The Joy of Minimalism

Does buying stuff not really do it for you anymore? Me neither. Live with less, purchase with purpose, and be free.

Happy Friday morning everyone! Congratulations on making it through the first week of 2020. One down, 51 to go. Today’s article is about minimalism, the art of buying and living with less.


Buying something for myself doesn’t spark joy the way it used to. Most of my purchases are routine; I’m usually only spending money on gas, groceries, car repairs, and other necessities. When I do buy things that I want instead of need, I feel a sense of relief instead of happiness or joy. It feels more like scratching an itch or feeding an addiction than happiness. It’s hard to spend money on things I don’t need without feeling guilty or ashamed.

I have possessions I haven’t seen in years. I have things in closets, cupboards, drawers, and in different states. Every nook and cranny in my apartment is filled to the brim with my things, and I feel overwhelmed by an abundance of stuff. I’m not the only one that feels this way; I recently watched the documentary Minimalism (you can watch it on Netflix) and there is a growing movement in the U.S. to live with less. The following quote from Minimalism puts my feeling of being overwhelmed by stuff into words.

“So much of our life is lived in a fog of automatic, habitual behavior. We spend so much time on the hunt. But nothing ever quite does it for us, and we get so wrapped up in the hunt that it kind of makes us miserable.”

- Dan Harris, author

Ever since I started consuming and learned what money was, I’ve been on the hunt. Hunting for that perfect purchase that would finally make me happy. Buying things now feels automatic and habitual. The rush of excitement I get when buying something I want is substantially more subdued compared to when I was younger.

Can money buy happiness?

I’m not sure there’s a yes or no answer to that question. Money certainly can buy happiness, to some degree. A study found that individuals who spend more on things in sync with their personality type tend to be happier. This means introverted individuals who spend more on things that match their interests, like books or puzzles, are happier. Extroverted people who spend more money on social activities are probably happier, too.

Money isn’t directly correlated with happiness, though. Someone who makes $100,000 a year isn’t necessarily going to be twice as happy as someone who makes $50,000 a year. The evidence that money doesn’t buy happiness is hidden in plain sight. There are people that have very little but are happy, and wealthy individuals that are miserable.

Still, I feel like having more things and more money would make me happier. If I could afford to buy a new car, new clothes, and new electronics, I feel like I would be happier. I know that isn’t true. No purchase, no matter how big or small, has ever provided me with sustainable, lasting happiness. The newness eventually wears off, and objects that used to excite and bring joy are now forgotten.

Think back to a time when you really wanted something and ended up buying it for yourself or receiving it as a gift. For me, it was a new(er) car about two years ago. My old car was over 20 years old and on its last leg. I wanted a new car more than anything.

Now try to remember how you thought the purchase would make you feel before you bought whatever it was. I thought this car would be the answer to all of my problems. I fantasized about having a car with working windows that looked like it was from this century. 

How do you feel about your purchase now? I don’t feel any different. I only think about my car when I’m driving, and it doesn’t bring me any joy; it just gets the job done. My new car is nicer in almost every way than my old car, but it doesn’t make my life different in any meaningful way (besides being more reliable). I’m no happier now than I was when I drove my old Buick.

Fashion vs. function

Many of the things we buy today are intended to be fashionable first, and functional second. Home appliances, such as dishwashers, toasters, coffee makers, and refrigerators, all look sleek and modern. We get rid of things when they are no longer fashionable, not when they’re no longer useful.

Clothes, electronics, and home goods are not upgraded when they cease to work, but when they become old-looking or outdated. Almost everything in the home is disposable. Juliet Schor had a great quote in Minimalism about how we are actually not materialistic enough.

“We are too materialistic in the everyday sense of the word, and we are not at all materialistic enough in the true sense of the word. We need to be true materialists, like really care about the materiality of goods. Instead we’re in a world in which material goods are so important for their symbolic meaning, what they do to position us in the status system based on what advertising or marketing says they’re about.”

- Juliet Schor, PhD, economist and sociologist

Most of us aren’t materialistic at all. We don’t think twice about the energy, time, and materials that go into producing the goods we toss out every day. It is clear that our earth can not sustain this type of consumerism. Every purchase needs to be made with intention and purpose, and we need to recognize the true value of the things we own. Objects that are worthless, dollar-wise, are still valuable when you consider the labor and materials that went into creating the object.

Hoarding

Some people have trouble getting rid of things. If you don’t use something and it doesn’t bring you joy, why would you keep it? 

We believe that things we own are special just because they’re ours (this is known as the endowment effect). Our love for things begins at a young age, too. Below is another quote from Minimalism.

“It is clear that, as human beings, we have strong attachment, initially in our lives, to people who are caring for us. And sometimes it feels like those attachments spill over to objects, as if they were as important as people. I’m not sure we have such a great relationship with things.”

- Gail Steketee, PhD, compulsive hoarding expert

The stuff we own is part of our identity. It can be hard to get rid of things because they are a part of who we are, in a way. The things we buy show the world how fashionable we are, what we care about, what we value, and what type of person we are. It is difficult to let go of parts of ourselves.

Hoarders take this a step further and feel responsible for objects and sometimes think of inanimate objects as having feelings. It can be even harder to get rid of things that were once owned by a loved one that is no longer with us. Objects represent, and are a part of, their owner.

Spend time with your things

How often do you have the opportunity to enjoy the things you like?

Home decor, like plants and paintings, are easy to enjoy. All it takes is a short glimpse to give you a small dose of satisfaction. Other possessions can be harder to enjoy. Almost all of us own things we haven’t seen in months or years.

For items that you value but don’t see often, give yourself more time to enjoy them. Find some time this weekend to sit down with a book you forgot you had, or watch one of your favorite movies that’s been sitting on the shelf collecting dust. There’s a special kind of joy we get from rediscovering old things; we get the feeling of having something new and exciting without the guilt of spending any money.

Letting go

Our identities are, in part, determined by what we own. When something we own is destroyed, ruined, or given away, a part of us dies with it. That’s why it feels so painful to part with our possessions, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Getting rid of stuff is freeing. Once you give something away, you don’t have to be responsible for that object anymore. You don’t have to worry about something happening to it. The part of your identity that was tied up in that thing no longer exists. In a way, it’s like you’re reclaiming parts of you that were tied up in possessions and taking them back for yourself.

Having excess stuff and clutter causes stress. Getting rid of things makes you healthier and happier. 

When we have too many choices we become overwhelmed and are less satisfied. A study was conducted at a gourmet grocery store in California where customers were offered samples of different jams. Some customers were shown six jams and some were shown 24. 30% of customers who sampled jam from the small assortment ended up purchasing a jar, and only 3% of customers who were forced to choose between 24 different jars of jam ended up purchasing a jar.

Having less choice makes decisions easier. It’s easier to find something to wear in the morning when you’re deciding between two different outfits rather than 30. Making a decision about what to eat for dinner is easier when you only have a few, or even one choice. How many times have you browsed hundreds or thousands of TV shows and movies on Netflix and been unable to find something worthy of watching?

How often have you gone out to eat with a refrigerator and a freezer full of food at home? When confronted with an overwhelming amount of options, many of us would rather not make a decision and instead go hungry (like I do when the refrigerator is full but nothing looks good enough to eat) or come up with a new option and choose that instead (I think I’ll just go out to eat).

Getting rid of stuff means you’ll have less choice, which may sound like a bad thing, but will actually reduce stress and make life easier.

This weekend I’m going to get rid of a bunch of my stuff, and I think you should too. I’m not going to part ways with anything I use or that brings me joy; I’m going to get rid of clothes I never wear, of long-forgotten knick knacks tucked away in drawers and on shelves. I’m going to get rid of clutter that has accumulated for no reason. One of my two identical copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will probably have to go.

I think I’ll feel more free, and maybe even happier. I’m looking forward to it.

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