Do you consider yourself a minimalist? Do you even know what minimalism means? Lately I’ve been excited by a number of blogs and websites devoted to the topic. That interest signals a reverse in the over-consumptive tendencies and consumer lifestyle so prevalent during the last couple of decades here in the U.S. But often when I read the posts and comments on such sites, it seems that those who are involved have differing views of what minimalism is and why it can be beneficial. Perhaps before we start calling ourselves a minimalist we should describe what we mean in the first place.
So what is minimalism? It was first defined as a trend in design or architecture that reduces everything to its essentials. Some of the more famous designers like M. Buckminster Fuller coined a phrase like, “Doing more with less,” while others shortened the statement to, “More is less.” Minimalism then is anything that uses the least amount of elements necessary to achieve results. From that perspective it applies to everything from design and architecture—to art, music, landscaping, style, technique, clothing, action, policy and even one’s lifestyle. And because it has become such wide topic, it is also becoming a sort of catch-all for lots of people. In many ways minimalism has the makings of the latest fad.
I think I first heard about the practice of minimalism several years ago after reading a book named “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich” by Duane Elgin first published in 1981. I can remember being a little afraid of the idea at first. After all, compared to the cultural messages being promoted in the 1990s and 2000s it was a radical detour from the push for ever more prosperity. Many of us in our 20s, 30s and even 40s at the time were hypnotized into thinking that we all deserved every single thing our heart desired. There was little awareness of the consequences to ourselves, other people, or the world at large from our drive for more, more, and even more. So when a book like Elgin’s came along it wasn’t just a wake up call—it felt a little more like a slap in the face to sober us up.
Of course the true message of voluntary simplicity was that all that consumption wasn’t leading to greater happiness in the first place. In fact, learning to focus on what is important in a person’s life isn’t sacrifice at all. Instead, it is a refocus towards things that bring greater peace and wellbeing to a person. Plus, a large portion of the Voluntary Simplicity movement is a focus on the devastation that our drive for more at any cost was doing to the planetary environment. To this day, Duane Elgin continues to be a spokesperson for the Voluntary Simplicity movement with a dozen or more books, various videos and speaking engagements around the globe. In all honesty, it took Thom and I over a decade to be able to appreciate and embrace most of the concepts Elgin promotes.
Then somewhere about four or five years ago the word “minimalism” started showing up. I doubt there was any surprise that it suddenly took on significance following the mortgage crisis meltdown in ’08 and ’09. Suddenly, millions of people who had been sucked into the ever-growing capitalistic religion of overconsumption were rudely awakened to its pitfall—massive unsustainably. In dramatic reaction people began looking for an alternative that made sense of it all. Minimalism struck a cord—and has been playing ever since.
There are many great benefits to the practice of minimalism. Some of the elements I appreciate being suggested by those who are “minimalists” include:
#1 Reminding us that “less is more” in just about every case.
#2 Putting the focus back on quality rather than quantity.
#3 Eliminating the drive for “more” at any cost.
#4 Encouraging everyone to unclutter their lives and homes.
#6 Eliminate or reduce jobs that are unrewarding or tedious
#7 Focus less on owning things, and more on experiencing things
#8 Increasing space and time in one’s life
All of these elements are wonderful qualities to embrace, but I can’t help but believe that many minimalists stop short of its potential. Actually, after reading many of the blogs and the comments of several minimalist websites, a big focus seems to be overly narcissistic. Similar to someone who suddenly announces they are vegetarian—only to explain they had chicken the night before—many who are attracted to the minimalistic lifestyle are doing it because it sounds cool, or they had no other choice—not because they’ve had a change of heart. In fact, one gets the impression that minimalism has become the latest hobby, until something better comes along.
Still, we all need to start somewhere. Minimalism, like most life transforming experiences, is a process. So I continue to believe that any beginning, however modest, is still a beginning. Plus, as I already confessed, when I first heard Duane Elgin speak, I too was a bit like a deer caught in headlights. Then gradually, bit-by-bit, I began realizing that the pursuit of more was not the answer to happiness and wellbeing. I also started realizing that the lifestyle I was living and some of the choices I was making was contributing to massive unsustainablity on the planet. For those reasons I believe we must consider minimalism to be a more holistic lifestyle than merely a trendy design option.
I also realized that there are five simple questions that can easily determine whether a person is a life-long minimalist or not. Those questions are:
#1 If you won a $10 million dollar lottery would you suddenly slip into consumer mode—buy the fancy car, etc…and start living a different lifestyle?
#2 If you were offered a job with a high six-figure income —and you had to work 80 hours a week in a cubicle doing work that was boring and repetitive—would you take it?
#3 If you inherited a 20-room mansion in Hollywood, would you start packing and move as soon as possible?
#4 Are you a minimalist because you have few resources anyway so you might as well make the most of it—and you could honestly care less whether it helps or hurts other people or the planet?
#5 This is the big one…if you fell in love with someone and they hated the minimalist lifestyle—would you abandon your minimalist ways and live a life that pleased this new love of your life?
In case you’re wondering how I would answer these questions you can be sure I would never work at a tedious boring job no matter how much it paid (been there done that)! I also have no interest in living in Hollywood or a 20-room mansion. If I won $10 million dollars I’m not sure exactly how that would change my life, but I know that I would never go back to how I used to live. My answer to question number four acknowledges a belief that minimalism must be a benefit to the world as well as myself. Best of all, as in number five, my partner and I are on the same page about living a SMART Life and are dedicated to doing it as well as we are able.
Clearly, my thinking has been transformed. That’s actually a big reason why I came up with the idea for SMART Living 365. SMART living takes into account that in order for me to experience well-being, my life must include 1) Sustainability, 2) Meaning; 3) Art and beauty; 4) Responsibility; and 5) Thanksgiving and gratitude. All of that includes minimalism—but goes beyond in ways that I believe are more rewarding.
But more important than my answers—what about you? After taking the quiz, are you really a minimalist?
“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~Lao Tzu
“The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence.” ~Duane Elgin
1. Tiny House http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrlerone/39223196/
2. Big Home http://www.flickr.com/photos/chriscgray/3350083785/