With all the talk of minimalism and simple living on the Internet these days I am still constantly surprised to see how many interpretations there are. I’m also seeing lots of confusion. I think that’s because most people are attracted to certain people who are writing about the subjects without concern about what either of those labels really mean. And while I’ve stated numerous times that I don’t believe myself to be an “expert,” I do feel the topic is not only valuable—but deserves explanation and exploration. For if SMART Living 365 is a way to fill our lives with meaning, purpose and happiness, then knowing about ideas that help that manifest is important to the journey.
So what’s the difference between simple living and minimalism? On the surface I believe there is a noticeable difference between the two topics regardless of who writes about either of them. From my interpretation—minimalism is a catchall phrase for people who are most attracted to paring down to the minimal in their life. Words and phrases frequently used by most minimalists are de-cluttering, getting rid of stuff, anti-consumerism, austerity, rules about the best way to do it, quantifying what qualifies, eliminating as much as possible, etc., etc. The one word that comes to mind when talking minimalism is “discipline.” Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of those terms whatsoever, just that a focus on them individually doesn’t make me passionate about jumping on the bandwagon.
In addition, many of the writings and suggestions that come from minimalism blogs seem to suggest “external” solutions to creating the lifestyle. I’ve also noticed that a large number of the “minimal” followers are typically younger and male. Whether those men were attracted to minimalism out of necessity due to the current economy, or just like the idea of being footloose and free, remains to be seen. I believe the women who are attracted to minimalism tend to be those who recognize that such a lifestyle is a practical and obtainable approach in this day and age of overconsumption.
On the other hand, simple living embraces life more gently, slowly and internally in every way. Those who seem most attracted to simple living want to integrate it in every area of their lives. Instead of focusing on eliminating, austerity, lists and de-clutter, those into simple living make a habit of identifying the things that add the most value and joy to their lives and letting the rest go. Words and phrases more commonly used by those into simplicity are: freedom to be yourself, natural, living intentionally with authenticity, caring for the environment, sustainability, balanced living, self-sufficiency, slow food movement, etc. The one word I think best describes simple living is “contentment.” Again, none of these phrases are better than any others. What they do offer is a more holistic view and approach to life.
Another observation is that those attracted to simple living appear to be of an older generation. Perhaps once a person has worked and lived for years under a misguided approach to consumption and the typical consumer lifestyle in our country, there is an awareness of how that approach seldom brings true happiness or peace. There also seems to be more of a family or community approach to simple living rather than the more rugged individualism frequently observed in the minimalist camps. A perceivable downside to simple living is the observation that some who practice simple living become so nutty-granola that they sell everything, move to a commune, and garden for the rest of their lives. Trust me, that doesn’t appeal to me either!
Now before anyone goes postal after my attempt to define the two, let me be clear that there are plenty of minimalists who are into simple living—and quite a few simple living folks who embrace minimalism. It’s not a cut and dry separation and I don’t mean to imply that. Instead, the focus of this discussion is to ask people to think about the “why” behind their approach.
Why? Why do I think it is critical for us to explore the depths of what minimalism and simple living mean? Mainly because if a person is attracted to one or another of these concepts without realizing how it truly fits into their world view, then chances are the minute they move into a house next to the “Jones’s,” or get a big raise, they will fall off the wagon and be right back where they started. Until anything we do becomes a vital aspect of who we are, rather than a hobby or a fad that seems cool at the time, we are susceptible to reverting back to our former habits.
Plus, if there is some part of us that is attracted to any of the qualities found in minimalism or simple living, then chances are good that some part of our psyche/soul is looking for fulfillment in a new direction. Yet without foundation for why we do things, and the meaning and gratification of the action, we can get overwhelmed with the details of the how, and wander back to our former unfulfilled lifestyle.
Actually, I happen to believe minimalism and simple living are two sides of the same coin. Just like the yin and yang found in Taoism, they compliment and strengthen each other by blending the external with the internal. As two parts of a whole, the concepts of minimalism and simple living are constantly evolving and changing as the need arises. Taken alone, they are never as powerful or effective as when connected.
In the best-case scenario, I believe the discipline of minimalism and the contentment of simple living evolve into an interconnected whole. When we recognize that sincere efforts to de-clutter and reduce debt eventually lead to a sweet satisfaction about things that truly matter, we are living the best of both simple living and minimalism. And in so many ways that is exactly what SMART living is all about.
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Beautifully written. A lovely read. Just stumbled upon it some 6 years after publishing date.
I’m naturally skeptical of any kind of trend, be it ketogenic diets, digital nomad lifestyles or life-in-a-suitcase minimalism. I always thought that living well doesn’t have to be so extreme. It boils down to figuring out what things add long-term value and bring you joy, and working towards that. Thanks for this article, it really resonates with me!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Harper. Thank you. And thank you for finding this post long after it was first written. I still fully believe in what a wrote here but have actually updated it to be what I now call “rightsizing”. Rightiszing is finding that perfect place for you as an individual (or family) so that it brings “out what things add long-term value and bring you joy.” It is never a destination…more like a never ending journey. Please check back in now and then if it works for you and thank you for taking the time to comment. ~Kathy
Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says
Kathy, I know I’m late to this party, but just wanted to say this is the best explanation I’ve ever heard of the difference between minimalism and simple living. I have been striving for years to live as simply as possible, though I’ll never qualify as a minimalist!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jean! Thank you and thanks for stopping by SMART Living. I glad you found my post a helpful explanation. There are LOTS of ways to approach the entire topic…that’s why I really have started calling it “rightsizing” instead. And I agree, choosing simple is often far better than minimal. ~Kathy
Christine Somers says
I spent a couple of days thinking about your post; differentiating between concepts has been intriguing. I wonder if it is less about one vs the other and more like a Russian nesting doll. As we drill down to the core of our life we move from one chamber to another. Instead of bringing joy, our material goods start to feel like a burden, which leads to lightening the load. As our material goods fall away we look to other areas of our life to lighten or simplify. minimalism and simple living may just be different stops on the same journey.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Christine….great comments and you did exactly what I hope all readers do….think about how it applies in their life and thinking. I love the idea of nesting dolls…a wonderful metaphor….I might have to borrow that sometime!
Good distinction between the two.
You so hit it on the head. I had no idea where I was going when I began to get rid of the accumulated things from raising a family. Once I made my move to a studio apartment, people began to question if I was now a minimalist. I don’t fall into the strict guides of counting what I own, but have let everything go that I don’t use or need. I too am older, and an empty nester, so it made sense to me to make this part of my life new and complement the person I wanted to be now. For me it’s simple things; nature, family, quiet time and good friends.