Jo Baer, Untitled, 1972 via WikiArt

The lifestyle trend of minimalism seems like the perfect antidote to modern materialism. The average consumer sees 5,000 ads per day promising that products will bestow all kinds of happiness. Youth, beauty, success, social status, and a bevy of other pleasurable side effects are implied by advertising as being conferred upon consumption of new products, but there is always the same underlying message: you need more things to be happy.

Minimalists disagree, and look to get more out of life with less stuff, a pursuit expressed as far back in time as the 18th century, when the Zen monk Ryōkan Taigu wrote the following poem:

I watch people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deeper despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up in the floating world suffer.
Despite myself, I fret over them all night
And cannot staunch my flow of tears.

The modern world is much more complicated than Ryōkan's simple life having one bowl, one robe, and begging for food in the pursuit of enlightenment. In the 21st century, most people who aren't monks do need stuff to survive, as much as it may make him weep. The question is how much stuff exactly.

The Minimalists

"Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things, so we can make room for life's most important things, which actually aren't things at all."

Searches for "minimalism" spiked in January of 2017, following the release of Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things on Netflix. The film follows two men, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who teamed up in 2010 to launch a blog called The Minimalists.

Since becoming The Minimalists in 2010, Millburn and Nicodemus have released over 150 podcasts, co-authored 3 books, and made countless media appearances espousing the gospel of minimalism. In an interview with GQ magazine, Millburn explained their philosophy in two sentences: "Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things, so we can make room for life’s most important things, which actually aren’t things at all. Minimalism isn’t about deprivation, it’s about getting rid of the excess so we can focus and figure out what’s truly important."

Both men have told and retold their stories of attaining success that was less than satisfying. They had "everything that was supposed to make us happy: six-figure careers, luxury cars, oversized houses, and all the stuff to clutter every corner of our consumer-driven lives," but were still struggling with debt, addiction, and disconnection from their families and personal passions.

Millburn was the first convert, and by December of 2010 had whittled his possessions down to 288 things by giving away, selling, or trashing 90% of his possessions slowly over time. Nicodemus followed suit, ridding himself of 80% of his material things by the "packing party" method. It's not much of a party: you box up all of your belongings (which took Nicodemus and Millburn 9 hours) and only take things out when you need them. Everything still in boxes after three weeks is then deemed free to go.

The benefits they advertise are too numerous to list. On The Minimalists site's introduction to the lifestyle's newcomers they have blog posts about minimalism's effect on relationships, career, budget, productivity, goal setting, decision making, mindfulness, free time, focus, health, and many more. Could the simple act of owning a tiny fraction of the things that the average household has (estimated at about 300,000 items) really make that much of a difference in every facet of one's life?

The Life Changing Magic

Marie Kondo certainly thinks so. The Japanese writer has sold 4 million copies of her 2014 book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Throughout the book, Kondo speaks of her obsession with organization throughout her whole life, and how the KonMari Method™ came to her in the form of a nervous breakdown. The key insight she gleaned from her own personal crisis about having too much, or the wrong stuff, is a philosophy that should work for anyone trying to minimize their life: instead of looking for things to throw away, using the KonMarie Method™, you decide on which things you will keep, on the basis of whether they "spark joy."

Kondo's procedure begins by piling all your belongings for each category of things you own (i.e. clothes, papers, electronics) in one room, and then picking up and holding each item individually, to see whether it still inspires you. If it fails to produce a positive emotion, it shouldn't be something you own. Kondo spent many years attending a Shinto shrine, which explains the next step in the process: when an item leaves your life, or when you lovingly put it away, you should thank it for its service. This kind of animism regarding objects is not uncommon in eastern religions like Shinto and Buddhism, although Western readers may balk at saying "Thank you," out loud to a pair of worn out socks.

Using this method, Kondo claims, will solve almost all of your life problems, because you will only be surrounded by things that bring you joy. What more could you need in your life if everything in your home gives you happiness?

The Magic Number

Kondo doesn't specify the number of things you should pare down to, so technically if everything in your house sparks joy, you can conscientiously keep all 300,000 of your possessions. But many minimalists stick to a magic number.

Dave Bruno's book The 100 Things Challenge, published in 2010, documents his quest to figure that out by limiting himself to 100 objects, and he's not the only proponent of a minimalist lifestyle who counts every item, because every item counts. Colin Wright, one of the more famous gurus of minimalism, owns only 51 things, down from 72 in 2009, and not including consumables. His list includes his clothes, electronics, and some strange additional objects like a wine aerator – but it can be argued that well-decanted wine increases net happiness more than any other necessity.

Leo Babauta of lifestyle blog Zen Habits wins the award for most minimalist lifestyle blog, including the URL: mnmlist.com, where he listed the 50 things he owned at one time, and now greets users with a 404 page haiku:

our search is lonely
a footprint left in pure snow
blown into nothing

Whittling down even more, the author of the blog Burger Abroad, Amanda, owns only 40 things, but she at least admits she's made some unique lifestyle choices to reach that point. First of all, she's a travelling house-sitter as her full-time job. She doesn't own any life accessories that are commonly found in the home because she uses other people's kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms. She only carries on luggage, so she's committed to a liquid-free and zero waste lifestyle and makes her own vegan bath and body products. For entertainment and exercise she says she walks a lot, and that "homes always have lots of entertainment, pets to love, and nature to be in."

So if you can live out of other peoples' houses, minimalism is a fantastic lifestyle choice. Most of us were probably minimalists as children living in our parents' homes, before we developed our own tastes and sought the accumulation of things to define our personalities. The music, books, and clothing that we choose when we finally have the choice about how to adorn ourselves, decorate our spaces, and fill our leisure time becomes part of our identity. Even Steve Jobs, famous for his capsule wardrobe and minimalist approach to diet and lifestyle spent eight years trying to pick out a couch.

Jo Baer, Untitled (Lipstick), 1972 via WikiArt

One critique of minimalism is that it's boring, that people express their personalities through the things they own and that every home ends up looking like Ikea or Muji if it only contains the bare necessities and a decorative succulent.

The main critique is that it's a lifestyle choice that only appeals to people who could have an overabundance of stuff, which isn't the case for most of the world. It's a very privileged position to have access to the things you could need at any time, but to eschew them in favor of aesthetic purity. At its essence, minimalism is just another type of consumerism, that is defined by what isn't consumed.

But in the modern world, we do have access to more things through technology. Instead of having a record collection or stack of DVDs on the shelf, Spotify and Netflix let you stream more music and movies than you would ever own, without committing to clutter for the rest of your life. Clothing, cars, and homes are more rented and shared than ever. Even the tech products themselves like laptops and smartphones that are necessary to access these services are available to use and then return when they're no longer needed.

Zach Conway asked Joshua Millburn of The Minimalists how modern consumption habits tie into a minimalist lifestyle: "Up until now, a traditional life cycle meant we started families, bought a house, climbed the corporate ladder, and picked a date to retire. How do you think young people have changed this structure?" Millburn responded by saying he's heard people now have seven careers in their lifetime, and that the road map has changed. The Huffington Post's Highline article about how Millennials Are Screwed illustrates exactly why the next generation isn't buying houses, starting families, or staying in a single career (much less filling their homes with tons of stuff they'll never use).

Nonetheless, whether or not the majority of people can afford the things that are supposed to make them happy is immaterial, when realizing that happiness from material things is superficial and fleeting. There is no exact number of things you need to be happy: but if there was, it would probably be less than you think.

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