Delving Deeper into Minimalism

A few months ago, I learned that one of the people I follow in the podcasting world lives with basically no possessions, moving from one airbnb to another every few weeks.

I was naturally intrigued by this lifestyle. And that’s hardly a surprise since whatever the way you try to describe such a lifestyle, unconventional would certainly be part of the deal.

I have since learned that there is a whole community online of people following a similar path. They call themselves minimalists and are happy to share their story and philosophy with the wider world.

So, I read some of their articles…

And I just couldn’t get that excited about the whole thing. 

In the end, it just didn’t quite ring true to my ears. 

Here’s why.

Less is More Fundamentalism

To begin with the easiest and most general objection first, some minimalists are almost fanatical about the idea of owning less.

Now, if people playfully competed with each other about who of them lives with less, then maybe the whole thing could be shrugged off as just an inside joke, i.e. the minimalist community’s banter. 

But we know people can easily go down weird rabbit holes and commit to unhealthy ideologies and beliefs. Living with less strikes me as exactly that kind of thing. 

Clearly, the extremes forms of living with less are pretty unhealthy. One could subsist and live minimally somewhere along the border between life and death, but what’s the point? Why become a fundamentalist and deprive yourself of pleasures? 

It might be few who are actually doing that (for various reasons, some of which I’ll cover down below), but the whole idea of judging life by the number of your possessions is bizarre and potentially dangerous. One can do without many things, even one’s limbs for example, but what’s the point? Less is not always more.

Is Minimalism about the Right Balance?

Now, the above is certainly something many intelligent minimalists realize. To them, minimalism is not expressed by the maxim “less is more (always and forever)”. Instead, to them minimalism is more of a tool for personal liberation which functions only because wellbeing happens to be correlated with owning less. In other words, this minimalism is not a dogmatic belief in simplicity for its own sake, but an evidence-based philosophy that promises a greater wellbeing.

Frankly, this is the kind of approach to minimalism that appeals to me on a gut level. That is not to say it has no flaws. Rather, it it to say that I find that doing or owning less can sometimes indeed correlate with an improvement in wellbeing. For example, while at university, I felt much better once I stopped trying to be at as many events as possible. As soon as I allowed myself some free time to think and reflect, my life quality improved. 

Yet, I think this only happened because my life balance was so off at the time that any change towards doing less would have worked. 

In a sense, if I have misunderstood minimalism and it really just stands for basic moderation in life,  then great. I cannot argue with this sentiment. Cognitive overload and overwhelm only lead to burnout and any life philosophy that avoids them successfully is a winner in my book. To give one more university example, exam period was always stressful for me because of how unnatural it was — humans, especially young ones, are not made to sit and read books all day…

However, if the above is true, then it certainly casts doubt on the name of the philosophy. Unless humans are all (unbeknownst to them) terribly overwhelmed by normal, everyday life, then minimalism is at best a misnomer. True, moderationism hardly sounds as catchy, but I think it’d better represent the above approach. Moreover, it would not tempt people into any unhealthy extremes. (it’s truly hard to be a radical moderate!)

Dealing wisely with Complexity

Nevertheless, I don’t think minimalists got confused in naming their philosophy.

So, I will assume that some of them indeed argue that normal life is overwhelming. In fact, I have seen quite a few posts suggesting as much. Countless bills, excessive material desires, stressful communal commitments — all of those seem to go rub minimalists the wrong way.

Once again, I won’t deny there is truth to some of this. Life can get out of hand pretty fast and simplicity makes it all easier to manage. 

But besides the comment on moderation I already made, there is another point of conflict here. If the problem is how to manage the load of normal life, then the intuition and logic of minimalism is far from from obviously true.

For one, minimalism understood this way stands in a marked contrast to other approaches such as the stoic one. Phrased more directly: If the environment is overwhelming, then perhaps the proper solution is to toughen up and simply adapt to it. After all, maybe there is no final escape from the complexity of the modern world save from completely checking out of it. 

Moreover, if our capacity for dealing with complexity is not fixed, then it seems that minimalism threatens to leave us less prepared for it. Of course, maybe a committed minimalist can learn to deal with complexity even in a single one of their pursuits, but it’s unclear whether the skills so acquired would transfer to dealing with the complexities of life should the need for that arise.

Admittedly, this might sound foolish. Why would a minimalist care if they can deal with the complexity they have decided to escape for good? 

Well, in short, because I don’t think minimalists have escaped all complexity forever. To appeal to the popular saying, shit happens. Life can get complicated pretty fast, forcing us to drop old habits or acquire new ones. If people stop exercising in pursuits of their career, then why wouldn’t they drop minimalism if their parents fell sick and they needed to live with them for a while? And that’s just one example out of many…

In the light of this, it seems that adopting a radical position and chasing simplicity might have unintended negative consequences.

The Need for Order

All of the above notwithstanding, I would now like to turn to a desire which I presume is driving at least some minimalists: the desire for order.

Now, it is definitely true that simplicity and a scaling down of life can help establish order. It’s naturally easier to manage two interests rather than twenty.

And as expected, the minimalist solution is to embrace these positive effects of simplicity and achieve order this way. However, it is not clear to me whether this is not ultimately paying too high a cost.

Firstly, it’s not obvious that order is best achieved through the simplicity of owning less. Ultimately, a minimalist (I presume) finds inner freedom in caring less about external things. Yet, this goal can be achieved through many different means — meditation, better systematization, etc. 

In general, I am slightly suspicious of the hippy vibe of philosophies that rave against material objects. My life has been made immensely better for the things I’ve had and I have hurt a lot for the things i haven’t. This is why I am skeptical when minimalists condemn material objects as harshly as they do.

The truth is, I have lived a pretty minimalist choice for years. Only it was not because of some great philosophical love of this lifestyle, but out of necessity. I have gone years now without being able to afford things I know would make me happy — musical instruments, sports equipment, books, new clothes or cool gadgets I can play with (e.g. drones, etc.).

Minimalists are right that there is a mental cost to ownership. Yet, for me the cost of non-ownership has been greater. And that’s one of my deeper problems with the minimalist movement as I see it.

It seems that few minimalists want to go all the way to embracing simplicity. They bask in owning less, but are happy to change what they own. They have a superficial personal simplicity while enjoying all the variety the wider market provides for them.

And if that is so, if you, say, own 1 tech gadget but change it every six months, one justifiably asks: how is that different from owning 2, 3, 4? Clearly, what’s new is always on your mind in one way or another. You haven’t really achieved inner peace from possessions. And that’s to be expected: as buddhism reminds us, the war against attachment is waged through stillness of the mind, not the credit card.

And that ties in with another critique I have seen on minimalism — that is it geared primarily towards the rich. And there’s certainly a slight feel of this. Most people cannot hop from place to place, traveling and living for experiences rather than material possessions. And in any case, this dichotomy is stupid. A material thing like a guitar can be a source of very many great experiences if given to the right person.

Not that it is wrong to have life philosophies aimed at the rich. Quite the contrary. I am actually interested in them. But it seems to me that many minimalists intuitively feel their philosophy lacking in variety (what did you expect if you downsize your life on principle?). And it also seems to me that the solution for some minimalists has been to simply sell one thing and buy another. In other words, they have chosen to get the benefits of variety without the costs of simplicity. And that’s cool. But the reality is, it has an economic cost attached.

Now, maybe in the US, where minimalism is most popular, that cost is easy to bear. But then, the US is so exceptionally wealthy that even poor people there live better than much of the rest of the world. Myself, living outside of the US, I find this aspect of minimalism a bit absurd or at the very least out of touch with what the real dynamic between simplicity, materialism and wellbeing is.

Love of Change vs Minimalism

Above, I already hinted at the wellbeing improvement a change in lifestyle can provide.

I think that fact is central to why minimalism feels so good to many. When you have less, you are forced to change more often. And that’s great. Uncovering new horizons is extremely exhilarating.

This fact is precisely why I love change. I am not sure, however, that minimalism is the best or only way to spicy up your life.

In any case, probably the best example of a lifestyle full of change (and one that probably drives a lot of intuition we have about what minimalism feels like) is traveling. 

Now, because of luggage restrictions and lack of permanent storage, it is hard to travel the world carrying a lot with you. Moreover, change happens naturally — of people, of places, of languages, of cultures. I have always loved this feeling.

This is why I think minimalism, or at least parts of it, draw their appeal from the joy of traveling light. However, the size of the bag seems hardly the most relevant factor. In a way, I am much more on board with a philosophy that embraces travel (and which might, by necessity, lead to a de factor minimalist lifestyle) than minimalism.

In any case, travel is only one mode of living, a joyful yet imperfect one. Visiting new countries might produce great joy, but so does having your own yoga mat and a room full of the posters and the books you adore. In other words, there are joys to be found in both contexts and some of them require ownership. In my view, it is the process of change that leads to wellbeing, not necessarily the number of possessions.

Minimalism through a youthful Travel-Lens

It is worth remarking that, looked through the travel-lens, minimalism will probably appeal to younger folks more. Young people love to travel and are generally not wealthy enough to own much anyway. So, it’s natural that they will gravitate towards a “live light” philosophy — after all, it looks like the natural extension of “travel light”.

As I indicated above, I think that’s cool. Youth requires change, experimentation and discovery. But exactly because of this, I fear that willful minimalism (as opposed to the instrumental one, e.g. the one done for the sake of easier travel) might occasionally prove detrimental.

What I mean is this: I fear that an increased focus on simplicity and downsizing will actually hinder experimentation; that great novel things won’t be tried because they come in a material form; that prioritizing what you love and throwing away everything else will only reinforce old habits without developing new.

Maybe I am too cautious about this. But I know that along with the simplicity of minimalism, a natural form of isolationism will occur as well. If every new thing is judged as a potential threat to your minimalist street cred, then you’ll be less likely to buy it and try it. And over time, life will become more boring. And if it doesn’t, it certainly will make it more lengthy for novelties to finally seep into one’s life.

Which, ultimately, might be what a minimalist wants. But for me, I want change a lot more. New things and experiences are absolutely exciting!

The viewpoint diversity within Minimalism and Minimalism’s intuitive Appeal

Finally, I want to talk about minimalism in a more positive light.

To begin with, let’s just say that most life philosophies (religions, etc.) are better lived than talked about. The best way to know if a belief system works for you is to adopt it and see what happens.

In any case, there is an aesthetic appeal to minimalism that can certainly be attractive. Simplicity is a big part of Eastern art and for a good reason — there is a great beauty in it.

In a sense then, if minimalism was about making your life more beautiful, then I could easily see the attraction. After all, some painting are beautiful because of how colorful and varied they are,; others, because of how simple yet expressive. 

Of course, there are undercurrents in minimalism that go beyond beauty and wellbeing. For every minimalist that wants to focus on experiences rather than oppressive material things, there is probably another that sees in minimalism the only responsible way to approach the environment and save nature from human destruction.

It is true that many minimalists would probably cite the above motivations as important. But, ultimately, there is a conflict between them for many of the great experiences one can have require a lot of energy and resources to offer. In other words, one person’s experiential minimalist is another environmental minimalist’s unsustainable hell. I guess this only goes to show that even within minimalism, there can be differences in viewpoint. 

In any case, though appealing, the environmental version of minimalism can fast devolve into a “less is always more” mentality and give rise to a desire to extinguish one’s presence from this world. Personally, I find this extreme position a bit unhealthy. I guess that, at the end of the day, I am indeed a moderationist. 🙂

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30 Comments, RSS

  1. movingmrs January 18, 2018 @ 1:44 PM

    Great post about minimalism. I recently watched a documentary about it. I move very often and each time I move, it really brings up the acknowledgement of minimalism. I get overwhelmed with how much stuff I have accumulated in each move and while I pack I end up getting rid of as much as possible.

  2. Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:16 PM

    Some deep thoughts here that I can so relate to. Striving for a fundamentalist lifestyle to save nature and environment got me to live without electricity, car, phone, and internet for 7 years. But just as you say it became boring and also isolated me from friends and family. So today I would also call myself a moderationist 🙂

    • blago

      blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:18 PM

      Wow! What did you do instead?

      • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:27 PM

        I still enjoy simplicity and a D.I.Y lifestyle. But as you said the parts that stressed or bored me I changed. I have internet now for example 😉

        • blago

          blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:29 PM

          Clearly you do haha I meant, what was your lifestyle like back then? Being outdoors more? Reading? Being miserable indoors? Stuff like this 😂

          • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:36 PM

            Oops my bad 😉 wasn’t quite sure what you were referring to. Most of the time I was living in a community where that lifestyle was required and reglemented by rules. Simple wooden cabins. Dim kerosene light in the evening. Even the clothes : only dark colors. It was all so depressing.

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:38 PM

            Lol how did you end up there? I’m just imagining one of these hippy green communes of vegan food and free love now 😂

          • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:41 PM

            It was my search for something I can’t even put in words. Religion mixed in as well. In the beginning I seriously believed that I please God with doing so 😉

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:42 PM

            You went in looking for god and finally found the Internet 😱 😂

          • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:39 PM

            And I read a lot you’re right. Everything I could get a hold of. Newspapers, magazines, books.. I always asked visitors to grab the newest edition of my favorite magazine before they would come .

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:40 PM

            That’s truly fascinating! What was a favourite magazine? You should write a post about this!

          • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:43 PM

            I just started to blog a couple days ago and still feel very insecure 😂but when I feel ready, I will 👍

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:44 PM

            I can wait (a bit, in the spirit of moderationism haha)

          • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:48 PM

            Ah ..and my favorite magazine was “Der Spiegel” . Everyone that came to visit me (living in Centralamerica) had to grab the latest edition at the airport.

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:51 PM

            Also, bist du deutsch dann? I’m just going to embarrass myself if I continue haha

          • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 2:55 PM

            Ja, ich bin deutsch 😅

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 2:57 PM

            I’ve been learning it for a while now. It’s a bit special… God, Spanish and Portuguese are so much easier 😂 I read die Zeit mostly in german, but always looking for further suggestions 🙂

  3. nomaddernomadder January 18, 2018 @ 3:19 PM

    I have moved many times and technically do not have a residence of my own. Yet, I still have too much “stuff”. I give it away and donate it because it is overwhelming at times. Soon I will be back on the road and will be forced to use what I have with me, which is enough.
    Minimalism is a philosophy which is different, as it should be, for everyone. It’s different for you, me, or a family of six. In its simplest form, it means to live with the things you need and not excessively and to use experiences instead of items to bring joy into your life. If you need a car to get to work, you should have one, one you can afford. Own a house, the size you need and can afford. And so on. If you already own 10 oxford shirts, why are you purchasing another with a credit card?
    If you are being an extreme or radical minimalist, I feel like you are missing the whole point of the minimalist philosophy, as you pointed out.
    Living a simple life, like in a hippy commune, is a great way of life for some people, obviously, it’s not for everyone. I would suggest that is an extreme form of minimalism and not exactly what the average person should aim for.
    Everyone might consider asking themselves when making purchases, “is this something I really need?”, “Where do I see this item a month from now?”. Save yourself some money.
    Clutter is clutter, internally and externally.
    Donna

    • blago

      blago January 18, 2018 @ 4:41 PM

      Hey, thanks for the great comment.

      As I said in the post, I don’t think there is as much of a dichotomy between experiences and material objects as suggested. Many experiences are intricately tied to objects – most travel would be impossible without airplanes, a lot of types of exercise would be dangerous without proper equipment, etc..

      In the abstract I agree one shouldn’t go into excesses. Financial intelligence is clearly important, but I don’t see it as a minimalistic element. It’s just common sense.

      In any case, I think that some excesses are necessary because we can’t know what’s excessive and what’s not until we try it. And if it’s excessive, then it might be too late. Maybe if we had perfect knowledge of the world and ourselves then we could just do the things we know need and nothing else. But that’s not the state we, humans, find ourselves in. Thus, I’m a bit skeptical about some of the elements of minimalism 🙂

      • nomaddernomadder January 18, 2018 @ 4:45 PM

        It’s like all things human, imperfect as you say. Balance, acceptance, and minimizing your stress.
        Donna

  4. cmapillay January 18, 2018 @ 6:35 PM

    Great views about minimalism. The more I think about it, I want o do it but i am not sure if I am doing it because i want to minimalize or for the love of change, just like you compared. I might get bored in few months if not days. would be great to get Becca’s insight more on this 🙂

    • blago

      blago January 18, 2018 @ 6:56 PM

      Yeah, her story is fascinating. Not to mention that I have a special thing for Latin America… 🙂

    • Becca January 18, 2018 @ 10:11 PM

      I still like to minimalize. I’m just not that radical anymore .. more moderate in general. Doing things different or in old-fashioned ways has always fascinated me.. but I tell you after scrubbing laundry by hand for a growing family you sure get the sense why washing machines (and other machines) got invented.😉search yourself honestly : if it’s because of the love of change you probably will be ready very soon for another one 😅

      • blago

        blago January 18, 2018 @ 10:16 PM

        I would just like to point out how amused I am by the verb “minimalize”. Please continue the conversation 😀

        • cmapillay January 18, 2018 @ 10:22 PM

          You have hit it at the right place Blago (i assume that’s your name, if not i m sorry, do let me know your name). But honestly topic is so debatable. I am hearing about what i don’t want to hear but i know that’s what it is. Yes for the live of change.

          • blago

            blago January 18, 2018 @ 10:24 PM

            Blago it is (the short version of it anyway 😉)

  5. Bashir A. January 18, 2018 @ 11:27 PM

    woow great post about minimalism

  6. Lexi January 19, 2018 @ 1:23 AM

    I can really relate to this post 100%. To me, in fashion, I consider minimalism to be utilizing what you already have and using it in a creative way. In addition, it also helps to benefit the environmental, commercial, and social aspects of the fashion industry! I see minimalism simply as being appreciative and grateful for the things you have, and utilizing them to their full potential. I don’t think minimalism has to include emptying out all of your belongings and doing a complete turn around on your lifestyle. I just think it involves being mindful and feeling abundant with what you are given and what you have.

  7. wanderersjunkyard January 19, 2018 @ 9:06 AM

    What a wonderful piece of writing. This style of life really fascinates me, but as the previous readers I am too afraid to let go off my material possessions. Wonder how Becca would have been there for all these years long. but, somewhere I know, things On the other side would be good.

  8. pearlsandgrit January 19, 2018 @ 3:27 PM

    I enjoyed this, and it made me think. I have always tried to put the emphasis on experiences rather than things.

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