Minimalism 101

It’s that time of year. The time where we become exhausted from running from store to store, buying more things we don’t need, or won’t use after we open them.

Explicitly, we all know that we live in a consumer culture, and we buy far too much stuff. Unfortunately, knowing this doesn’t stop us. Unless we are being conscientious about our money — and most of us aren’t — we don’t particularly pay attention to our buying behavior. We think of our spending habits as harmless, or, at best, view our spending in terms of money alone. But, what if our buying behavior affects more than just our bank accounts? What if it affects our health, and our happiness?

This question is only now being scientifically explored, thanks to those studying consumer behavior. There are, undoubtedly, a number of factors that contribute to our unnecessary consumption. Many may have to due with our very nature, or evolutionary hardwiring. After all, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes quite a bit of sense to want to have a lot of stuff. Stockpiling, storing, and saving things is a way to ensure our future survival. We evolved in a dangerous and changing world, where a fruitless harvest or bad hunt foretold demise. This hardwiring works against us when we buy things. Instead of asking, “would this product make me happier”, we ask, “…could I ever use this”, assuming we ask anything at all. Much of the time we don’t even think about our purchases. We haphazardly navigate up and down tortuous aisles, grabbing all that is on sale, or is “too good to pass up”. Our hoarder-like nature only gets worse from living in a consumer culture.  I’ll spare you the hippie-esque, pseudo-intellectual tirade about logos, success metrics, social media, iPhone apps, business objectives, consumer appeal, consumer retention, viral marketing, emotional economizing, greenlining, greenwashing, paradigm shifts, branding… it would be too much. It is too much.

So, how do we escape it? We are, in a way, addicted to buying stuff. It isn’t enough for us to simply think, “I should buy less”, or “I should only buy what makes me happy”. We have to become diligent and active non-buyers, instead of lazy, passive consumers.

To begin, we can start by tallying up how much stuff we have, and how much of it we don’t need. If, in the midst of this process, you find yourself asking, “Why do I have so much stuff?”, then you are on the right track. Alternatively, we can look at what we own and ask, “Does this really affect my happiness?” In order to answer this question effectively, we have to understand what makes us happy, and why. For example, you might think a big wardrobe, with lots of clothes to choose from, would make you happier. But, there is evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case. Having lots of available options, whether it’s clothes, ice cream flavors, or retirement plans, actually “paralyzes [us] into indecision”, to quote consumer psychologist Barry Schwartz. Not only do we become indecisive, but when we finally do choose, we are often unhappy or dissatisfied with our choice. “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything about the option that you chose”, says Schwartz.

Additionally, we have to recognize that our buying behavior is habitual, and routine. We have to work to break this routine — this addiction — of tireless consumption. There are many ways to start doing this, but a good way to begin is to get rid of what you don’t need. If you haven’t used, acknowledged, or appreciated a particular thing you own in six months or more, then get rid of it. If you are feeling ambitious, go with three months. Further, you can give yourself a minimalist challenge of owning 100 items or less, or whatever number you feel would put you on the appropriate minimal path.

Next, turn to your spending habits. Don’t purchase things on a whim. Don’t buy stuff to fulfill some sort of social function, (e.g., shopping with friends), or an emotional need, (e.g., you are bored and have nothing to do). If you feel like you should buy something, (apart from food), wait a few days and see if you still really want it. After that, wait a week, or a month. If you still feel as if you can’t live without it, consider purchasing it.

Some people are quite ahead of the rest of this in this respect, and they aren’t Zen Buddhists or austere Christian Orthodox monks. They are regular folks who are sick of having so much garbage, and who want to feel real attachment to the things they own. Our world, for better or worse, is one of mass production, cheap labor, and disposable incomes. This has caused us to lose touch with our possessions. Rarely do we look at our purchases as special, or meaningful. If, however, we decide to own less than 100 items, our possessions gain new meaning. We begin to think of what we own as truly ours, rather than some random thing we grabbed off a shelf somewhere. Minimalism is not about being anti-materialistic. On the contrary, its about finding renewed life and spirit in our possessions, and being proud of what we own.

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12 thoughts on “Minimalism 101

  1. societyred says:

    Very well said. Of course this contradicts the national economic plan but I agree with you entirely. The majority of consumers believe they need what they are told they need. “Fashion” is a perfect example; no matter how ridiculous, anything can be sold to “lazy, passive consumers”.
    Ironic that I read this on a day when people around the country lined up hundreds deep to purchase special edition $180 tennis shoes. There was a riot at a shopping mall near my house at 6 in the morning! Riot police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd of potential shoe buyers…
    Great work!

  2. jandrewhickey says:

    Yes, any good economist will likely tell you that in order to have a functioning and active economy, people have to be constantly purchasing things… I’m very much a capitalist, but I think we have to acknowledge there are fundamental problems with the type of capitalism we have today, which involves overconsumption via needless transactions.

    I hope the great work was directed at me, rather than the riot police. Haha, ;]

  3. societyred says:

    I love your blog and I nominated you for a Liebster Blog Award, Congrats!

    • jandrewhickey says:

      Wow, thank you. I must admit I had to google it to find out what it was, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. Hopefully with the holidays coming to a wrap, I can start writing much more frequently. 😀

  4. Jean says:

    I can guarantee that cycling lifestyle and being car-free for several decades, will eventually set a person’s head and ….leg muscles/heart right. You really don’t want to cycle home from the store, with junk up that 8-10% grade hill. 🙂

    • jandrewhickey says:

      Absolutely. Unfortunately, many people still live in very rural areas, making cycling an unfeasible mode of transportation. :/

  5. Beautifully written!

    It can be difficult to resist the impulse to consume too much, no question. Particularly with so much media now reliant on supporting (or at least pre-supposing) the consumption of certain goods/products; a certain lifestyle. Media, technology, and traditional “products” (e.g. shoes or a car) are all so inter-linked now; for instance, think about buying virtual items in games or on websites. In the 21st century it takes an *extra* big effort to break out of those habits you describe.

    But for sure, it’s worth it!

    “We have to become diligent and active non-buyers, instead of lazy, passive consumers.”

    Agreed. I have been trying this for years now and can report one of the major benefits to be: actually having the money for things I really will remember – like holidays or cultural events. 🙂

  6. jandrewhickey says:

    I wonder if buying digital products is somehow more acceptable within a kind of “minimal” framework. To be honest, I hope so. Most of my media is digital, which makes owning less stuff much easier.

    Holidays can be difficult though. Its tough telling people to not buy you stuff.

    • Yes, I think you could be right actually. You can’t get more minimal than something that doesn’t actually exisit physically. 😉 That’s an interesting philosophical question actually….hmm. Thought provoking! Thanks! Yes, nobody ever listens when you say you don’t want anything!

  7. Lisa says:

    This is quite interesting and I agree with the goal of minimalism that you should apprechiate the few items you have that really means something to you.

    I had a discussion with my boyfriend about this. He think I’m a bit to attached to some of my things. And the case now is that those things that I’m very attached to are things that means a lot to me. Most of my books and a number of films. I wouldn’t mind if my computer broke, or if I removed half of the clothes I own. I don’t really need them (okay, the computer maybe. But I could always use computers at school and the libraries and so on.) I could do well without the guitar (though I play it a lot at it gives me joy. I wouldn’t get rid of a thing that I use to make me happy if that were the case).

    But I think I have fewer things than most people, and I know I have stuff I don’t really need or find pleasure in any more. I could easily get rid of those. Due to economy I rarely buy stuff unless I need them. Like books for my studies and such.

    And I could talk lots about the digital way of owning stuff. I prefer to have DVD’s to watch on a tv-set instead of having them on the computer as files. But that’s because I have this idea of trying to not rely on the computer so much. It’s got negative and positive sides to it since I want to own as little as possible (much for the natures sake and for my own) and on the same time being free from the digital world of computing.

    Sorry for the long comment. I was reflecting over my point of view of these kind of stuff while writing.

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