Home Self Improvement Exploring Minimalism: Why Getting Rid of Things Won’t Make You Happy

Exploring Minimalism: Why Getting Rid of Things Won’t Make You Happy


“It is not what we have, but what we use that constitutes our wealth.” ~ Epicurus

Minimalism is a lifestyle in which one removes the clutter from life to make room for meaningful living. This can take the form of reducing what one already has, developing new consumption habits to reduce the influx of new clutter into one’s life, or some combination of the two.

As a psychotherapist, I have had clients in my practice between the ages of seventeen and seventy who have mentioned this in sessions over the years. It is clear that he entered the spirit of the times. In an increasingly complex world, minimalism has a remarkably simple mission: to get rid of distractions, to find more meaning.

But the promise may have exceeded the potential: the world seems to be moving away from minimalism. A recent article about the new trend of maximalism got me thinking about minimalism’s time in the sun and the apparent shift in popular culture from one to the other.

Like many when I learned about minimalism, I was inspired to do a round of decluttering one weekend afternoon. I collected several sacks of clothes, a handful of electronics, and a box of appliances and donated them to my local thrift store.

It was good. Like, very good. I felt lighter, freer and more generous.

Afternoon was a day later. However, the next morning it was gone. No big deal, I thought, I’ll just unload some more stuff. I went around the house and hauled another load to the commission. Happiness: Restored.

I thought at this time I finally cut my way to pleasure.

I didn’t have any. The next day the afterglow faded again. My eyes darted around the living room—what else could I get rid of? That’s when it hit me: It was basically retail therapy. . . just the opposite.

Retail therapy or buying things to make yourself feel better is old shoes. But selling/donating/throwing away old shoes to feel better had much more appeal.

As I continued to learn about lifestyle minimalism—the tendency to get rid of unnecessary things in order to live better—it seemed to me that it often focused on the first part of its mission (getting rid of stuff) and not so much on the second part (living better).

Perhaps this is because the first part deals with the tangible while the second part deals with the intangible. We can count the number of shirts in our closets, but we can’t count what a better life looks like. This is a very personal question that will be different for everyone.

However, I began to wonder if these two parts—minimizing clutter and building a meaningful life—had anything to do with each other.

Minimalism and meaning building can be completely false a relationship, or a relationship that appears to exist but does not.

A famous example of a spurious relationship is the relationship between crime rates and ice cream sales: both increases and decreases at the same time of year. Therefore, it can be concluded that one causes the other. But eating ice cream does not lead to criminal behavior and vice versa. In reality, both of them are caused by an increase in temperature.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific research on the relationship between minimalism (or maximalism) and meaning making, so we are left with anecdotal evidence.

One phenomenon that we do have scientific support for is the hedonic treadmill, and I believe there are hidden pitfalls to both minimalism and maximalism.

Hedonic treadmill

The hedonic treadmill theory is about how short-term gains and losses have no long-term effect on well-being because we adapt to our circumstances. The hedonic treadmill moves with us, keeping us in place.

A classic 1978 study of the phenomenon by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman found that lottery winners and paraplegics reported feeling “back to normal” a few months after a relative change. No matter what seems to happen in our lives, our happiness seems to return to its original level. Various measures of subjective well-being tend to give a global average of somewhere around 6.7 out of 10.

The hedonic treadmill also explains why my good feelings from cleaning didn’t last more than a day or two.

Getting inspired by minimalism for the weekend was fun. But like any other fun weekend, I’m not sure it prepared me any better for the week ahead. Others may have different opinions and experiences, of course, but for me, decluttering didn’t do more than go and buy a bunch of stuff instead of getting rid of it. Things, or at least my things, are not imbued with meaning, whether I bring them into or out of my living space.

As minimalism’s blank white walls are replaced by maximalist antiques, including the dark academic subculture, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before many of its adherents realize the same thing, either consciously or subconsciously: the accumulation of antiques and leather-bound books will not make a person wiser and more cultured in their essence.

This brings us to the quote from Epicurus at the beginning of this article – that is not what we are to have but what are we to do which determines our satisfaction with life.

Removing the burden of cleaning and caring for items we don’t really value, as well as consumer habits that leave us unsatisfied, may create an opportunity to focus on the more important things in life, but it won’t do the work for us to fulfill that potential.

Similarly, filling our homes with beautiful objects as much as possible can be an inspiring basis for self-improvement, but change is an exhausting process that requires a deep reserve of inner motivation. At some point, engineering our environment offers diminishing returns when the goal is internal change.

To live meaningfully, we must commit to building and maintaining intimate relationships, engaging in purposeful activities, professional or extracurricular, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle so that we have the energy for these activities. Things and the time we devote to them can be barriers to those things, but removing barriers is not the solution in itself.

My experiment with minimalism has me reaffirming my commitment to these dusty old expectations.

For me, a meaningful life consists of spending time outdoors with family and friends, drawing from my own experiences and the works of others to understand the human condition, and constantly working to improve my skills as a therapist so that I can better help my clients realize their own visions of meaningful life.

To build a foundation for these activities, I try to eat a healthy diet, exercise (in one form or another) for about thirty minutes a day, and get eight hours of sleep each night.

This is pretty much my road map. Like everyone else, I am often bombarded with ideas that present themselves as solutions to my problems. I often let these ideas pass me by, but every now and then I take one for a test drive. Afterwards, I usually find myself back where I started, and then I remind myself that so much of what is called a shortcut to a meaningful life is actually a roundabout way.

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