Three years ago, I went through a period fraught with personal difficulties. A relationship I was deeply invested in broke apart, my wrist got fractured playing handball, and my mom lost her job amidst the natural state of depression that defined my life at the time.

Something interested emerged from the chaos, however. Forced to acknowledge that happiness was impossible (whatever the ever optimist marketers might be saying…), I had to ask myself if there was a life beyond it. At the time, I felt that If life was all about happiness, mine was pretty much over. But maybe, there was another way to live in which experiencing suffering and pain was not synonymous with failure.

As it happened, I spent Christmas and New Years Eve alone in Oxford, far away from friends and family. This period offered me much needed solitude to think about the question above. I slowly came to realize that the suffering was fine as long as I was growing as a person. If only I could just get to the end of the academic year successfully, without giving up and without adopting useless identities (such as “mentally ill”, “depressed”, etc.; fortunately I only needed to think about this just thought in order to dispel it). If only I survived and managed to thrive despite (thanks to?) the suffering, then I would be content.

Thus, I spent the evening of New Years Eve writing about the inherent contradiction I saw between seeking happiness and seeking growth. To be happy was to look into the present (or the past) and stay still in perception. It was essentially a passive yet conscious meditative state. On the other hand, to grow was to struggle against reality and either win or learn from the mistakes. It was at times painful, at times not, but always active and subject to a purpose.

The contradiction was in the opposite directions the two ideals were pulling. Action vs non-action, acceptance vs change, non-purpose vs purpose. As everybody knows intuitively, to truly grow in anything requires many sacrifices of pleasure and present joy. And conversely, to be truly happy, one cannot be too preoccupied with making progress; one must let go.

In a moment of epiphany, I consciously realized this deep truth and set go to explore the consequences. What if I embraced my pain and used it to grow instead of wallowing that happiness was being unfairly taken away from me? Both points of view were on the table, but only one really kept me truly alive. If nothing else, adopting a growth-based mindset was the most practical solution to my problems at the time.

In any case, while in Oxford I made my choice to pursue growth and live with the blues if necessary. It worked well — I matured significantly over this period and became more resilient to life’s downs. Crucially, I confirmed my doubt that happiness was overhyped. A great life wasn’t necessarily based around a pursuit of happiness (although it’d be a shame not to enjoy it from time to time). I saw that one could well be more than content with pursuing his/her ambitions and let happiness happen if it should or not if it shouldn’t. Continue reading The non-Wisdom of looking for Happiness instead of Meaning

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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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