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Approaching life through the lens of less: the skinny on minimalism

America has long been known as a country where “bigger is better” and “more is more”. Everything is outsized, from our Walmarts to our debt to the personalities of our politicians. The same goes for our personal spaces and the objects that fill them. Consider the spacious “open concept Chef’s kitchen” desired by every house-hunter on HGTV or the SUV that comes in three sizes: big, bigger, and biggest. Some of these boast as many of nine cup holders for our Trenta-sized drinks. (Trenta’s are 31 ounces and translate to “more refreshment”, according to Starbucks.) Indeed, the cupholders in my own mid-size SUV completely swallow a small coffee. It might sound like hyperbole, but our appetite for the newest, the latest, and the biggest whatever (device, scandal, trend, meme, etc.) has possibly never been larger. We consume nearly everything at a breathtaking rate.

At the same time, there seems to be a move towards something more open, minimal, and spare in the cultural zeitgeist—a desire for a tidier relationship to our physical surroundings. We see this in the workplace, where sleek, minimal open-office floorplans have become the norm. The success of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up might serve as another barometer of this cultural shift. Yet can we really embrace a life of ‘less’ within the confines of a culture always pushing for ‘more’?

Pursuing happiness through ‘less’

Minimalism means different things to different people. Some prefer to give their minimalism constraints, paring down all possessions to a specific number of items (100 or 120 are popular), or living without consumer luxuries like cars or TVs. Others embrace minimalism as a frame of mind—a desire to own less and to live simply, using fewer things more frequently—and more as a gentle lens for approaching life than as a direct challenge. The end goal, either way, is to enable yourself to live a healthier life and to reclaim time and space for pursuits and people that bring fulfillment.

Kondo’s well-documented KonMari method of only keeping items that “spark joy” can sound a bit preciously-curated, And the concept (and the catchphrase) is catching. A quick Google search reveals all the ways you can “Marie Kondo” your office (watch the video to see Marie Kondo in action), your website, your diet, and even your brain. And it’s true, reducing clutter does make us feel more relaxed and productive.

Items imbued with meaning

Though it doesn’t always seem obvious, we are in relationship with the items we surround ourselves with. Kondo’s method of thanking a clothing item before you throw it out or explaining to a bowl why it doesn’t spark joy can seem hokey, but the gesture implies and acknowledges the relationship.

Kondo’s method of thanking a clothing item before you throw it out or explaining to a bowl why it doesn’t spark joy can seem hokey, but the gesture implies and acknowledges the relationship.

According to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, writers who advocate for living a meaningful life with fewer possessions, minimalism can help us each find freedom from feelings like fear, worry, guilt, depression, and feeling overwhelmed, all “the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around.” The problem isn’t our stuff, they say, but the meaning we assign to our stuff.

Certainly, in our own lives there’s probably at least one dress or tie we’ve bought for a big occasion or a special day that never arrived. Or a threadbare t-shirt from an old love, or strange collections of odds and ends: the slips of paper inside fortune cookies, ticket stubs, extra soy sauce packets, ball caps with the names of places we’ve visited on vacation... Any of these might be considered unessential and yet may, in fact, spark joy. In her July 2016 article, “Marie Kondo and the Ruthless War on Stuff,” writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner makes a valid point: Kondo’s book isn’t an argument for minimalism. Rather, Kondo is suggesting that if you’re surrounded by objects weighted with meaning, why not fill a room with joy?

Taking minimalism to the max

Of course, we’re a culture that loves an extreme. James Altucher, a trader, investor, writer, and entrepreneur, made the news for abandoning everything except a bag of clothes, a backpack, and three devices: a computer, tablet, and phone. Put one way, he’s a wanderer and citizen of the world. Put another way, he’s homeless.

Altucher, of course, has the means to live this way. By his definition, minimalism means “having as little as you require”—which is relative. If you skim the Reddit forum on minimalism or The Minimalist on Medium, you’ll find others who’ve experimented with sparse living. It’s not all white walls and peace. At its most austere, there are downsides to living in tiny homes and there are minimalists who regret what they’ve parted with.

At its most austere, there are downsides to living in tiny homes and there are minimalists who regret what they’ve parted with.

In not so many words, extreme minimalism might come across as a kind of penance. Altucher calls to mind Siddhartha, who left behind his prominence and wealth to embark upon a spiritual journey. In The New York Times Magazine, writer Kyle Chayka explores the “oppressive gospel” of minimalism in today’s culture and questions whether it isn’t just an excess of ‘less’.

Living with less to live with more intention

Minimalists like GreshlyLuke, who has pared down his belongings to the point of weighing the usefulness of a pair of scissors, is living a life that we can’t all live. But what becomes clear, as he put it, is that “It’s easy to reject an unnecessary item when all the others around it are essential.”

When we start removing things and making space, we begin to have some clarity. Many of the comments on Reddit center around using minimalism to help distinguish between needs and wants, and determining what you can live without. It’s a way to more carefully consider your consumption habits instead of purchasing and saving things based on emotion. As UnkieHerbivore put it, minimalism came to mean “being happy with what I had, not buying stuff just because it might make me temporarily happy, spending my time appreciating the world around me through simple activities, learning more and having more quiet time with my partner.”

The 30-day “minimalism game”

One reason that I think Kondo’s book has such wide appeal is that Anyone who moves often or lives in a small space is faced with having to evaluate their possessions on a regular basis. My own family shares a small apartment, and my 4-year-old alone regularly seems to amass new toys, clothes, and endless collections of art projects and rocks from the park. We seem to bring in a lot more than we take out, forcing regular purges.

Lately, I’ve been considering Millburn and Nicodemus’ 30-day challenge, which involves starting slow and giving away just a single item on day one, two items on day two, and so on. After 30 days, if my math is right, I’ll have parted with 450 things. It seemed like a lot until I attacked a corner of my kitchen, as an experiment, and filled 4 small boxes with 40-50 items. It suddenly seems plausible to do this once a week, for a month. Or, a friend offered an alternate method, which is to remove everything from a space and then only put back the things that you love, or that spark joy, if you will. I did this with our medicine cabinet and, frankly, it’s looking good. And it feels good too.

It strikes me that in the scheme of the larger world, these exercises are less an elimination of stuff and more a redistribution, but imagine a world where we all bought and lived with less, eventually reducing demand and production. What might we be able to do with our new, productive, spacious lives?

Does the idea of minimalism interest you? Consider our take on the total life detox or the Millennial perspective on stuff versus experiences.

Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.

Illustration by Andria Mongia.