Minimalism can be described as a multi-faceted, cultural, even spiritual lifestyle in which people embrace the “less is more” mindset to free themselves from the unwanted burdens of a pro-consumer society. They seek to recognize the unnecessary and excessive drive of spending and collecting material possessions, and for many, it is ultimately targeted to starve the insatiable hunger of the beast that is consumerism. Minimalism is a complex culture since the practitioner can adopt their personalized principles based on their own values, views, and goals.
Does the minimalist embrace the lifestyle on the basis of anti-consumerism, anti-waste, therapeutic spirituality and enlightenment, or to build their lives with the framework of simplicity? Regardless of which minimalistic path you travel, consumption of material goods is still at the heart of our civilization. We consume goods during all stages of our lives as we buy housing to live in, food to eat, and clothes to wear. Even in death, we consume land and other resources in a variety of burial rituals.
The minimalist’s goal is to limit this consumption of goods and resources in proper size and proportion, and avoid the pitfalls of an excessive and materialist way of life.
In America, consumer spending was estimated at $14.1 trillion in the third quarter of 2018 (Amadeo, 2018). A quarter of this amount was spent on personal possessions as we fill our lives more and more with materials objects. On average, there are 300,000 items in the typical American home, which has nearly tripled from 50 years ago. As of 2017, 12 percent of the world’s population residing in North American and parts of Western Europe account for 60 percent of private consumer spending (Becker, 2017).
Renata Dopierała reinforces the definition that the “essence of minimalism (…) is a negation of ostentation, of compulsive, mindless purchasing, and a critical analysis of the quantities of objects owned together with the social meaning ascribed to them” (Dopierala, 2017). This characterization of minimalism is a core value to help outline how minimalists view spending, and ultimately their volume of consumption.
As some critics view minimalists as those who give up all their possessions, they ignore the fact that all people, minimalist or not, constantly consume material goods. According to Mularczyk-Meyer (qtd. in Dopierala), “It is just as wrong as claiming that minimalists give up on possessions. (…) It is impossible to function normally in society and completely abandon material goods. We earn, we buy, we consume. What should be taken into account is proportion. Minimalists do not give up on consumption but they try to keep it within appropriate and reasonable limits” (Dopierala, 2017). If we learn to take a second look at our compulsory spending or at our need to accumulate physical possessions, becoming a minimalist can give you the opportunity to regain control from the pressures of our consumer culture. This alternative way of living can lead to less spending, and within that, the reduction in the rate of consumer consumption.
How minimalists redefine purchases as “appropriate and reasonable” is to change how they assign importance. It is vital for them to determine the role of their possessions in their life. Deopierala notes, “It is fundamental to redefine the approach towards consumption and things,
and to give them new meanings, (…) it is about creating a distance from the belief that material goods are the basis for individual identification and perception by others” (Dopierala, 2017). The status of physical belongings changes from want to need, changing the relationship we perceive ourselves as having with material things. The American Dream is always something that we are taught to strive to achieve, which goes in tandem with Malcom Forbes quote, “He who dies with the most toys wins.’ We want the house, the car, the boat, the job, the family, and the possessions. Then we place an emotional attachment on belongings beginning the cycle of sentimental sabotage. We do not want to get rid of an item because it was a gift from a friend, it might be valuable someday, we might need it someday, or merely because we have had it forever. The most important factor is “the discovery of what is ‘excess’ in the material sense (the redundancy of goods, objects), as opposed to what is in ‘deficit’ in the psycho-spiritual aspect” (Dopierala, 2017). As we redefine the personal value of our goods and possessions and determine what we have in “excess”, we can begin the process of becoming a fulfilled person and reach higher peaks of sentience. We remove the need to identify with a superficial environment and awaken with a new awareness of thinking, feeling, and sensing the ways we consume goods.
Increased spending goes hand in hand with the need for more space, with one out of every ten Americans renting an offsite storage unit (Becker, 2017). This has become one of the fastest growing sectors in the commercial real estate market, thus creating upwards of 50,000 storage facilities, which is more than five times the number of Starbucks (Becker, 2017). To help counter this, the minimalist conceives of a cooperative economy. This is an economy model in which “competition between producers is supplanted by cooperation between prosumers and consumers” (Dopierala, 2017). This is created by the simple idea of sharing, something that most of us should have learned in preschool or kindergarten. Various strategies are employed such as donating items to those in need, selling or exchanging with others, fixing and reutilizing devices rather than replacing them, or borrowing something from a neighbor versus buying the newest model of the same product. This would replace the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses”.
As the trend of minimalism is on the rise, so is the criticism from opponents that claim minimalism is a fad, socially oppressive, and poor chic. Publicist Chelsea Fagan condemns minimalism “as a secular kind of religion, an add-on to the cultures of yoga and green juices and general living well by putting together a tapas platter of cultural and spiritual practices without ever fully committing to one” (Fagan, 2017). This assumes that the practice of minimalism is superficial. She implies that we are at an upscale dessert buffet, filling our small plates with provisional trends of cultural confections, only to leave the plate half-full. She further argues that “it is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: “Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy, and the incredibly-expensive, sparse items I have deemed worthy instead!” (Fagan, 2017). This again implies that all minimalists are only looking for attention and superficial praise for choosing minimalism.
She fails to see the depth of simplicity, balance and contrast, and the lack of need for social comparison in minimalism. While there is no denial that a secular population of minimalists exists who choose to downsize, only to replace purchases with high dollar or luxurious possessions, Ms. Fagan’s article has missed an entire demographic of intentional minimalists who do so for cleaner living, contrary to her view that minimalism is in fact a luxury that only “wealthy people can buy”. However if minimalism at its heart is anti-consumerism, how does purchasing only the elite and most expensive of belongings fit in? Purchasing high dollar items from well-known brands “confirms the associations between minimalism and the capitalist economy and how the latter is embedded in the minimalist reality” (Dopierala, 2017). A goal of minimalists is ultimately to curb the unnecessary spending on material goods and decrease the appetite of pressured consumerism.
If we spend disproportionate resources for material goods that we have already deemed excessive, we then succumb to the demands of a capitalistic society.
From this perspective, minimalism is an individual search for moderation and life balance, turning the need for collecting into the preference for experiences. Many minimalists redirect their consumption towards spending in travel, theater, concerts, and other non-material things. This “reorientation” of personal choices is confirmed by Dopierala’s article in that “money is still spent, but it is allocated for other types of goods than strictly material ones: travel, tourism, art, which in principle is aimed at providing equally high quality and valuable experiences from the perspective of self-realization of the individual. (Dopierala, 2017). To surrender belongings can be seen as losing something, rather than achieving a new way of living. In a nutshell, we focus on doing, not being. According to recent research (Cassano, 2015), the value of experiences over possessions result in longer-lasting happiness. Experiences create less clutter since physical belongings ultimately take up limited space. Experiences also result in greater mindfulness, as we are more likely to keep us present in the moment.
This mindfulness strengthens our need for self-nurturing, which leads to the reduction of stress and allowing for more autonomy, another principle of minimalism. As we focus on experiences rather than possessions, we can turn towards the future versus the past: “Minimalism shifts our focus to the present moment. We identify what we need and want in our homes and our lives TODAY. Not what we needed last year. And not what we might need next year. Instead, keeping only what we will actually will use and love today (Russell, 2017). The consumer market tells us repeatedly that the next big purchase will make us happy and content. We are brainwashed by marketing and advertisements that we are not good enough. When we hear these statements repeatedly, we start to believe them. It is the classic carrot on a stick routine. By redefining what materials goods are important to us today, minimalism can help eliminate these distractions. We then become aware of the choices we make, and why we are making them.
Whether one chooses a minimalistic lifestyle for clarity of mind and better health, more freedom and less stress, added self-confidence and greater purpose, or less spending with less consumption, we know that minimalism is a tool in pursuit of a goal. Minimalism itself is not important. What is important is the emphasis on living a full life and the actions that create happiness. Material possessions can get in the way of the capacity to connect with the things that are most important. The real significance in minimalism is in reconnecting with what living well means for you. Figure out what you love, keep those belongings, and throw away the rest.