Minimalism: The Pursuit of Less

Imagine you woke up to incredibly loud beeping sounds. Your smoke detector is going off, you can smell the fumes rising up and filling your entire house. Your home is about to be engulfed in flames. When your body’s adrenaline kicks in, do you remember to grab any of the stuff you’ve been accumulating over the years? The new PlayStation you swore you couldn’t live without. The heap of clothes in your wardrobe that you said you might have a need to wear again someday.

We hoard so much stuff and convince ourselves that we need it all. But when our eyes glow red and the fire truck blares its sirens in the distance, none of that seems to matter. Why then do we cling on to these things so much? A few days have now passed and you meet with your insurance agent. They help you determine the value of what was lost and some money is eventually deposited in your bank account.

You go through the list of items to replace and you realize you have a choice to make. To rebuy all of the stuff you lost to the flames. Or to take another path. One of intentionality, that has the power to bring you more peace than any of those materialistic items could ever bring you. You have the power to embrace minimalism: the pursuit of less. We live in a society that pushes the idea that more is always better. Throw out the old, bring in the new, and more of it.

We consume twice as many material goods today as we did 50 years ago. And there is no bigger testament to this than the amount we spend on storage space. Around 38% of Americans would rather pay an average of $190 per month to keep their excess stuff frozen in time locked up in a room than to let those things go. That's in addition to the $1,497 spent on non-essential items every single month, even at a time when money isn’t that easy to come by.

Why do so many of us buy into this unhealthy way of living? Why do we consume so much stuff that we can’t fit it all in our homes? Well, there are two main reasons- status and short-term happiness. Even before advertisements were inescapable, humans acquired more things as a way to display our superior status to others.

From kings of old demonstrating their wealth with oversized castles, fanciful dressware and pristine furniture to more recently, people buying luxury cars and the latest iPhone, humans have always associated owning more with having a higher societal status. And for a very social species, you can see why this status would be so important to us. Even worse, many of us have also bought into the idea that buying things can make us happy.

We buy more stuff thinking that the next purchase will finally satisfy us. And for a moment, it does. That dopamine hit that comes from anticipating your delivery is real, but temporal. One that floats away once whatever we have stops being new and shiny. Thankfully, we are not doomed to this mode of living. We are free to seek happiness and fulfillment in other more precious things. When that fire starts in the middle of the night, the only things that concern us are our health, happiness, freedom and loved ones.

Those are the things that matter most in life, and minimalism helps us to get rid of all the distractions, so we can truly focus on these things. Although only recently adopted into the mainstream, the philosophy of minimalism has been around for thousands of years. Greek philosopher Diogenes famously rejected material wealth to such an extent that he lived in a barrel, ate with his hands and spent his days criticizing Athenians for living insincere lives focused on illusions such as wealth and status.

Living in roughly the same time period, worlds apart, the Buddha too rejected material cravings. As he insisted in his teachings of the second noble truth, our craving is what gives rise to dukkha, or suffering. We desire pleasure and often pursue it in the form of material goods. We thirst for more stuff and become attached to it when we possess it. The object itself doesn’t lead to suffering, but our thirst and attachment to those objects cause us pain.

If philosophical rejections of materialism have been around for a very long time, why has minimalism only become so popular in the last several years? To understand its modern significance, we have to look at the recent history of this school of thought and where its name in particular originated from. The term minimalism was taken from an avant-garde art movement in the 1960s. The main idea behind this movement was to strip art down to its bare essentials by discarding any of its decorative qualities.

It rejected the notions of modernism and abstract art and instead focused on designs that resembled factory-built commodities. The idea was that art didn’t need any of those extra layers to be interesting. That things stripped back to their most minimal form could still have meaning in and of themselves. In 2008, the financial crisis hit and world economies became less stable. Since then, we’ve gone through a lot of economic downturns and more recently, a global pandemic.

At the same time, we’ve also become more aware of how our consumerism habits are impacting our world negatively. These two things happening simultaneously created the perfect conditions for a lot more people to seek out and embrace living with less. And so they borrowed the name from the art movement of the 60s, and modern-day minimalism was born. But does getting rid of the clutter in our lives really give us lasting contentment?

Numerous studies in the field of psychology suggest that yes, a minimalist lifestyle can make us feel better. Psychologists found that individuals who practiced voluntary simplicity had a strong link to well-being. There is no definitive answer as to why this is the case, but some psychologists speculate that it has to do with controlling the desire to consume and an increased focus on psychological needs as opposed to physical ones. But like with all things, minimalism is far from perfect.

Have you ever heard this statement? “The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” That’s the philosophy of minimalism partially based on the Shinto belief system as put forward by Marie Kondo, one of the most popular minimalist influencers.

Her method is incredibly successful, with her books selling over 10 million copies around the world. She has undoubtedly inspired many people to tidy up and live with less. But her philosophy and other work from similar gurus might have contributed to a more materialistic version of minimalism. One that doesn’t ask us to turn our attention away from stuff, but rather to focus on “better” consumer goods. Despite being a philosophy that inherently rejects capitalist materialism, minimalism has become commodified.

Companies like Apple use a minimalist design philosophy, offering simplicity in their look and feel. Kim Kardashian once called her mansion with a bedroom the size of an airplane hanger a minimalist monastery. Marie Kondo herself has her own line of products on her website, Konmari, with expensive items that are meant to spark joy. This is by no means a criticism of Apple, Kim and especially Kondo.

From the beginning, she has always preached having respect for and taking care of what you own, not necessarily shifting your attention away from material goods. So in a way, her philosophy has always been slightly different from minimalism and she rightfully never suggested otherwise. I’m only using these examples to explain what some people now imagine when they think of minimalism. An aesthetically pleasing consumable good.

The problem with this is that by placing greater emphasis on buying things that embody the minimalist spirit, instead of owning less things, we lose the core values of minimalism. And when this is the case, how do low-income earners participate? They don’t have the luxury of bringing minimalism into their lives via purchases of Apple gadgets or sleek white couches. Minimalism is a lot easier when you can choose to live with less or more, and not when it’s forced upon you by circumstances.

Another problem with the modern interpretation of this philosophy is that it’s supposed to give us an opportunity to focus on the things that matter the most to us, like our loved ones. But while creating a minimalist space for yourself can give you peace of mind, what impact does this pristine white haven devoid of anything but carefully placed elements have on the other people in your life?

Have you ever walked into a minimalist space and felt like you were ruining it? Like you didn’t belong among the delicate furniture and expensive appliances. In the silent emptiness, the room screams that your presence is destroying the carefully cultivated atmosphere. When you control an environment with minimalism, you bring a small level of tyranny to the space. You limit what people can do in your home and in doing so, you could potentially limit your relationship with others.

Imagine you’ve designed the perfect minimalist space and your spouse brings home a large oil painting their grandparents once owned. It has sentimental value, but it’s an eyesore. Or what if your 8-year-old only wants a big purple stuffed elephant for their birthday? Will you say no just to maintain the delicate balance of your home? In this scenario, it’s your choices that decide the space. You have control and no one else does.

Is this a conducive situation for good relationships? And when you have to essentially police the space, is that good for even your own peace of mind? As I was considering all the delicate white spaces I’ve seen recently, I started to think about how boring and colorless they are. They squash imagination and color in favor of white and gray-toned emptiness. In response to these drab empty spaces, a design movement called maximalism has emerged.

Instead of getting rid of things you don’t need, maximalism is about highlighting your favorite items. Maximalist spaces are filled with chaotic colors, plants and nic nacs. An old oil painting or stuffed elephant would be perfectly at home in these spaces. The rise of maximalism, along with the other issues I already mentioned are some of the reasons why minimalism isn’t nearly as popular as it was a few years ago.

So was minimalism just another consumable good that many of us have thrown into storage? Or will the principles of this philosophy remain with us? The truth is, at its core, minimalism is great. If you take away the emphasis on buying more stuff and actually bring focus to those things that matter most, you can build a better life. You can worry less about material goods and focus more on your mental health and relationships.

Beyond simply thinking of your own happiness, you also need to consider the global consequences of materialism. If humans can’t reduce our consumption, we’ll keep contributing to climate change and the decimation of our planet’s species. We’ll fill the oceans with plastic and keep finding more microplastics in our blood. Minimalism is not only a way to bring great well-being into our own lives, it’s a necessary practice for the well-being of our planet.

But we need to stop corporations from turning minimalism into another commodity and instead focus on the virtues of the philosophy, one that can help us prevent the dangers of materialism. And if one day that alarm goes off in our homes, we’ll be the happiest knowing that nothing of real value to us can be snatched away by the fiery flames.