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Minimalism. Is your stuff making you unhappy

The term ‘minimalism’ first started to be used in the 20th century, as an architectural and later, an artistic movement. Nowadays, minimalism refers to a philosophy of ‘doing more with less’ and tends to bring to mind people like Marie Kondo and images of frantic de-cluttering of people’s homes. But minimalism is about much more than just cleaning out your unwanted junk. The philosophy is helping many people to free themselves from both literal and emotional baggage, as we discuss in this article.

One of the major causes for unhappiness, and even depression is the tendency to compare ourselves to others. This is a very common – and very harmful – habit and is the root of the term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. This habit leads us to think we need more than we really do, and most importantly, leads us to continue to accrue more and more to make ourselves feel worthy. Needless to say, it’s never enough. Before we know it, our homes are filled with possessions we can’t afford and don’t need, our credit card bills and debts begin to stack up, and we put an incredible amount of pressure on ourselves to ‘keep up’. This never-ending quest to maintain a certain lifestyle is both a financial and emotional burden. The most common issues related to the collecting of ‘stuff’ include:

  • Poor attention span
  • Impulsive buying
  • Financial hardship
  • Stress and anxiety

These issues can translate into mental and physical health concerns, poor performance at work or school, and the deterioration of relationships.

A study conducted in the 70s found that those who won the lottery were no more or less happy than those who hadn’t. The study confirmed that when it comes to happiness, financial gain has very little to do with it. In fact, the lifestyles built around wealth can instead become a source of great unhappiness, as essayist Lee Hughes puts it:

“This puts you in a vicious materialistic cycle in which you strive to achieve long term happiness through the constant purchase of material items.”

The modern minimalist philosophy was brought to the mainstream by friends Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus (also known as The Minimalists), and contrary to popular belief, does not mean throwing away all of your worldly possessions in favour of a more monastic life. Actually, much like the often-quoted Marie Kondo, it’s all about focusing on what ‘sparks joy’. To quote author and international speaker, Colin Wright:

“What Minimalism is really all about is reassessment of your priorities so that you can strip away the excess stuff—the possessions and ideas and relationships and activities—that don’t bring value to your life.”

By freeing yourself from the constant striving for more material wealth, you will find yourself with more financial freedom and greater ability to pay down debts. Not only is this a great financial unburdening, but the ‘lightening of the load’ can take a huge weight off your mind as you remove your habitual need to earn more, buy more, have more and then spend your time housing, cleaning and maintaining all of the ‘things’ in your life.

The evidence also shows that it’s not only how much you spend which determines your levels of happiness or stress, but how you spend it. There is research to suggest that spending one’s money on experiences rather than material possessions results in higher levels of happiness and satisfaction, as well as stronger social relationships. According to a study conducted in 2003 by Van Bovin and Gilovich, there is:

“…Evidence that experiences make people happier because they are more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one’s identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships.”

First of all, no. The minimalist philosophy does not necessarily mean getting rid of the things in your life that are important to you. Quite the opposite. It involves consciously and purposefully making decisions about what is useful and necessary to you (or what brings you joy) and what is unnecessary. Does your large collection of books take up a great deal of space in your home, but bring you a huge amount of joy? Then by all means, that’s something worth hanging on to. Minimalism is all about ‘consuming with intention’.

Importantly, the idea of consuming goods with intention and purpose begins to translate to the rest of our lives. We call this ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness can have a number of positive effects on our lives, as we explain in one of our recent blogpost, Mindfulness and EMDR:

“By bringing our focus back to the present moment and observing without judgement or criticism, we can alleviate stress, raise our awareness, gain insight into ourselves and into others’ behaviours, reduce the effects of (or eradicate) mental illness, and even experience health benefits. In fact, the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness have been proven in countless studies.”

Becoming mindful can take some practice, but you will begin to notice the effects immediately. Cultivating mindfulness will help you to take a minimalist approach to the ‘stuff’ in your life and remove the things that are no longer serving you. Of course, being mindful and becoming a minimalist can be quite a challenge for some of us. Thankfully, there are proven effective techniques which can help! EMDR, as discussed in our recent blog post, is one of these. Read more about EMDR here.

Seeing a counsellor or a psychologist is also another great way to begin your journey to minimalism, as your therapist can help you to uncover the things in your life that are a burden to you, help you release your attachment to them, and help you to develop a strategy for implementing minimalism into your life one step at a time.

If you think that, like so many others, your addiction to ‘stuff’ is making you unhappy and you’re ready to make a change, get in touch with Integrated Health Specialists today; find out how minimalism and mindfulness can make a huge difference to your life.

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen