Overeating, over-consumption, overflowing landfills, hoarding, closets full of never worn items, installment payments dragging on, and living in debt and credit. These and other costs are brought on by consumerism spreading throughout wealthy nations. In the meantime, time is getting shorter as life moves by more quickly, work demands increase, and so on. Caught up in the never-ending pursuit of success and wealth, attempting to outdo and outdo the Joneses by doing, acquiring, and possessing more. People are left out of breath, with diminishing help, and have little time to enjoy the moment—to genuinely appreciate their limited life here on Earth.
The Minimalism movement emerged in an effort to counteract this lifestyle, offer an alternative way, and give people a chance to review priorities in day-to-day activities, as well as long-term goals. Minimalism first gained popularity in Western culture as an aesthetic principle inspired by Eastern philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. It can be found in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the ideals of the Bauhaus school, the pieces of the abstract painter Agnes Martin, the sculptor and artist Donald Judd, and the artist Frank Stella (Ryan, 2020).
Image 1: Minimalist art, Nicoletti. (2021).
However, in the first decade of the new millennium, minimalism became mainstream and transcended from the realm of art into a lifestyle. The reasons for this transformation are often credited to the economic crisis and the financial collapse of 2008. When economic experts, sociologists, and journalists analyzed the crisis and the chain of events that led to it, a few factors emerged as common denominators. Some of them included financial institutions' avarice, the tremendous wealth buildup, and debt brought on by people's excessive consumption of goods (Meissner, 2019). When combined with the impact of our civilization on ecosystems and the challenges posed by climate change, these factors have led to the rise in popularity of novel economic models (Kallis, 2011). For example, the "circular economy" model, in which products, materials, and resources are valued and used as long as possible before being recycled to reduce waste and natural resource depletion; or the "de-growth economy" model, which focuses on shifting society's priorities away from economic growth and toward sustainability and well-being.
Parallel to these concepts, the minimalist lifestyle has been gaining momentum in places such as the U.S., Japan, and European countries, like Sweden (Uggla, 2019). It has many variations and interpretations but, in general, living minimalistically affects an individual's attitude towards their personal possessions, consumer behaviors, work-life balance, relationships, and leisure time. Minimalists strive to own a small number of essential physical possessions, such as clothing, household items, real estate, vehicles, and so on. Some even attempt to count and reduce the number to, or near, 100 items (Bruno 2011). This bleeds into other trends, such as the tiny house movement - where living in extremely small, sometimes mobile spaces leave room for larger experiences and meaningful relationships (Harris, 2018); off-grid living, which involves disconnecting from public utilities such as the electrical power grid or water piping system; and the nomadic lifestyle, which involves living out of a backpack while working remotely and traveling the world.
Image 2: Living off-the grid, Blueberry, J. (2018).
Owning only a few items is closely associated with minimalist consumer behavior. People who follow this way of life avoid purchasing items that are non-essential, have a short lifespan, or are disposable. Every purchase is carefully considered, and some adherents follow the "one in, one out rule," which entails removing an existing item if it will be replaced by a new one. The desire to be a deliberate spender drives the reasoning behind this behavior. This does not necessarily imply being frugal, but rather spending in such a way that the available liquidity can be used to purchase experiences rather than goods. This is due to the fact that experiences are perceived as more gratifying and joyful. The second reason for refraining from buying is dictated by the wish to avoid clutter in the house as this is regarded as draining for the mind and bank account. Movements and social initiatives such as the Buy Nothing Project inspired by this anti-consumerism way of approaching acquisition have also been spurring in the US and Canada. The motives behind these could be found in minimalism, as well as environmental awareness and financial instability.
The self-imposed minimalist limitations aim to liberate the mind and the wallet, while also contributing to a smaller ecological footprint. Owning a small number of items and buying new ones less frequently results in using material possessions for a longer time, multiple purposes, or reusing second-hand stuff. Although this may not be directly stated in popular minimalist movements websites and books, regular people drawn to this lifestyle are often also very environmentally conscious.
Image 3: A couple spending time together, Sept commercial. (2017).
Another aspect of the minimalist lifestyle affects the work-life balance. Similarly to de-cluttering, concepts like quiet-quitting, reducing working hours, refusing promotions, or simply working less are meant to bring back the lost contempt in the life of minimalists (Babauta, 2022). These changes are intended to avoid having a demanding career with long hours and a lot of pressure for high productivity. A number of minimalist trendsetters, such as Joshua Fields Millburn, from The Minimalists, and Sarah Knight, the author of “The life-changing magic of not giving a f***k”, go as far as quitting their high-level positions. Others, like Timothy Ferris, the author of “The 4-hour work week” share their experience and advice on how to transition to a passive income, requiring only a minimal amount of ‘busy’ time. The minimalist attitude towards work is inspired by the notion that with more time for one's self, individuals will feel freer, have time to contemplate, meditate and develop other personal skills to bring inner peace and happiness.
Reducing the size of the house, removing clutter, and reducing the hours spent cleaning, shopping, and working frees up time in one's life to do things they enjoy, pursue their passions, and socialize. However, staying true to the minimalist approach, these activities are to be performed deliberately and mindfully. There is no point and no time to participate in relationships with people who don’t have similar interests and values (Millburn, 2019). Spending excessive time on social media platforms, mindlessly scrolling, and binge-watching TV are regarded as mind-absorbing and attention-robbing. Therefore, minimalists strive to observe technological abstention in order to aid their conscious living (Babauta, 2022). Like the other aspects mentioned, this means using technology with intention, restricting its use, and minimizing its distractibility.
Image 4: Tidy minimal interior, Tu. (2017).
Overall, the minimalist lifestyle, driven by the aspiration of having a meaningful, fulfilled, and happy life in a world of ‘too much’ is suggesting a change of conduct, not unlike some Buddhist and Islamic teachings. The Second Noble Truth in Buddhist philosophy, for example, declares that suffering is caused by attachment or craving, and in some texts, it is interpreted as being caused by negative thoughts and actions (Lopez, 2022). This resonates closely with minimalism and its detachment from physical objects, situations and actions that impact a person’s well-being negatively. Likewise in Islam, some teachings call for a simple living, “keeping a clear perspective on the temporary nature of existence and that all material things are of utility to humans only for a short period of time” (Quadri, 2021). Philosophy aims to deepen human understanding of the world. Through it people become wiser and can improve their quality of life. Minimalism reevaluates the way people think of, and interact with, the world, therefore it can be called a philosophy – even if it lacks a structural approach and unified description today.
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Cover image. Schmidt, P. (n.d). Wooden Chair on a White Wall Studio. https://nuvomagazine.com/culture/the-ideology-and-aesthetic-of-minimalism
Image 1. Nicoletti. (2021). n.d. https://unsplash.com/photos/fkA-hGDs-Y8
Image 2. Blueberry, J. (2018). n.d. https://unsplash.com/photos/8aP33aLPmgY
Image 3. Sept commercial. (2017). n.d. https://unsplash.com/photos/Cqu3DdNwtKQ
Image 4. Tu. (2017). Tidy minimal interior. https://unsplash.com/photos/QZGQO3NvsLo