As a kid, I often spent time thinking about what my adult life would look like. In my typical fantasy, I’d be an important person in a big house full of stuff I liked at the time. Pretty simple minded right? But it’s also understandable. Children are impressionable and don’t have much life experience. They tend to conflate happiness with possessions or status.
Fast forward to adulthood and many of us still carry this expectation. Years of evidence to the contrary hasn’t changed the old line of thinking, “I’m not happy now, but if I can buy X or Y, I will be” or “I’m not happy now, but if I can attain Y status in X years, I will be.” Both statements carry with them the weight of seeking fulfillment externally rather than from within. Obtain X and Y and realize, suddenly, that you want Z. The process continues ad infinitum.
What I propose today is a solution to mitigate the detrimental aspects of consumerist thinking on our happiness through the practice of minimalism. You’ve likely heard the word, but what is it? Minimalism is not easily defined, particularly when thought of as a philosophy. Some definitions, such as “living with less” are too broad while others, “owning no more than 50 things” are too narrow and seemingly arbitrary. There’s more nuance to the idea and its application is context dependent. For example, minimalism to a nomad is quite different from minimalism to a mother with five children.
I describe the philosophy as one that promotes the pursuit of only those aspects of life valued most while removing everything else that distracts from those pursuits. There is a sense of freedom associated with kind of minimalism. It requires prioritization, intentionality, commitment, and most importantly intellectual honesty. In the absence of intellectual honesty, self-deception holds sway. With self-deception, we may find ourselves once again searching for superficial answers to achieving lasting happiness. We surround ourselves with clutter, or desperately promote our sense of importance, while our internal state is in disarray.
So where do we begin? Writing up a personal inventory of what matters most to you is a good start. You can think in terms of what you do in a typical week or month. Anything outside of that is probably not something that should matter to you. Then, evaluate which of your possessions are necessary to those pursuits and eradicate the rest. For example, my computer is necessary for me to conduct my work, but I’d be lying if I tried to convince myself I needed an iPad (my phone does a great job filling in when I’m on the run).
Some people will find this process simple and straightforward. Others will have immense difficulty. They’ll find it painful to get rid of a shirt they haven’t worn in three years because they may end up wearing it again. Or perhaps that movie ticket stub from 12 years ago holds sentimental value. The solution is the same… be honest with yourself. Once you’ve rounded up the non-necessities, sell what you can, donate what could be used by someone else, and discard the rest. Then, don’t make new purchases until necessity compels you, such as when a well-worn pair of shoes needs replacing. It’s likely this process will occur over multiple stages as you go from getting rid of the obvious non-essentials to some of the more habitually entrenched stuff.
Finally, bask in your newfound freedom as you gradually dedicate more time and money to that which actually brings you a sense of purpose and joy.