In case you haven’t noticed, minimalism and the tidying up movement are having a moment. “Less is more” has gone mainstream.
New shows on Netflix. New York Times bestselling books. Donation centers bursting at the seams. Photos of neatly rolled garments taking over Instagram. A new verb, ”Kondo-ing,” entering the lexicon.
It’s not that the idea of living with less—and realizing the attendant benefits—is a newly discovered concept. Thousands of years ago, Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus came to the conclusion that “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” It’s just that today’s culture, or at least some meaningful corner of it, is finally catching on.
A Journey Toward a More Minimal Life
My own family’s journey toward a more minimal lifestyle has been marked by fits and starts.
Four years ago, we began the shift toward a life motivated more by chasing meaning and purpose than accumulation and consumption.
When we first learned about the concept of minimalism, we were intrigued. The idea of shedding possessions and living lighter appealed to us.
But after a weekend of giving things to thrift stores or throwing them out, we’d find ourselves back where we started: with a few less things but without making much of a dent in our desire for broader change.
What led us to transformational change and greater happiness was trying to understand the larger purpose and vision we had for our lives. We focused on the “end” we had in mind and pursued it through the “means” of minimizing.
Minimalism as a Means to an End
Consumption requires a trade-off, and its greatest cost is time.
The cost of a new coat or pair of shoes isn’t measured only in dollars and cents because it takes time and effort to acquire those dollars and cents.
Consuming social media means giving up moments that could be spent doing something more meaningful.
Organizing and reorganizing mounds of stuff robs one of the ability to apply mental and physical energy to more productive pursuits.
As one of the original minimalist writers, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
In other words, those “things” that are dominating our time and attention are stifling the one thing we can never replace, which is “life.”
All of this is to say that it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of the minimalism movement and miss the bigger picture. And in this case, the big picture is using minimalism as a means to a more fulfilling, intentional, and purposeful life, rather than treating it as an end in itself.
In my personal experience, I’ve found that merely focusing on the tactic of minimalism, without a larger purpose in mind, makes it hard to stick with it. Just as calorie counting diets, measured only by the restriction of calories, rarely work, minimalism quests marked only by the dispossession of objects are hard to sustain.
It’s difficult to stay motivated to stick with the means without an end in mind that lights you up inside. Having a larger purpose helps you persevere through challenges—and minimizing one’s lifestyle, in the face of societal pressures to do otherwise, certainly qualifies as a challenge.
We still have too much stuff. Still sometimes get caught up in “keeping up with the Joneses.” Still succumb to temptation despite knowing better. But for the last several years, with a more clearly defined mission in mind, every time we have fallen down we’ve been able to get up and get back on track, happier and ready for what’s next.
For us, being more minimal-minded allows us to elevate and prioritize experiences over things. Having less stuff in our home enables us to spend more time outside in nature. Our minds are less encumbered so we have more capacity to pursue creative endeavors that, while not always financially remunerative, bring us great contentment.
That said, it’s not always easy, because the siren song of “more” is seductive. If you’re not careful, more stuff, more commitments, and more mental clutter can easily seep back in. If you’re trying to focus on less, there’s lots of cultural messaging that will suggest to you that your priorities are misplaced and you’re missing out on the (false) promises of largesse.
Having endured some of the tug and pull of more and less, we’ve firmly determined that, yes, less is more. We’re girded by the knowledge, born of experience, that the path to fulfillment lies in doing the hard things. With a purpose in mind, you can learn to love the process of minimalism, even if it’s difficult at times.
As Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
Minimalism is not a magical cure-all. An organized sock drawer doesn’t scale beyond fleeting satisfaction. But for those who want to pursue a mission in life that is challenging and fulfilling, following the foundational principles of minimalism is a step toward finding purpose. Happiness is not guaranteed, it’s hard-won. And the struggle for happiness begins inside, with a commitment to be unrelenting in directing your actions in alignment with your life’s purpose.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.