For those of you who have spoken to me for more than 5 minutes, you’ll know I consider myself an avid minimalist and a shameless plugger of the lifestyle. As expected, I’ve been trying to figure out how to craft a post around minimalism for a while. I’ve dabbled in pieces regarding the practice in the digital sphere quite a few times, but never fully ventured into a real-life centered post yet. Well, just as the year’s changed, so has my willingness to really think on why minimalism appeals to me so much.
I inadvertently discovered minimalism as a survival tactic — I was raised in a strict household by parents who demanded I be neat and organized at all times. My room was frequently checked and re-organized by them without permission, so to me, having more things meant having more things that could be messy and out of place. Despite my parents paying for whatever I needed back then, I never asked for much, perhaps because I knew what was in it for me. I wore a uniform to school during the week and basically the same thing on weekends. I didn’t own a pair of sweats until the beginning of my Junior Year, which I consider criminal.
Over the years, I built up a level of comfort with owning relatively few things that I didn’t fully appreciate until I got to college. After moving into my Freshman dorm, I realized that I needed posters for my walls. I had never been allowed to put anything on my walls in high school besides a framed picture of my guardian angel (can you tell I went to a Catholic school?), so I ended up using some of my roommate’s extras to color our white cinderblock walls. I didn’t buy new posters for the entire year and couldn’t even fill the 4 shelves above my desk without putting my shoes up there (still scratching my head at that one). Friends would constantly remark about how few things I owned, but instead of the pride I’d feel about that comment now, I felt embarrassed.
My minimalism was more a lack of a personal style or identity than a zen-like lack of attachment to my possessions. Heart = broken.
Seeking financial independence and some new mojo, I got an on-campus job my Freshman Fall that paid me way too much (if you know, you know) and began transforming my wardrobe away from the sorbet-colored Vineyard Vines that every 18-year old white kid from a suburbs begrudgingly wore at some point. Regardless, my setup was sweet for a while — as I earned more money, I found more freedom to explore how I wanted to express myself. However, by my Sophomore Year, I was so scattered by what I was spending money on — clothes, headphones, video games — that I began to feel overwhelmed and was spending time shopping instead of studying or reading, something you’d never catch me doing in high school. Slowly but surely, as I had finally scratched my consumption itch, it was consuming me. One restless night in particular motivated me to enter all of my possessions into a spreadsheet to restore a sense of control over what I owned.
Now, at the time, I had no idea why I felt this way. Sure, I was new to the material world, but I was no more superficial than anyone I knew. In fact, my version of splurging was fairly tame by normal standards. Yet something still felt off. Turns out that was my first experience with the modern curses of our biology.
As I got older and deeper into learning about the human condition, I made the connection between why we feel such a rush while walking out of a store with a lot of bags or getting a package delivered. One of our foremost evolutionary needs is to acquire; whether resources, skills, power, or status, getting more enhances our ability to reach our goals and increases our probabilities of longevity and reproduction. Note that happiness and well-being isn’t included there; they’re rightfully secondary needs to staying alive. Not having enough resources to support life fully justifies fear, but fortunately, that’s not an issue for most people in the world anymore. However, our bodies haven’t fully caught on yet. Stanford psychologist Robert Sapolsky studied stress responses in humans, baboons, and Zebras and found that only humans can react to non-life threatening stimuli as if they were life threatening.
This means that although the biological impulse driving our rabid desire to acquire (ooh nice rhyme!) doesn’t need to exist in fully capacity anymore, it can still wreck havoc on our mental health if we don’t know how to regulate it. Without self-discipline, we can effectively live as if we’re in serious danger all the time. Enter anxiety.
We get it Carter, you like Psych. What does this have to do with minimalism?
Minimalism is looking that biological urge for more in the face and saying no.
It’s a difficult process, and one that certainly takes time. We all have relationships with things, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We invest time and money into them, and they provide us with some value in return. Especially when compared to people, things offer a tempting proposition — they’re ownable, loyal, and relatively permanent. Living in the material world provides a sense of control and consistency that real life simply can’t match.
Material things are also easier than ever to find. The internet has brought the ability to acquire with and wherever we go, catering to our desire for stimulation at the first sign of boredom that often leads to a load of unproductive choices (something I’ve written about at length). The average American spends 8.5 years shopping during their life.
Why We Struggle With Boredom
It’s predictable as death & taxes, so why don’t we make it work for us?
I’m not saying things are bad. As much as we say (and know) they don’t make you happy, no one can deny the power of retail therapy. However, spending too much time invested in what things you have is a fruitless pursuit. As much as we want to have access to everything we can, the more options we have, the less satisfied we are by what we end up with — that’s the paradox of choice for you. Our biological and emotional well-beings are pitted in a duel for our attention, forcing us to prioritize one at the expense of the other. Seeking surplus is hardwired into our DNA (for a time when it was nearly unachievable) and an acceptable trade-off in the short-term, but a long-term recipe for disaster. Yet, for some reason, we’ve set up society to cater to these base impulses. Don’t believe me? Next time you shop for it, consider how many different kinds of toothpaste there are. It’ll blow your mind, especially given that all toothpastes have the same main 3 ingredients.
You see how this is a problem — we’re programmed to want everything we can get our hands on, but by doing so, we’re left sad and ungrateful for what we do have. We then try to find the answer with what seems like even more chance than before, which makes us feel even worse about ourselves for failing to get it right this time around. Then we bandaid our broken self-esteem with a new thing, only to realize we’re trapped in a vicious cycle.
I hope what I wrote there made you think. Investing too much of ourselves in material possessions fundamentally sets us up to fail.
Building a healthy relationship with our things requires knowing these pitfalls exist and setting a limit on what you will allow yourself to acquire (whether in money, space, or time). Limiting what you can acquire shifts your focus from what you could have to what you do have and forces you to make the best of it. Choosing to spend time on getting the most you can out of what you have instead of money (and time) looking for something better actually creates that something better without you realizing it. Unsurprisingly, this does worlds for your confidence and fulfillment.
For all my thoughts and efforts, I just recently reached a point where I feel I have a healthy relationship with my material world. 90% of my clothes are from one brand (all hail Uniqlo), my technology is in order, and I no longer need to obsessively track my possessions in a spreadsheet. None of that exempts me from buying things to fill voids. I just get back on track whenever I do and trust my limit. The biggest lesson I’ve learned through my relationships with material things is to look inward before trying to outsource your answers to a product or service. Your work and the growth that comes from it is the answer. Realizing that at the end of the day, you’re the one who gives things meaning makes it much easier to live without a lot of them.
That’s my wish for 2021. Here’s hoping the universe picks up on it.