Mitch: Or I will have a beautiful home with nothing in it. How wonderful would that be?

Troy: Yeah, you're going to be down to zero. No bed to sleep in. You're like, "Well, I said I'd do it."

Scot: I agree with you, Troy. I'm a little intimidated by the doubling every day. I don't know if that's possible. Maybe I'll stretch myself to try to do that. And I like Mitch's thing. Maybe you just get to a point where you can't anymore and that's part of the story.

One other thing I want everybody to do is take pictures of these things and think about if there are any stories with any of them. So let's document this to some extent as well. I think this will be fun and we'll see if it has any impact on our mental health at all during the process, after the process, and then we'll check in with ourselves six months later and see where we're at.

Cool. If you're listening and you want to participate, take pictures, make observations. You can go ahead and share those with us at We'd love to hear about your journey as well.

Dr. Chan, thank you for being on the show, and thank you for caring about men's health.

Dr. Chan: Thanks for having me. Great to see all of you.