Over the past couple of years, the subjects of minimalism and simple living have captured the imagination of a large and quickly growing online community. While the definitions of the terms “minimalism” or “simplicity” differ for everyone, we can see a very clear trend of people redefining their choices about consumption of goods and services. In some cases this has been a reaction to externally imposed circumstances – such as job loss or slowed business. In other cases, practitioners have made conscious decisions to consume less, and have consciously altered their priorities.
In most cases, this trend corresponds to letting go of some or most of the “stuff” in our lives, reducing our level of materialism, and making more deliberate choices about what new purchases to make. For a wealthy investor who owns five houses, it might mean selling two of them and living in “only” three houses. For a 25 year old college graduate, it might mean selling the big TV and Xbox and taking a trip around the world with nothing but a backpack while earning money through a portfolio of tiny online businesses. The fun part is that we all get to define what minimalism means to us.
Common elements of this emerging movement – for all participants, regardless of means – include:
- consciously evaluating our consumption and spending and setting priorities on our spending and purchases
- consciously evaluating our possessions and looking for ways to let go of (i.e. sell, donate, throw away) personal property and possessions that are no longer a necessary or valuable part of our lives
- focusing on highest value activities and actions – in both work and in personal life (and potentially changing the balance of work and leisure hours)
- consciously adding in activities to your life that promote happiness, and reducing activities that do not promote happiness
Why would anyone choose to pursue a minimalist lifestyle?
Reducing and focusing our consumption, and shifting over time to a minimalist lifestyle, can provide us with a number of advantages.
Reduced responsibility for managing “stuff”. This may be self-evident, but it’s still worth mentioning. When we live a minimalist lifestyle, we don’t need to worry about a rented storage locker, a basement full of old furniture, or a garage full of junk. We aren’t saving and storing piles of potentially useful items for “someday”, or no longer useful items from “back in the day”. We recognize that physical clutter grabs our attention and ultimately becomes mental clutter. It distracts us from the here and now by pulling us back into our memories or forward into our hypothetical future plans.
Lower level of financial stress. When we reduce and refocus our material needs, we reduce the power and influence of the external world over us. The external world has substantially more power over someone who “needs” resources of $X / month, compared to someone who needs resources of $0.1X / month. The threat of a business downturn or job loss has much less impact on someone who knows that they can survive and thrive on substantially less than they actually earn.
More lifestyle options and flexibility. A person with greater self-defined “needs” has fewer choices of job or business, and less flexibility in the use of their time. They almost certainly need to spend a greater of their time working to earn “enough” money, and will find it much harder to spend time pursuing goals that don’t earn money. Additionally, someone with greater material needs has “further to fall”, and less flexibility, should their fortunes turn downward. Lost your job and want to try out a new city? It’s a lot easier with a small apartment of “stuff” than a big 4 bedroom house. Being overly dependent on material things, and on a high level of material consumption, can be highly inconvenient when things change quickly.
Greater level of happiness. Focusing on positive, enjoyable experiences rather than acquiring “stuff” is a key ingredient of the recipe for happiness in life. When we direct more of our money to shared activities and experiences with friends and family, and less of our money to buying more “things”, research suggests that we will experience more happiness in our lives.
Reduced attachment to impermanent things. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden memorably declared that “the things you own, end up owning you”. This wise statement has a flip side, namely “the things you don’t own, have no claim on you”. Letting go of most of our attachments to “stuff” leaves more space in our heads for thinking about other things that matter in life: people, ideas, and creative activities.
Reduced impact on the environment. A smaller house or car consumes less energy and materials, but still provides protection from the elements or transportation from A to B. Getting the primary job done, without feeding the ego, can be accomplished with a much more modest tool. This has a lower impact on the natural environment that we all live in and share.
Making the ego less dependent on external supports. Do we feel that we “need” to live in a 2 500 (or 5 000, or 10 000) square foot house? Is it truly necessary, or just something that we feel like we deserve, perhaps as a reward for paying our dues over years at work, or for reaching our financial goals? Would we really be less valuable or less important as people if we provided our families with a compact 1000 square foot apartment and a small car?
Increased creativity. Minimalism makes life more of an adventure. It provides us with the opportunity to develop more creative solutions to problems, instead of just aiming money at the problem. The minimalist philosophy also gives us permission to choose consciously to “go without” when the financial cost of solving an apparent problem is too high.
How do we do this?
How do we begin to express a minimalist philosophy in our lives? The key thing to focus on is high efficiency – good usage of our finite resources like money, time, and emotional energy.
We are focused and targeted in our spending / consumption. It’s fine to direct our resources to things that are truly meaningful to us and that provide real value to our lives. We can frame this in terms of value or happiness per dollar spent. This is different for everyone because we all have different needs, goals, and desires. For example, someone who is an avid skier can easily justify buying skis, since it’s much cheaper than renting repeatedly, and they can get the exact skis that they want to use. The problem arises when we spend money on things that are either no longer valuable to us, or never were valuable to us. For example, for a year, I lived in a luxury apartment in a great location, that had a beautiful view and great building services. Toward the end of my lease, I started to feel that the benefits were no longer worth the price to me, and decided to change to a cheaper residence. Examples of spending on things that never were valuable at all include spending: to satisfy the ego; to impress other people (who almost certainly don’t care anyway); and to manipulate or shame ourselves into behaving differently (for example, buying exercise equipment to “force” ourselves to work out, or smaller size clothes in order to “motivate” reduction in weight).
We ask ourselves about objects in our lives, “is it (1) beautiful or (2) useful?” … if it is neither, then let it go. Pleasure and/or utility are good reasons to have material things in our lives. If the object under consideration is neither, then why would we hold on to it?
We recognize that our time is important and valuable in itself. Working too hard to be financially prosperous takes time away from many important things. It is important to identify what makes us happy, rather than blindly chasing the shiny prizes at the end of the long work day or the long career. Taking more time for ourselves, and for family and friends, is more likely to make us happy than extra income, once we have reached a baseline of prosperity. Connecting with people, getting enough sleep, and taking time to exercise may not be as “impressive” as a new car or a big house, but they are far bigger factors in our ongoing happiness.
We recognize that “stuff” isn’t valuable any more. Paul Graham wrote a great essay about the changing meaning of owning large amounts of material things. The fundamental idea is that owning lots of “stuff” doesn’t mean anything any more – in fact, it’s more inconvenient than “luxurious”. Even if we want to communicate status through our stuff, it doesn’t even accomplish this petty goal. Most things nowadays are mass produced and inexpensive. (And, by the way, why would we want to communicate our “status” to others through our possessions at all? Is our self-regard so low that the objects that surround us are necessary to define our selves and our identities?)
We sell / give away / dispose of things that we no longer need. These are the tangible ways to do it. Our junk could be useful or beautiful for someone else. Why deprive them of it? It’s fun to be generous and give things away. Let’s indulge in generosity. Or put useless or broken things in the landfill. Guess what? We won’t ever rehabilitate that TV set or computer from 10 years ago. It’s OK to let it go, and free up some storage.
Objections and excuses
Not everyone likes the movement toward minimalism. Some may view it as judgmental of their life choices, or as rigidly prescribing “one true way” of living. Of course, every movement has its extremists, and there are many examples of people who have deliberately designed their lifestyles to lie quite far away from our society’s norm – some live with 100 or fewer possessions, while others are able to keep everything they own in a medium-sized backpack.
However, to criticize misses the point. This is not about adherence to a rigid formula or following a set of rules, but about experimenting with our own lives and our own choices to find the balance that works best for us. Some common objections reveal simple misunderstandings of the way that a minimalist philosophy can be applied to our lives.
“But what about my hobbies?” The definition of “minimalism” for someone who loves painting large canvases, creating metal sculptures, and power boating will be somewhat different that the definition for someone who loves extended world travel. Specifically, the latter person will probably own a lot less “stuff”. And that’s OK! Fundamentally, we choose our own definitions and draw our own lines. After all, it’s not like the simplicity police will chase us down for non-compliance with a label. This is a process and a philosophy, rather than a set of rigid rules.
“But XYZ is truly important to me!” If something’s truly important to us, then we can give ourselves permission to buy and use it. There’s no need to punish ourselves or sacrifice things that matter to us. The only strict requirement of this philosophy is to think first about our relationships with our possessions and our desired lifestyle, and to be completely honest with ourselves. After all, we’re the only ones who will suffer if we deceive ourselves.
“This doesn’t work if you (have kids / have pets / commute 30 miles to work / live in a big city / live in the country)” In fact, the ideas here really are universal. No one is saying that we need to get rid of things that are truly important to us or our families. The only absolute rule is to release things that don’t work for us or don’t contribute value to our lives. This philosophy is something that literally anyone can support, unless they really believe that consuming more than they actually want to is a good thing.
Try an experiment…
So why not take the risk? Try letting go of some material thing or another that you think you can’t live without. 🙂 In the worst case, you’ll have to replace a few things. More likely, however, you will tap into a new source of freedom and happiness that can enhance your life immeasurably.
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