If minimalism were a religion, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus would be its top evangelists.
They host a popular blog and podcast called The Minimalists and have published several best-selling books together. On a recent book tour, they were joined by a documentary film crew that followed them on their travels as a jumping-off point for discussion and exposition of the minimalist lifestyle from a variety of perspectives.
Some of people interviewed include Dan Harris, of ABC Nightline fame and author of 10% Happier, and Sam Harris (no relation!), a well-known scientist and secularist who is also a proponent of mindfulness practices. Others lend their voices while looking at the concepts undergirding minimalism from the viewpoints of architecture, finance, globalism, ecology, and sustainability.
But the core narrative of the film woven throughout centers on the story of best buddies Joshua and Ryan. Their story resonates with many, due to the fact that they both have a rags-to-riches tale to tell, yet in the midst of their success and wealth, they came to discover something far more satisfying.
Money for Nothing
At the start of the documentary, we are treated to rather disturbing images of massive hordes of people rushing into retail stores during special shopping events. Chaos, injuries, even arrests ensue. Now granted, this sort of shopping mayhem isn’t the norm, but the larger point is made: people care too much about collecting stuff. In Minimalism, the interviewees speak to the cravings we all experience as humans, that deep-seated longing for more. More things. More information. And yet we wonder why we are unhappy, even in the midst of our excess and our sensory overload.
These base desires are manipulated to great effect by marketing departments and pop culture. We are fed images of lifestyles we should aspire to, in order to get us to buy more stuff. We are told that our worth is all about the brands we buy and the status items we can wear or show off. We put celebrities up on pedestals, and then we tear them down again…all in a mad dash towards feeling like our own lives matter somehow.
If we stop to find out if the celebrities who have reached fame and fortune are truly happy, the answer is: of course not. Justin Bieber once shared a candid description of his glamorous life on tour and it’s not pretty:
“You get lonely, you know, when you’re on the road. People see the glam and the amazing stuff, but they don’t know the other side. This life can rip you apart.
I get depressed all the time. And I feel isolated. You’re in your hotel room and there are fans all around, paparazzi following you everywhere, and it gets intense. When you can’t go anywhere or do anything alone you get depressed. I would not wish this upon anyone.”
One of the key concepts presented in this documentary is agency. The idea that we have a choice, that we can be mindful about the kind of lifestyle we want to live—rather than blindly living in a manner that we think others expect of us. Instead of doing everything in order to “keep up with the Joneses”, we should be discovering only that which makes us truly happy. Or as the Minimalists would say: “living more deliberately with less”.
Joshua and Ryan, friends from childhood, both had lived lives that would be considered enviable by many. Great jobs that paid a lot, nice houses to live in, fancy cars to drive, able to buy designer clothes and shop at designer stores. But they both came to realize they were miserable. Joshua was the first to dive into the waters of minimalism, and after a time Ryan noticed his friend seemed really happy for the first time in a long time. So Ryan took him out to lunch and asked him “Why are you so happy?!” (Spoiler alert: Minimalism!)
There is great irony in the fact that Joshua and Ryan’s worldly success left them empty, as both share stories of a difficult childhood and the very real struggle their families had with poverty and substance abuse. One might attribute the drive of both Joshua and Ryan to excel and prosper in life as a reaction to the afflictions of their early youth.
Things came to a head for Joshua in 2008, the “year from hell” when both his mother died and his marriage ended. Many of us have had clarifying experiences in life which cause us to question everything, but what struck me as particularly poignant was his comment that he wished he’d been able to spend more time with his mom. As someone whose own mother passed away in 2006, it reminded me of the sacredness of being fully present with other people. Joshua’s experiences led him on a quest to find a better way of living, one where he wouldn’t again regret spending time in the material pursuit of more at the expense of genuine human connection.
“We use people and love stuff. That’s backwards. We should love people and use stuff.”
— The Minimalists
A New American Dream
The documentary also dives head-first into the thorny issue of mass-produced, cheap stuff that gets imported from other countries like China. It’s an important topic to cover within the context of a discussion on minimalism, but it’s also been dealt with a lot in the media in recent years so I’ll refrain from going into it much here.
I think where the documentary is the strongest is where it makes the case that, as I mentioned above, we have a choice in how we live our lives. We don’t have to follow the “American dream” that’s been presented to us. We don’t have to define ourselves in such materialist terms. We don’t have to play out the script that says work hard, move up the food chain, buy a house, get a plush office, and eventually retire so you can play golf at the country club with your exec buddies. Because, as so many have found out, that cushy retirement lifestyle is a mirage. People are sacrificing their prime years in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and for what? For a mythical 50s and 60s that end up being quite different from any imagined destination. (I’ve seen this firsthand in so many people’s lives including my own extended family.)
The film touches on several movements that have cropped up in recent years that are redefining the “American Dream.” Several of the people interviewed live in “tiny houses” and prioritize minimizing waste and living economically. Others live in more traditional apartments or single-family homes but have methodically gone through all their possessions and eliminated all but the essentials and those things which align with their personal values.
While the film didn’t specifically call out the KonMari method made popular by Marie Kondo’s wildly successful book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, many of the concepts covered are quite similar. (Read our interview with Christine O’Brien in this issue to learn more about the KonMari method.) In the end, the central idea behind minimalism is that happiness is a feeling that emerges when we are living an intentional life. And while not all of us have immediate control over our jobs or our places of living, we do have control over the sort of objects and obligations we allow into our lives.
“If I had to revise the American Dream, it would be more about coming together in community, it would be more about a society which had much less inequality and more fairness…that is responsible towared the planet and our ecosystem. To me, that would be an American Dream.”
— Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College
Curb That Appetite
Minimalism echoes ethical teachings from many spiritual paths that people have walked for thousands of years. My own Christian tradition tells me to seek God first and his righteousness, and the “stuff” that I truly need will come along at the right moments. Jesus asked what kind of profit are we willing to accept in our lives—is it worth it to “gain the whole world” at the expense of our own souls?
As Ryan Nicodemus puts it in the documentary, “the reason we share our story is to help people curb that appetite for more things. Because it’s such a destrutctive path to go down. I literally have used people to sell cell phones, to get bigger and better clients. What I love about my life now is I can be genuine and there is no manipulation. An intentional life is not a perfect life, it’s not an easy life, but it is a simple one.”
Preach on, brother. Preach on.