Do you consider yourself a minimalist? Do you even know what minimalism means? Lately I’ve been excited by a number of blogs and websites devoted to the topic. That interest signals a reverse in the over-consumptive tendencies and consumer lifestyle so prevalent during the last couple of decades here in the U.S. But often when I read the posts and comments on such sites, it seems that those who are involved have differing views of what minimalism is and why it can be beneficial. Perhaps before we start calling ourselves a minimalist we should describe what we mean in the first place.
So what is minimalism? It was first defined as a trend in design or architecture that reduces everything to its essentials. Some of the more famous designers like M. Buckminster Fuller coined a phrase like, “Doing more with less,” while others shortened the statement to, “More is less.” Minimalism then is anything that uses the least amount of elements necessary to achieve results. From that perspective it applies to everything from design and architecture—to art, music, landscaping, style, technique, clothing, action, policy and even one’s lifestyle. And because it has become such a wide topic, it is also becoming a sort of catchall for lots of people. In many ways minimalism has the makings of the latest fad.
Right after I first heard about the practice of minimalism several years ago I read a book named Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin that was first published in 1981. I can distinctly remember being a little afraid of the idea at first. After all, compared to the cultural messages being promoted in the 1990s and 2000s it was a radical detour from the push for ever more prosperity. Many of us in our 20s, 30s and even 40s at the time were hypnotized into thinking that we all deserved every single thing our heart desired. There was little awareness of the consequences to ourselves, other people, or the world at large from our drive for more, more, and even more. So when a book like Elgin’s came along it wasn’t just a wake up call—it felt a little more like a slap in the face to sober us up.
Of course the true message of Voluntary Simplicity was that all that consumption wasn’t leading to greater happiness in the first place. In fact, learning to focus on what is important in a person’s life isn’t sacrifice at all. Instead, it is a refocus towards things that bring greater peace and wellbeing to each of us. Plus, a large portion of the Voluntary Simplicity movement is a focus on the devastation that our drive for more at any cost was doing to the planetary environment. To this day, Duane Elgin continues to be a spokesperson for the Voluntary Simplicity movement with a dozen or more books, various videos and speaking engagements around the globe. In all honesty, it took Thom and I over a decade to be able to appreciate and embrace most of the concepts Elgin promotes.
Then somewhere about four or five years ago the word “minimalism” started showing up. I doubt there was any surprise that it suddenly took on significance following the mortgage crisis meltdown in ’08 and ’09. Suddenly, millions of people who had been sucked into the ever-growing capitalistic religion of overconsumption were rudely awakened to its pitfall—massive unsustainability. In dramatic reaction people began looking for an alternative that made sense of it all. Minimalism struck a cord—and has been playing ever since.
There are many great benefits to the practice of minimalism. Some of the elements I appreciate being suggested by those who are “minimalists” include:
#1 Reminding us that “less is more” in just about every case.
#2 Putting the focus back on quality rather than quantity.
#3 Eliminating the drive for “more” at any cost.
#4 Encouraging everyone to unclutter their lives and homes.
#5 Reducing debt and overhead.
#6 Eliminating or reducing jobs that are unrewarding or tedious.
#7 Focusing less on owning things, and more on experiencing things.
#8 Increasing space and time in one’s life.
All of these elements are wonderful qualities to embrace, but I can’t help but believe that many minimalists stop short of implementing them to their fullest potential. Actually, after reading many of the blogs and the comments of several minimalist websites, a big focus seems to be overly narcissistic. Similar to someone who suddenly announces they are vegetarian—only to explain they had chicken the night before—many who are attracted to the minimalistic lifestyle are doing it because it sounds cool, or they had no other choice—not because they’ve had a change of heart. In fact, one gets the impression that minimalism has become the latest hobby, until something better comes along.
Still, we all need to start somewhere. Minimalism, like most life transforming experiences, is a process. So I continue to believe that any beginning, however modest, is still a beginning. Plus, as I already confessed, when I first heard Duane Elgin speak, I too was a bit like a deer caught in headlights. Then gradually, bit-by-bit, I began realizing that the pursuit of more was not the answer to happiness and wellbeing. I also started realizing that the lifestyle I was living and some of the choices I was making were contributing to massive unsustainablity on the planet. For those reasons I believe we must consider minimalism to be a more holistic lifestyle than merely a trendy design option.
I also realized that five simple questions could easily determine whether a person is a life-long minimalist or not. Those questions are:
#1 If you won a $10 million lottery would you forget the minimalist lifestyle and go out and buy the fancy car, big house, and tons of stuff? (In other words are you only doing it because you have little or no money right now?)
#2 If you were offered a job with a high six-figure income —and you had to work 100 hours a week in a cubicle doing work that was boring, repetitive and you hated—would you take it?
#3 If you inherited a 50-room mansion in Dubai but you had to move there and leave all your friends and family, would you start packing and move as soon as possible?
#4 Do you like being a minimalist but really could care less about how your actions affect other people or the planet?
#5 If you fell in love with someone and they hated the minimalist lifestyle—would you abandon your minimalist ways and live a life that pleased this new love of your life?
In case you’re wondering how I would answer these questions you can be sure I would never work at a tedious boring job no matter how much it paid (been there done that)! I also have no interest in living in Dubai or a 50-room mansion. If I won $10 million I’m not sure exactly how that would change my life, but I know that I would never go back to how I used to live. My answer to question number four acknowledges a belief that minimalism must be a benefit to the world as well as myself. Best of all, as in number five, my partner and I are on the same page about living a SMART Life and are dedicated to doing it as well as we are able.
Clearly, my thinking has been transformed. That’s actually a big reason why I came up with the idea for SMART Living 365. SMART living takes into account that in order for me to experience well-being, my life must include 1) Sustainability, 2) Meaning; 3) Awareness; 4) Responsibility; and 5) Thanksgiving and Gratitude. All of that includes minimalism, but goes beyond in ways that I believe are more rewarding.
But then my answers really don’t matter to you—what matters is how you answer them. So, after taking the quiz, are you really a minimalist?
“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~Lao Tzu
“The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence.” ~Duane Elgin
1. Tiny House http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrlerone/39223196/
2. Big Home http://www.flickr.com/photos/chriscgray/3350083785/
Jennifer Wallington says
Love the SMART
We aim to live a simple minamalist life
We are a family of 4 with 2 boys
We are unlikely to win the lottery as we have never bought a ticket I believe for the vast majority of people their problems would start if they won it!
My husband had turned down 6 figure tax free salaries as the money wasn’t worth the sacrifices
We would sell the property and use the money for the benefit if others
We are big into looking after the planet
I would probably never love someone who loved stuff more than me
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jennifer! Thanks for taking the quiz and for letting us know your answers! Naturally there is no one right answer for any of the questions, only food for thought. But sounds like you are creating a life that works GREAT for you. Please stop back on SMART Living 365 when possible and let us know of how you and your family are doing. –Kathy
mmm a minimalist with a computer….interesting.
Kathy Gottberg says
Sure Andrea….I tend to believe that minimalism is a lifestyle that is about quality not quantity. My computer adds to the quality of my life–but others might disagree. No problem–we should define it in a way that brings us the greatest wellbeing. Thanks for taking the time to comment!….Kathy
Thank you so much for your response on my blog Kathy! I loved this “quiz” and your points about minimalism and attempt to qualify it in a sensible way. It really gave me a good starting place for thinking about where I am with this and where I want to head. I also like your “SMART” concept for living. Very glad I found your blog and look forward to continuing to read it!
1. Let’s see, I probably would have a lifestyle shift, buy a car that’s less than 5 years old, stop caring about the price of lettuce… I’m honestly not that sure how much money that actually is, but it probably would not last my entire life if I bought status symbols instead of managing it.
2. I would take the job, but with the intention of leaving after 3 months or so.
3. I honestly don’t know what I would do with a mansion in Hollywood, probably liquidate it. I cannot stand overly crowded areas, and want to live in a place that has more parking available than cars.
4. I don’t feel that caring for the environment and being forced to live thrifty are mutually exclusive. So free-range eggs and organic vegetables are a bit too pricy, a poor person can still recycle if it’s in their area.
5. To treat this question as easy and uncomplicated is to be shallow. Anyone who automatically treats stuff as a deal-breaker in a relationship should re-evaluate whether or not they’ve become sick. Of course, not being able to work out the issues after trying probably means there are different points of incompatibility.
Yeah, not a minimalist. Just not your average consumer.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Kelekona…thanks for your comments…and your willingness to think about your own choices. I had hoped that the article would spur such introspection and purposely chose questions that were provocative. If this article does nothing but make us all a bit more conscious, then it has succeeded. Thanks for stopping by SMART Living 365–drop by again soon! –Kathy
Laura N. says
You bring up some interesting questions here! Years ago, I wanted to live in a mansion and earn a lot of money. Now, that kind of lifestyle doesn’t appeal to me at all!! If I HAD to inherit something incredibly expensive and luxurious, I’d sell it and donate nearly everything to charities and helping women around the world. I just want a life with only things I need. Yes, I have bought a couple things in the past year that I said I wouldn’t, but I have also gotten rid of SO MANY THINGS and am much more conscious of my purchases. I consider that a minimalist success.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Laura–thanks for your comments. I’m glad to read that the questions helped your realize that you are indeed living life the way you want to and are conscious of your choices. That was certainly one of my hopes with the article. And yes, I too consider that a GREAT minimalist success!
And you have an awesome site at http://thisluminouslife.wordpress.com/ I enjoy your approach very much, as well as the constant reminders to “just breathe & just relax” I look forward reading your posts in the future…. Stay in touch….Kathy
Hey there. So I wonder what my answers mean then?
1. I would probably A: hire someone to help me clean my room and bathroom. B: Hire my own personal assistant C: Hire tutors to help me with my learning process. D: Give money to my grandparents E: invest toward my business model of helping others achieve happiness through presence, release of hurts and compassionate communication. F: Hire someone to cook healthy meals for me.
2. The trade off probably wouldn’t be worth it. Though what might work is doing it for a few months to save up some money for the things I love and then quitting.
3. I would probably get a bunch of people from co-housing groups to come live in the mansion together and grow organic fruits and vegetables as well as have one or two of the big rooms be meditation rooms and this ‘mansion’ can be visited by anyone who needs a place to come in peace and love.
4. Does not apply
5. I would address the underlying needs we both had for the reasons we wanted different lifestyles and if our needs conflicted we would either need to work it out or part ways
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janini! Thanks for your comments….and great answers by the way. My hopes were that the article would make people look at what they were doing (or not doing) and decide if it was something that would enhance their life or not. There is no one right way to do it–only the way that brings you the greatest joy, peace and contentment. Good luck on your path!….Kathy
Trilok chand says
i like this article. i also checked on all five point and find i have been following
these since one and half years . thanks a lot . the teachings of Gautama Budha
and Mahatma Gandhi ji are same as explained in you article. Thanks a lot
for reminding the same.
Absolutely amazing post. I took the quiz and have no doubt that I am a true minimalist. I just want to help others and live a purposeful life. Money is just…money. I has nothing to do with what is truly important. At least not to me. My partner is with me on all of this.
Kathy Gottberg says
Thanks for your comments Mark. Glad you liked the post and “passed” the test! Check back often when you get the chance…. Kathy