The Joys of Minimalism: A Rich Life With Less StuffOct 31, 2023 09:30AM ● By Carrie Jackson
After a pandemic largely spent at home, many Americans are holding up a mirror to their lives and examining what really matters. Finding that material possessions weigh them down, people are turning to minimalism to simplify their physical, mental and emotional space. According to a study in ScienceDirect, a decluttered lifestyle improves sustainability and boosts emotional well-being. By paring down our possessions, we can become more authentic, simplify our finances and pave an easier pathway for the next generation.
According to Joshua Becker, author of four books on the subject, including The More of Less and Things That Matter, “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value by removing everything that distracts us from them. This provides a refreshing sense of freedom with a new level of independence that comes from no longer being tied to material possessions. Modern culture has bought into the lie that more is better and happiness can be purchased at a department store, but embracing minimalism brings freedom from the all-consuming passion to possess and dares to seek happiness elsewhere. It values relationships, experiences and soul-care, and lets us see all that we already have and reminds us to be grateful.”
Choosing the Essentials
Monica Friel is the founder and Chief Executive Organizer of Chicago-based Chaos to Order, which works with clients to improve organization in their lives. She advises that our homes have essentially become storage units filled with unused items. With the average American house more than doubled the size it was in 1950, according to National Public Radio, we have more space than ever to store what we don’t necessarily need. “For most people, our home is the biggest purchase we make, yet it’s so full of stuff it’s actually become a burden. We’re embarrassed to have people over because of the clutter. I encourage clients to examine what’s weighing them down and start removing excess items that are adding to physical and emotional space. Think about if you were moving in three months, what would you want to take with you,” she says.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on things they don’t essentially need. Becker says that focusing on minimalism allows us to invest our money where it truly matters. “Choosing to accumulate only the essentials can lead the way to financial freedom. Spending less on things you don’t really need will cut your financial expenses and provide an opportunity to not just save money for the sake of keeping it for yourself, but to use it to further causes that you believe in. It also allows you to seek out jobs that are not necessarily tied to income,” he says.
When starting to declutter, Becker recommends parting with the easiest stuff first. “Start by eliminating everyday things around the house you no longer need, such as duplicate items. For example, your family needs towels, so you will never remove them completely, but you could simplify your life by reducing the number of towels you own. You will enjoy the refreshing feeling of a less-cluttered linen closet or bathroom drawer. As you experience the benefits in your life, you’ll become better at finding solutions for the more difficult items,” he explains.
Friel says that it is often not the actual physical object people are attached to, but the memories associated with it. She points out that with younger generations increasingly accessing digital and online information, they don’t necessarily have the same ties to objects as their parents do. “That rocking chair in the corner of the basement may have been important to Grandma, but now it’s just taking up space. It’s the story behind the chair, not the actual piece of furniture itself, that matters. People can take a photo of the object and share its history with digital storage, and the memory will last forever” she says.
Family heirlooms can become even more complicated for the sandwich generation—those taking care of both aging parents and their own children. Friel says that the best thing parents can do is to start downsizing early. For adult children sorting their parents’ stuff, it is often best to ask for help. “Life transitions, such as a death in the family or moving elderly parents into a retirement community, can be difficult and draining endeavors. Find someone to help who is not emotionally attached, such as a professional organizer. They can provide unbiased guidance and help defuse any conflicts that may arise. This can even be done remotely now with families online via Zoom. So much of downsizing is about control. But making responsible choices with how to allocate your belongings actually helps put you in control of your legacy and makes it easier for your kids and other family members,” she explains.
Benefits for the Planet
Adopting a minimalist approach is also better for the planet. Vourneen McElwain, the creator of The Plain Simple Life, says that embracing minimalism and sustainability has a positive impact on the world around us. “At its core, minimalism is all about living with less. So, when we choose this lifestyle, we reduce the demand for the excessive production of goods. Minimalism also encourages us to be more mindful about our consumption, so we tend to invest in higher-quality items that last longer, instead of falling into the fast-fashion or disposable-products trap. Plus, when we own fewer items we can choose to live in a smaller and more energy-efficient home,” she advises.
Being mindful of how we downsize can help keep the environmental impact to a minimum. McElwain points out, “We never want our unused items ending up polluting the environment in a landfill or in the sea. The most eco-friendly way to declutter is to donate things that are still in good condition or to give them away to family and friends. This way, we can give these items a brand-new life and help others without over-consuming new products.
“You’d be surprised how something that may appear meaningless to some can hold great value for others. You can also sell unwanted items, which helps others get access to something they might need without having to buy new and produce more waste. Finally, if an item is truly broken and unusable, there are ways to repurpose it. Even if you're not a DIY person yourself, there are many who would be happy to take your broken, three-legged chair and turn it into a beautiful and unique piece of furniture.”
McElwain notes that minimalism encourages us to become conscious consumers. “A minimalist lifestyle prompts us to ask ourselves if we really need or love an item, and if we have a place for it in our lives. As we become more intentional with our choices, we also start to look into the origins of the things we buy. We try harder to support businesses that align with our values, such as those that prioritize fair trade, ethical manufacturing practices or eco-friendly operations,” she explains. “By adopting minimalism, we don't just declutter our spaces, we also contribute to social and environmental causes that shape a sustainable future.”
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.