In the West, when we think 'minimalism,' we often think of the arts: the simple expressions of Frank Stella, Dan Flavin or Donald Judd; the sleek lines of Dutch interiors by De Stijl or the stark architecture of Le Corbusier, for example. But in fact, its roots are far older, deeper and more spiritual than that.
It's hard to say exactly when and how minimalism originated, but some would say it began with Buddhism centuries ago. After all, many of its principles are aligned with minimalist values, such as:
- Letting go of attachment
- Reducing suffering and increasing happiness
- Mindfulness and focus
- Kindness and compassion
Buddhist monks live highly minimalist lifestyles because these principles flow with their belief systems. All true Buddhists believe that everything is impermanent and clinging to or wishing for goods, relationships and even concepts constitutes desire and attachment, which are at the root of all suffering. So the secret to happiness is - contrary to all we've been indoctrinated with in the West - to simply want less stuff.
No surprises that the tiny, 'undeveloped' Buddhist nation of Bhutan is said to be the happiest in the world: famously, since 1971, the country has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress. Instead, Bhutan championed a new approach to development which measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.
Their attitude towards spiritual over material development is evident in many ways: rather than advertisements visually littering the streets, you will find mantras like: 'Let nature be your guide' or 'Life is a journey - enjoy it!'. Instead of exploiting the natural world for material gain, nature is at the heart of public policy, and environmental protection is even enshrined in the constitution. The country has pledged to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its landmass will remain under forest cover in perpetuity. It has banned export logging and has even instigated a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from its roads. People here live simply, with very few possessions; it was also the last nation in the world to get television (in 1999 - which is said to have caused a rise in crime). But it is 'the happiest nation in the world'.
How Minimalism Makes You Happier
You don't need to be Bhutanese to benefit from minimalist living. In fact, virtually everyone we've spoken to about making such a lifestyle choice has said it has benefitted them enormously.
For example, Rob Greenfield, the 'Dude Making a Difference', gave up a cushy job in marketing, his house, car and most of his material goods slowly over the course of almost a decade. Today, he's a bit of a nomad, sometimes 'tenting it' in South America with his girlfriend, living in his 'teeny greeny' house in San Diego, or biking around America to show people how dumpster diving behind supermarkets can not only feed you (and a small army) for free, but also highlights how wasteful our society is. After making such radical changes, Rob says he's 'never been happier.' You can see more about Rob's journey to a minimalist lifestyle here.
Bea Johnson is another supporter of a minimalist lifestyle. She's the author of a book on the subject, and runs the Zero Waste Home blog where she regularly writes about how living with less is possible, even in a family of four: she makes her own cosmetics, takes Mason jars to fill when doing the shopping, and wears only a few items from a capsule wardrobe. The mother of two believes this lifestyle is the only way forward if we are to preserve the planet for generations to come.
In fact, the benefits of minimalist living aren't just good for the planet, they're good for all of us. Just a few gains we could all benefit from include:
- Saving money
- Travelling more lightly
- Being able to move house faster and more easily
- Worrying less about upkeeping and maintaining possessions
- Appreciating what little you do have, much more
- Creating far more space at home
- Spending less time cleaning and washing things
- Spending less time on acquisition and more time on introspection
Living minimally doesn't mean your life need be bereft of style: minimalist designers like Fransisco Costa, Issey Miyake and Bruno Pieters and others create timelessly beautiful clothing with a 'less is more' aesthetic. In the 1970s, Susie Faux, the owner of a London boutique called 'Wardrobe,' came up with the idea of the 'capsule wardrobe' which involves mixing and matching a few essential items such as a skirt, white shirt, trousers, jeans, tee shirt, flats and jacket, which could then be accessorised with seasonal pieces like scarves, coats, hats, and accented with jewellery. It's exactly this sartorial philosophy that Bea Johnson follows, and she's as stylish as you'd expect any French woman to be!
It's Easy To Change
Minimal living is easy: just start downsizing by giving away stuff - especially anything you haven't used in around a year. You'll be glad you did - you'll feel lighter, and scientists have even proven you will feel happier. For example, a 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey of 4,500 American adults showed that of those in their study who gave their time or belongings to charity, 68 percent reported that it made them feel physically healthier; 89 percent that it "has improved my sense of well-being" and 73 percent reported feeling lower stress levels.
And other studies back those findings: Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, discovered that those who donate to charity have lower blood pressure, even when controlling for factors like income, wealth, age and exercise, which suggests the giving itself is responsible.
Step two is simply: appreciate what you have. Revel in the space you've created and focus on the wonderful things you do have - these are the things you have selected as being most useful or beautiful. Treasure them!
Finally, the last step is: just stop buying crap. We've all shopped to raise our mood or out of boredom, and bought things impulsively or due to peer pressure. It's time to be more conscious, not only of what we put onto and into our bodies (with respect to organic cosmetics and food), but also to what we put into our homes and on our backs. Advertising is powerful, but less so when you realise it's playing into your insecurities. Do you really think following trends makes you a cooler person? Do you really believe owning a lot of luxury goods will make you happier?
Think of it this way: for every single thing you buy - be it a new top or a new sofa - that involves taking precious resources from the Earth and destroying the planet a little bit more. And those resources will probably not return to the Earth; instead they will transform into some form of pollution, whether it's landfill, smog (from rubbish incinerators) or sewage. Is having new furniture worth ruining forests for? Is that new jewellery worth ripping a mountain apart for a mine?
Every dollar you spend also represents some amount of your time that you've spent working instead of doing something more fun. Wouldn't you rather spend less and work less? Or spend that money on an experience with loved ones?
When you look at it that way, is any frivolous purchase ever really worth it? Sure, owning less is great, but wanting less is the key here - once we realise that owning 'things' will not make us more attractive, happier or better people, but connections to those we love and the planet that sustains us will, minimal living seems to be the best kept secret for maximum peace of mind.
This article first appeared in Eluxe Magazine