Jefferson Bethke once wrote, “We refuse to turn off our computers, turn off our phone, log off Facebook, and just sit in silence, because in those moments we might actually have to face up to who we really are.”
When you take a look at your life and who you are, do you tend to “see” yourself in terms of the car you drive, the amount of money in your bank account, the name brands you wear, or the amount of gadgets you own? Do you have five different gaming consoles, even though you know you only need one? Have shelves of books you never read, always making a mental note that you’ll “get to them later”?
In contrast, I present to you the lifestyle of a minimalist.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, best friends and coauthors of The Minimalists, write about living a meaningful life with less stuff. At the start of their 21-day journey into a minimalistic lifestyle—the amount of time it usually takes to form a habit—they write that people “saw our six-figure jobs, our luxury cars, our new gadgets, and our lives of opulence, and they thought, ‘These guys have it figured out. I want to be just like them.’ They saw all of those things—all of that superfluous stuff—and they just knew we were successful… But the truth is we weren’t successful at all. […] Because even with all our stuff, we weren’t satisfied with our lives—we weren’t happy. And we discovered that working 70 to 80 hours a week and buying even more stuff didn’t fill the void. In fact, it only brought us more debt and anxiety and fear and stress and loneliness and guilt and overwhelm and paranoia and depression. It was a solipsistic existence.” Millburn and Nicodemus note that happiness is not tied to wealth and accumulation, and that one should not let their happiness be controlled by what they own.
They define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” Minimalism helps clear the excess from your life to focus on what you find important. With different notions of living happily come different ideas of minimalism: the minimalist lifestyle of a 22-year-old single guy will differ from a 40-year-old married mother’s. Millburn and Nicodemus ask us to consider the following question: How might your life be better if you owned fewer possessions?
Rachel Bell, also a minimalist, describes her new life with limited material products as a daily “zen-like” experience on her personal blog, herbalcell.com. “Ideas like ‘the more I own, the more I’m worth’ and ‘I might need this someday’ no longer made any sense to me. I now felt a new kind of lightweight freedom,” she writes. “Things occupying my space now had to pass the test of worthiness according to me. Decisions to get rid of things were hard at first, but became easier the more I made them. If I didn’t ever use something, I got rid of it, and if I didn’t enjoy using something, I got rid of it.” Bell began her simpler life at home by getting organized and saving space: she got rid of her filing cabinet and kept what was necessary in folders, her CD and DVD cases for used paper envelopes instead, most furniture, and invested in a cheaper, lighter keyboard to carry around.
The minimalist lifestyle comes with many perks: more freedom, fewer expenses, and more peace of mind. Although Bell admits that “sometimes you’re going to regret getting rid of something—it’s an impossible thing to avoid. And sometimes it can feel like a socially awkward way to live.”
Bell mentions in a blog post about her and her husband’s move across the U.S. that “our only piece of furniture now is our memory foam mattress. We keep our bed in the living room because it’s definitely the nicest of all the areas in the house with lots of windows and is connected openly to the kitchen. We also keep it on the floor, which we’ve done happily for several years. We use it for sitting, eating, using our laptops, watching movies, playing video games, and sleeping. We spend most of our time on it and it has definitely been worth what we paid for it.” For some of us, this sounds like a dream—to spend most of my time in bed? Sign me up! However, when asked about how their reduced furniture sits with visitors to their home, Bell replied, “They sat in the few chairs we had, but I think it can make them feel a bit awkward. Everyone expects to have a comfy living room set to plop onto. I think once they get past that initial shock and realize they still have a place to sit, they’re all right with it.”
It can be agreed that many of the things we decide to purchase are based on how we want others to view us. We put stock in the unfortunate truth that others will judge us, so we find worth in ourselves often through the quantity of high-end things we own. One might hesitate to pursue a minimalist lifestyle because of the stigma that may arise from living with less than others—it is only natural we feel that way at first, because we are raised to care what others think.
I asked Bell for advice she would give to students, and people in general, who have trouble letting go of material things and are looking for a more condensed lifestyle change.
“Take baby steps. Pick one thing to organize, say, your DVDs, and take note of how much space they took up before (you could even take a before photo), and then how little space you were able to compact them into,” she says. “It’ll impress you so much that you’ll want to tackle another area. Living as a minimalist may be a controversial thing, but one thing that everyone always agrees on: it feels good to organize and get rid of things. So just chase that feeling. And make sure to reconsider everything in your house as something to potentially get rid of, so that you don’t fall back on what’s culturally expected. A lot of furniture and items are single-purpose and could be eliminated by something clever that serves multiple purposes. Do what makes sense to you, not what other people expect you to do.”
You can read more about Rachel Bell’s experiences as a minimalist at herbalcell.com, and check out theminimalists.com for more information on Millburn and Nicodemus’s bestselling novel.