Rethinking Normal



Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.

— William James

Have you ever experienced a turning point? Where the tide beneath your feet completely shifts and you start thinking in a brand-new way? On December 31, 2007, I experienced a turning point — an idea that caused me to wake up out of a deep haze. It all started with a short YouTube video featuring Dee Williams. In the video, Dee talked about the idea of downsizing, or what she called “smart-sizing herself,” and why she decided to build a small, cozy dwelling on wheels.

After watching the video, I became completely intrigued by the idea of simplifying my life, and subsequently I read other articles about Dee and her little house. In one article, she described a trip she took to Guatemala to help build a school. When she returned home she realized there was a lot of stuff in her life she simply didn’t need. In a small zine called The Little House Dee described her trip by saying, “I met some incredible people. They were generous and kind and very, very poor. They didn’t have running water or electricity in their houses. They cooked outside and shared a bathroom with their neighbors. And still they seemed happy…at least, they made our work fun and helped me feel happy.” When Dee returned to Portland, Oregon, she sold her “big house” and decided to downsize dramatically by building her own tiny, 84-square-foot home on wheels, a dwelling similar in size to the homes she saw in Guatemala.

Dee’s story resonated with me on a number of levels. She was the kind of person I wanted to be; she prioritized what was most important in life, like building strong relationships, giving back to her community, and doing what she loved for a living. She wasn’t focused on the acquisition of material goods and was authentically living her ideals. Most of all, she seemed happy.

Dee’s story inspired me to go small and start thinking big. After reading a lot of blogs and books focused on simple living, my husband, Logan, and I decided to start downsizing our living space. We gave away most of our belongings. Interestingly, the more we gave away, the better we felt. Happiness researchers call this a “helper’s high,” in which helping others through volunteering or giving reduces stress and releases endorphins.

Prior to this turning point, I had been living a “normal life” and I wasn’t happy. Logan and I were thirty thousand dollars in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and felt stuck in a rut. Something had to change, especially if we wanted to make our dreams a reality.

As I was doing background research for this book, I wondered what a “normal life” looked like in the United States. I discovered some very disturbing trends. For instance, in September 2011 the nation’s poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent — its highest level in seventeen years. According to the US Census Bureau, household income declined between 2009 and 2011, and the number of people without health insurance increased. In September 2011, National Public Radio reported, “Income declined for just about everyone — surprisingly — at a faster rate overall than it did in 2008, when the recession was in full swing.” In addition, a variety of reports indicate the average American carries over eight thousand dollars in credit card debt and has 6.5 credit cards. Like many Americans, Logan and I had good intentions — we wanted to pay down our debt, improve our health, and contribute to our community. Until we made a shift in our lifestyle, none of these things would happen.

Living simply enabled us to make our dreams a reality. The lifestyle changes we made improved our marriage and relationships with friends and family members. For instance, by selling both our cars, we’ve lost weight — we get around by bicycle now — and we aren’t worried about earning enough money to pay for our cars every month. Instead, we used the money we would have spent on car payments to pay down debt.

Where We’re Going

In The Art of Non-conformity, Chris Guillebeau notes, “I adhere to a guru-free philosophy, I don’t claim to have all the answers.” I’m on the same page as Chris. I’m not a simplicity or happiness guru, and I don’t have all the answers. As an avid reader, I learn the most from stories. During the course of this book, I tell a lot of stories about my life and the lives of the people I interviewed. I provide “micro-actions” for putting the ideas into practice. In addition, I share a number of inspiring lessons I’ve learned along the way. Those lessons include:

•     Happiness comes from connecting to your community and building strong relationships.

•     Money can buy happiness, but it depends on how you spend it.

•     The excessive consumption of material goods won’t make you happy over the long run.

•     Learning to get more from less is one way to find happiness, reclaim your time, and live on your own terms.

•     Any kind of life change requires hard work, patience, and the willingness to be open to new perspectives.

Throughout this book, we explore these lessons in more detail. In essence, this book is an invitation to rethink your relationship with money, time, and stuff, to reconsider the things that make you happy. This book offers a different perspective, an outlook that encourages you to examine new ideas and options that are different from the norm.

The idea of living with less goes by several names and movements; a few are the simple living movement, the small house movement, voluntary simplicity, downsizing, and minimalism. The main idea behind them is to be intentional about your choices. For instance, to be part of the small house movement, you aren’t required to live in a certain-size tiny house. Moving to a small house might be your long-term goal, but you can be part of the community without doing so. Living with less is a life philosophy; it’s not about the number of things you own.

Life Is Short

During Christmas of 2010, I stumbled across some old letters from my great-aunt Mamie. Normally, I’m not sentimental about old letters. However, I was happy to find them hidden in my childhood closet.

When I started reading the letters, I got teary eyed because I miss my aunt tremendously. As I was reading, I started thinking about how she constantly challenged societal norms. My aunt lived simply and didn’t spend a whole lot of money on unnecessary stuff. In addition, she never married, had children, or owned a car. She loved to travel and took the bus and walked everywhere.

As a result, she was able to take long trips across the country, and she always wrote friends and family detailed letters about her adventures. For a woman who came of age during the Great Depression, these choices were unusual. The cultural norm dictated that she get married and have kids, not travel across the country or move from a small rural town in Washington to the big city of San Francisco.

Through her letters my aunt taught me about happiness, love, and the good life. In one of her letters, she described the seemingly mundane tasks of her everyday life, like watering the flowers, walking to the grocery store, and talking to her neighbors. Toward the end of the letter she wrote a few lines that surprised me. She said, “Remember, Tammy, life is short. Do what you love and help others, too. It’s natural to think you’ll be happy if you conform to the norm. I don’t think that’s true. It’s okay to be yourself. This is just a small reminder: Don’t lose track of your dreams.”

I originally received this letter during high school, and her words were what I needed to hear. I wasn’t happy and felt depressed because I didn’t have a boyfriend and wasn’t part of the “cool crowd.” I was looking for external validation to prove to myself that I was “normal.” Searching for that kind of validation doesn’t result in a whole lot of happiness, because no one is “normal.”

Yet, the messages you receive from advertisers tell a different story. When I watch television or see ads on the Internet, the messages tell me I need to buy a product to be happy and content and to fit in. Intuitively, I know this isn’t true, because happiness can’t be bought at the mall. However, advertising can be very persuasive.

Norman MacEwan, an author and scholar, once said, “Happiness is not so much in having as sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” MacEwan’s quote echoes what my aunt Mamie was trying to get at in her letters. Like my aunt’s letters, this book offers alternative viewpoints and stories. I don’t want you to sleepwalk through life like I did. I want you to find your own version of happiness. Let’s get started!


Tammy Strobel is a writer, simple living advocate, coffee addict, and tiny house enthusiast. She created her blog,, to share her story of embracing simplicity. Since then, her story has been featured in the New York Times, The Today Show, USA Today, CNN, MSNBC, and in a variety of other media outlets. She currently lives with her husband in a tiny house in Northern California. Her blog is


From the book You Can Buy Happiness (And It’s Cheap).  Copyright © 2012 by Tammy Strobel. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. or 800-972-6657.