While some get off on having all the latest and greatest products, more millennials are seeing who can make do with very little. Angela Waters speaks to psychologists, friars and minimalist living gurus to see why people are pairing down, what they are getting out of it and how it is done.
We have all been told that things will never make us happy, but somehow we still find ourselves filling up junk drawers, countertops, closets, basements and storage spaces with the things that we buy but never use. Prized collections can devolve into hoarding; we lose the ability to separate things you actually need from the French press filter whose glass beaker broke five years ago.
In a time when we can shop whenever, people are increasingly starting to choose not to. The movement is called minimalism, a lifestyle where you boil down your possessions to only what is necessary in order to focus more on nonmaterial things like happiness and relationships. Its a philosophy lived and preached by everyone from the ancient greek philosophers, buddhist zen masters and silicone valley millionaires. There are no hard and fast rules about what to keep and what to throw away, so each minimalist has to be honest with themselves in order for it to work.
Why Is Minimalism Now So Appealing?
According to Art Markman of the University of Texas's psychology department, it is because we want to be different from mom and dad. “Every generation as it takes its place among the adults reacts against things that came before it. We’ve been in an age of overconsumption lately. A lot of things are disposable and there is a lot of media that promotes consumption, so people are reacting against that,” he told Highsnobiety.
Instead of buying into inexpensive fashion that stays relevant for less than a season, people are choosing simple uniforms. It goes beyond cost; even Zuckerbergs and Huffingtons — who can afford to have a full wardrobe of resort wear — are famous for repeating the same pieces in an effort to conserve energy for other decisions.
For a large part of the generation, making the same choices as their parents is simply not an option. “It’s very expensive now for people entering the real-estate market to buy a home,” Markman said. “Which makes it so people are mobile for longer than they were in the past. This is mirrored by the fact that people change jobs rather quickly, which means that they need to be flexible in where they live.”
In lieu of a big suburban house with a basement, the small apartment with multiple roommates has become the norm and leaves little space for storage. With renting comes moving and even the most material of girls have contemplated throwing everything away while playing Tetris in the back of a U-Haul van.
Surpassing even the latest Danish design furniture, traveling is the new luxury of choice. “It is much more emphasis on the experience than the goods that go with it,” Markman said.
The Spiritual Side
Part of minimalism’s appeal is the promise that it is good for the soul. Although millennials are not known for filling pews, the want to connect to something larger than yourself did not disappear as the generational letters changed from X to Y.
Some of history’s most famous minimalists are monks. Friar David B. Couturier of the School of Franciscan Studies in New York says that the reason the philosophy is so widespread among the major religions is also why it carries weight with the new generation as it becomes adults.
“’Living simply allows others to simply live,” Fr. David told Highsnobiety. “Minimalism isn’t a way of rejecting nature or people. It isn’t a rebellion against excess in and of itself; it is a way of protecting relationships that have been compromised by greed and violence.”
One of the main appeals of minimalist living is the social consciousness. Buying less clothes means less exploitative sweatshops, consuming fewer products reduces the growth of landfills or plastic islands in the ocean and living in a tiny house that needs less power means more space and natural resources for others.
Beyond social injustice and saving the planet, having to work less in order to buy a bunch of things means that you have more time to spend with the people you want to see. “Millennials want a more simplified life because they are incredibly social,” Fr. David said. “They’d much rather work to live than live to work. They are looking for models of how to connect that to spirituality, something that is going to give them a fuller and more holistic life, something that protects the environment.”
As with all movements that are striving for a better world such as veganism, meditation or CrossFit, receiving lectures and humble brags from self-righteous enthusiasts can be a pitfall of minimalism. But according to the experts, this defeats the purpose.
“Anytime you are dealing with spirituality, the worst place you can end up is in an experience of pride, because it will undo everything you’ve worked for,” Fr. David said. “That kind of superiority is a possession. You are trying to possess your simplicity. Like everything else it can turn into a fashion statement.”
He added that even Franciscan monks — whose job it is to preach — are instructed to keep sermons short because “it shows humility.”
The Best Place to Start
Minimalist blogger and guru Leo Babauta of Zen Habits sees minimalist living as the alternative to retail therapy for treating our societal neurosis.
“The physical clutter of the world is caused by shopping to distract from the uncertainty in our world,” Babauta told Highsnobiety. “We get trapped into buying every time we have an urge. It comes from that place of wanting to find what is essential, what is really important, and we have to make space for that.”
Luckily, burning all of your worldly possessions is not a pre-requisite for becoming a minimalist. For Babauta, it was easiest to start in one area and slowly conquer more territory.
“One of the places I love to start is the kitchen counter or just the kitchen sink,” he said. “Keeping that clear of dishes and other junk turns it into a magical space. You can start to move outward to your counter one foot at a time. Eventually you start to widen that zone and it becomes your oasis of peace in the chaos.”
Although Babauta says that he got a rush from the initial clean-out, there are things that are easier to let go of than others.
“Books were, and still are, the hardest,” he said. “I have to be realistic about my collection and see if I really am going to get to all of them. Each book represents an aspiration I hope to explore and getting rid of them is acknowledging that I don’t have room for every aspiration.”
While no one noticed as Babauta’s clothing cycle started becoming smaller, the changes to his living space were hard to ignore. “People start to notice you having huge yard sales. It is a striking difference of having clear surfaces on the floors, shelves and counters versus the average American household, which is clutter on every surface,” he said.
As his home stopped looking “average,” he found that it increasingly resembled the minimalist rooms found in design magazines and perfectly posed Instagram shots.
“It is one of the fantasies that helped me start out,” Babauta said. “It is a beautiful ideal and I don’t have any problem with it, but you have to realize that even when you get to this point, you will probably still want more.”
While Babauta and Fr. David have been converted by the environment, social, psychological and economic benefits of minimalism, Markman is not convinced that millennials will stick with simple living. “Although people are starting to have families later,” he said. “When they start having families, it is going to require people to settle down, have less disposable time, and essentially turn into their parents, the same way every generation does – despite its protests.”
It may be difficult to fight genetic programming, but here is to hoping we have some sort of control over how specifically we follow the mould.
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