Can minimalism make you happy?

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Oliver James, in his book, ‘Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane’ argues that mass consumption is leading to mass depression across the Global North. This is the exact opposite of course, of what brands want us to believe as they try to sell us our dreams in the shape of a flashy new car or designer perfume.

With many western households now at a point of ‘material saturation’ (Arnold, Graesch et al. 2012) a growing movement of minimalists or voluntary simplifiers are seeking to destabilise the capitalist economy in pursuit of the good life. Extreme minimalists strive to get-by with minimal belongings, living in small, simple homes or even as nomads. Rather than derive status from what they own, they gain status from what they can live without; like Dave Bruno who set himself the challenge to limit his possessions to 100 things and then wrote a book about it, ‘The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul’. In this manner minimalism becomes a cleansing ritual, a way to take control of both the self, and, the external political economy. Similarly, 35 year-old Fumio Sasaki describes the familiar tale of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ and the impact this had on his happiness. Freeing himself of most of his things freed himself of the idea that life’s milestones should be marked with yet more things – the car, the house, the designer pram. He now lives ‘each day with a happier spirit’.

At the less extreme end of the scale there is evidence to suggest we are already becoming less materialistic, being instead more focused on experiences. This suggests that we are constructing and expressing identities and building relationships by doing rather than having. These consumers are called ‘experientialists’ and share many of the same values and beliefs as minimalists. That said, there has been much criticism about the instagram generation and how we curate our lives on social media simply as an extension of the social status traditionally attached to other stuff.

minimalism happiness wellbeing

So minimalism: could you do it?
And would you want to?

Material objects are critical to wellbeing, even if we just consider the basic needs of warmth and shelter. The question is, what are the tipping points between happiness and depression in relation to material possessions? Psychological studies on materialism to date consistently state that those who pursue materialistic values report lower emotional wellbeing (Von Boven and Gilovich 2003). According to James Wallman (2013, p.7): “Instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, [we] are feeling stifled by them.” Yet, this sentiment is in contrast to a growing body of social and cultural studies literature that cites material culture as a fundamental feature of everyday life, source of comfort and a way that we ‘manage’ our lives.

The contrast between extreme minimalism and the everyday clutter that fills many of our homes is stark, but the notion of counting (a minimalists’ obsession) and getting on in the 21st Century without the conveniences contemporary life dictates could be considered stressful in itself. More manageable for most of us is a bit of de-cluttering, made popular by Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizational consultant. Having fewer things means less to clean, less to sort, and potentially more cash to spend on other things (or alternatively, less debt). Here are a few tips to get started:

• Make the most of moving. Moving house can be stressful but rather than pack up everything and ship it to the new place, take the time to go through things and work out what you really need. You can hire a company specialising in house clearances to clear out a room and alleviate some of the stress.

• Put your things into boxes/clothes in a suitcase and every time you need something go get it out. With anything still sitting in the box after 3-6 months ask yourself, do you need it in your house? Or can you borrow/hire things for special occasions instead?

• Talking of hiring, familiarise yourself with different ways to loan goods rather than owning them. Girl Meets Dress can fulfil your shopping desires, tools can be hired for that occasional DIY, and parties can be catered for by tableware hire rather than holding onto twenty wine glasses.

• Give away one item each day. That’s what Colleen Madsen did in 2010 with her 365 day resolution to donate, sell or bin one item from her home every day for twelve months.

• Set yourself a challenge. There are a few to help minimise your wardrobe in particular, like Labour Behind the Label’s six item challenge. The idea is to pick six items form your wardrobe and wear only those for six weeks. Sounds extreme? I agree it’s not easy but it’s a good way to get creative with your look and learn to enjoy the ease of not having to rummage through your wardrobe each day. You can have unlimited access to underwear, shoes and accessories, as well as a separate gym kit.

For more inspiration I thoroughly recommend the documentary ‘Minimalism’, available on Netflix.

References/Further Reading

Arnold, J. E., A. Graesch, E. Ragazzini, and E. Ochs. (2012) Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families
Open Their Doors. Cotsen Institute Press: Los Angeles.
James, O. (2007) Affluenza. London: Vermilion
Wallman, J. (2013) Stuffocation: Living more with less. London: Penguin Random House.
Van Boven, L. and Gilovich, T. (2003) To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 85(6)

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