There is often a certain smugness attached to the minimalists presented in popular culture. The subtle implication of “I’m better than you are”. Maybe because they have reached the type of epiphany that us mere muggles — who enjoy a frivolous purchase — could only dream of.
I cringe at the image of someone sleeping on their yoga mat in a white cube-like room, insisting that owning one t-shirt has made them a better person. Ultimately, this superficial view of minimalism pictured through the lens of influencer culture gives it a bad reputation. Nobody wants to be told off for buying a new outfit by someone with a hundred thousand followers and an eye-watering trust fund. When we see self-proclaimed minimalists battling online to be the most ‘woke’ or curating the cleanest Instagram feed, the humble message behind it is blurred.
Minimalism is the idea that, by possessing fewer things, we can learn to appreciate the beauty around us. It comes from the Buddhist teaching that we shouldn’t attach ourselves to objects because everything in the material world is fleeting and can never last. So, whilst the rush of dopamine we get from buying something feels incredible, fixing our self-worth to how much we own probably won’t fulfil us long-term.
For many of us, myself included, buying new things has become somewhat of a coping mechanism during what seems like never-ending lockdowns. We aren’t socialising as much with loved ones, and we miss our favourite pastimes. It can cause us to splurge on feel-good items to create some semblance of novelty in our repetitive lives. I don’t think I’ll be alone when I say that treating yourself to a new purchase can be a comfort.
Therefore, to me, the most useful nuggets we can take from minimalist ideology go underneath the ‘have a clear-out and stop raiding your local Primark’. Instead, we can focus on realistic ways to find simple moments of joy in our everyday lives.
Fewer Objects and More Experiences
Sometimes a more gratifying alternative to a new purchase is planning an experience to look forward to. Full disclosure, I would usually suggest a getaway somewhere sunny. But unfortunately, the pandemic calls for a slightly different approach. Cheering yourself up by cooking your favourite meal or enjoying a hobby free from the pressure to be productive can give you those same feel-good endorphins as buying something new.
Shona Chambers, a 41-year-old minimalist from London, explained that valuing experiences over objects makes her feel better because “the best things in life are not things.”
“I have so many nice memories of things that I’ve done with my husband, my children, or on my own. Those are always so much more valuable than any other thing that you could ever own.”
One of the most beautiful ideals of minimalism is that worrying less about our physical possessions frees up time for us to focus on the people around us that make life worth living.
Science would agree with this, as Dr Heather Kappes, an expert in consumer behaviour explained. She reported that loneliness and materialism are deeply linked. “When people feel lonely, they may compensate by caring more about objects. They are not getting that human connection so they go out and look to acquire things or spend money to get status. It’s a bit counterproductive because, when you are very materialistic, you’re usually not putting much attention to building human connections. That tends to lead to more loneliness over time.”
When people feel lonely, they may compensate by caring more about objects.”
So, when feeling lonely or low on self-esteem, spending time with people you care about (even virtually) can remind you of your worth and place in the world. No money spending required.
Hand in hand with materialism is the need to work harder, live faster and constantly multitask in a desperate attempt to stay productive. In truth, no-one is working as hard as you think they are, despite what social media will have you believe.
In the 1980s, author and doctor Larry Dossey coined the term ‘time sickness’ to describe this phenomenon. He theorised that worrying about not having enough time to complete our tasks makes us unable to enjoy the present moment. For example, in our rush to speed walk to our next errand, we may miss the new flowers that have sprouted by the pavement or the stranger smiling at us from across the road. Learning to use our attention to focus on the present can improve our mood and deter anxious thoughts.
Slowing down and looking at minimalism as a mindset can also help us stay mindful. Little things like having time away from our phones and only focusing on one task at a time can make the small joys of life so much brighter. Taking unnecessary tasks off our to-do lists frees us to follow our real passions.
It may be a little hasty to throw away our prized shoe collections and start only washing our hair with lemon juice. Using minimalism to make people feel guilty for wanting some novelty will never inspire someone to ditch their online shopping habits. But, I like the idea of prioritising people you love and the experiences you share with them over material possessions. There is something to be said for learning to derive self-worth from places other than how much we own. I’m certainly not saying minimalism is the quick fix that will make you happy, but let’s be honest, nor is buying that new jacket.
Words by Eleni Evangelinos