Special Reports · Volume I, Issue 3

What is Minimalism?

That is an excellent question. It’s a lifestyle, a philosophy, built around a simple idea: less is more.

Minimalism has become the buzzword du jour. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or scroll through one’s social feed without coming across an article about “sparking joy” or “tiny houses” or “living more happily with less” or something of the sort.

But what is minimalism, truly? Is it just about getting rid of all your stuff? What happens then? You live like a monk?

In many ways, Steve Jobs was the first modern purveyor of the minimalist philosophy. He famously went through phases of eating only fruit, or living in a house with no furniture in it, or walking everywhere barefoot, or having only one style of clothing in his wardrobe (the iconic black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers ensemble). But Steve Jobs was a freak. A genius, yes, but also a real weirdo. Who wants to live like Steve Jobs? (OK, Apple fanbois, calm down.)

Proponents of the minimalist lifestyle will throw out phrases like “live a more intentional life” or “keep only those things which spark joy” — but what does that even mean? Are we all living unintentional lives? Are we keeping things in our homes or offices that don’t bring us any joy?

Actually, the sad answer to those questions is a resounding YES.

The reason minimalism has become so popular is due to the fact that many people are living in a manner they haven’t really thought through and questioned. The consumerist, mass-produced, disposable culture we live in is so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that we seldom take a pause and ask ourselves why we’ve bought into it so heavily. Minimalism begs us to start asking the right questions.

Why am I living here?

Why do I have these things?

Why have I signed up for these activities?

Why am I shopping at these stores?

Why do I need all this stuff?

Minimalism is to consumer goods advertising what kryptonite is to Superman. When you start to pierce through the facade of the marketing machine, when you begin to realize the “American dream” is perhaps not so dreamy after all, it can be a Matrix-level paradigm shift. What if I told you…that you don’t need to buy stuff all the time? That you can be happy, really happy, with less?

Making Downsizing Great Again

Minimalism is a liberating philosophy because it removes the stigma from downsizing. If you’ve been living in a big, fancy house, moving to a smaller apartment for example is seen as a “step down” — a sign that somebody lost their cushy job or went through some personal tragedy. Maybe you know a family that sold their home and a bunch of possessions, then moved into a trailer and hit the road. Sure, they claim it’s all for fun, a lifestyle change, but wink wink we know something else must have really happened.

Yet there’s actually an entire movement now where lifestyle change is the exact reason why people chose to downsize. People who have six-figure incomes and live in a manner worthy of envy are choosing to move into tiny houses and live with less, in some cases much, much less. Why?

Because they’ve discovered a secret that wise sages throughout the millennia have been trying to tell us: stuff doesn’t always make us happy. Yes, certain things are necessary. Healthy food, adequate shelter, work we enjoy, a purpose for our days. But beyond that, when we end up prioritizing things over people, stuff over experiences, possessions over flexibility, we lose something of ourselves—something profound and spiritual.

But don’t take the minimalists word for it. Researchers have discovered that happiness is often derived more from positive life experiences than from simply making purchases of desirable items. We think we need that new car, or that new iPhone to make us happy (guilty as charged!), but so often it’s just a temporary fix. In fact, the more stuff we acquire, the more unhappy we can end up because now we have to figure out how to organize and manage all the things we have.

Life-Changing Magic

Marie Kondo’s seminal book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, with its method of going through all household objects by category and keeping only those items which “spark joy,” has revolutionized how we relate to our stuff.

By allowing a person to tap into their emotional center, their heart, and giving them permission to say goodbye to the things in their life they don’t like, want, or need anymore, it has helped many thousands of people find a new level of satisfaction and “intentionality” in their lives. Some people even claim to have found new callings in life, rediscovering goals and dreams they never thought possible before.

It’s easy to overstate the impact of minimalism, as with any cultural fad after a time, the hyperbole and hype may overshadow the legitimate value of an idea. Certainly, the minimalist movement isn’t without its share of critics. But, judging from so many hopeful stories being shared of its transforming effect (some of which we cover here in this issue), minimalism is here to stay as a viable alternative to pop consumer culture.

What is minimalism? For every person, the answer to that will be a little different. But for me, it’s this: discover only those things you truly need in order to accomplish only those goals you intend to achieve. Everything else is simply a distraction.

Jared White Jared White is Editor-in-Chief of Trellis Magazine. He is a web designer by trade and has written for many tech journals and blogs. He lives in Northern California with his wife and two children. Follow on Twitter