A few posts back I shared some experiences I had while selling alarm systems door-to-door in Indianapolis. During that summer I certainly learned a lot about sales, at least alarm system sales, but that wasn’t the biggest takeaway for me.
What I found is that when you are on the streets all day long, going out of your way to speak with as many people as possible, you see some strange things and you meet some interesting people.
One day, I met a man at his doorstep. Right away, I knew that he was an interesting person because rather than calling me simply Josh, he was intent on calling me by my full name. To him I was Joshua.
It wasn’t just that he used my full name, it was the way he put emphasis on the syllables. He pronounced my name Josh-u-ah.
He made me laugh, so I engaged him in a conversation. During our conversation, I peeked passed him in the doorway and looked into the interior of his home.
I saw nothing.
Nothing at all. His entire living and dining room area was empty. I asked if he had just moved in, and is his response surprised me.
Very confidently, he told me that he was a minimalist. I had never heard this term before, so I immediately took it to mean that he owned as little as possible. Or perhaps nothing at all.
He told me that possessions were a burden. That without them he was free to live his life as he pleased. To an extent, I agreed with him, but I still thought he was strange.
I couldn’t help but correlate his desire to own very little, to the peculiar way in which he said my name. Josh-u-ah.
My curiosity for this man and his way of living only increased hours later, when I again passed by his house. This time I could see directly into his bedroom, which of course had no curtains. I noticed that he did have a bed, and he was laying on top it, staring straight at the ceiling.
I thought that this must be how minimalists spent their time. They didn’t have televisions, so they stared at the ceiling.
Little did I know at the time that I would one day become a minimalist of sorts myself. My brand of minimalism is a bit different than the nice man I met in Indianapolis, but like that man, I have found that I don’t need many possessions and that having fewer possessions has given me a sense of freedom.
I don’t think I’m perfect at being minimalist, in fact, I don’t think there is a proper definition of what is perfect. What I have found is that decluttering and only keeping things that add utility to my life, the things that are truly valuable, makes life simpler and my home a bit more peaceful.
Below is some research about why minimalism makes sense and some thoughts to consider for why you might try it yourself.
Arguments for Owning Less
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to study at the library, as opposed to your house or apartment? It’s quieter, and even though there are people there, it’s less distracting.
The same goes for working in a Starbucks. Despite people moving all around you, some of them even shouting, it’s easier to get your work done there.
Why is this the case?
I would argue that one of the reasons it’s easier, is because there is so much less stuff around.
And if there is stuff, it’s not your stuff. It creates a much less distracting and much more productive work environment.
Walk into any Silicon Valley office building and you will find a sleek, minimalist design. This is intentional, and it’s based on actual research.
Having a home cluttered with possessions can make it harder for you to focus on tasks. It can cause anxiety; especially when you’re thinking about adding more to your home.
Clearing the possessions off your counters and shelves can free up your physical space and your mental space.
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” – Henry David Thoreau
Not Tied Down by Possessions
I once worked with a woman who complained that she had not been on vacation for almost a decade. While her husband would travel, she would stay home all by herself. I was flabbergasted.
I couldn’t believe that she could be telling the truth, so I pressed her for more information. I wanted to know why she had not traveled. She clearly had a well-paying job. She clearly had a desire.
The reason she gave was even more flabbergasting. She told me that she hadn’t traveled because of her dogs. At some point, she had begun acquiring husky puppies, and now she had six full-grown huskies living in her home.
Finding someone to watch them or somewhere for them to go when she traveled was just too difficult. So, she never left town.
This may sound crazy, it did for me when I heard it myself, but in some regard, we all have possessions that keep us tied down. It may be our mortgage, car payments, yard work, or some other material object that makes it difficult for us to do other things.
Even the need to water the flowers can be a hindrance to other experiences we may want to enjoy. It’s not always easy to sneak away when you’ve got something you must do, it’s even harder.
Owning less can make life feel less burdensome.
We won’t have to clean and organize as much. We won’t have as many chores or responsibilities. We won’t have to worry as much when people ask to borrow our possessions. We won’t live in constant fear of losing our possessions.
“Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau
Shifting your mindset to want fewer possessions will free you up to focus on what really matters. Rather than spending your time thinking about what to do with your house, car, boat, or RV you can spend your time thinking about others.
If the love of money is the root of all evil, the love of people is the root of all good.
Relationships are key to a life well lived, and putting people ahead of possessions is a solid reason to explore owning less.
The guys now commonly known as The Minimalists often share a great quote, “Love people. Use things. The opposite never works.”
People are the key to happiness, so why wouldn’t we want to shift our priorities to them.
Goodness is the only investment that never fails. – Henry David Thoreau
How we Perceive Our Identity
When we think about celebrities, we’re usually pretty aware of why they are celebrities – it’s because they do something that most other people can’t do. Kevin Durant is an amazing basketball player. Coldplay is a very talented group of musicians. Jimmy Fallon is a skilled comedian and late night host.
We don’t identify any of these people based on the things that they possess. Rather, we associate all of them with the things that they do.
However, in our lives, we often associate ourselves with our possessions. Our big screen TVs, our style of dress, or our car or truck.
Why do we do this? These things don’t accurately reflect who we are. When we spend less time thinking about what we could have, we spend more time thinking about what we could do or who we could become.
People who identify with a passion for doing something often throw their entire lives into that thing. And what’s ironic about their willingness to embrace their passion is that it often leads to outsized success.
Having less and doing more is fundamental in creating our true identities.
There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself. – Henry David Thoreau
In a previous post, which you can read here, I wrote about all the reasons why I don’t own a television. Some of these reasons were financial. And just as there are scores of financial reasons for not owning a TV, there are many financial reasons for owning less stuff.
Imagine if you could reduce your monthly expenses by $100 per month. That might not sound like a lot. But if you were to cut out miscellaneous spending on things such as clothing, knickknacks, decorations, and subscriptions that you don’t need most people could probably save at least $100 per month.
Do you know how much money you would have if you invested $100 per month, with 5% compound interest, for the next 40 years? $152,602.
What if it was $500 per month? $763,010
What if it was $1,000 per month? $1,526,020
My point here is simple – if you invest money, rather than spending money, then it will pay off in a big way. The ability to invest rather than consume is a huge benefit to a life dedicated to owning less.
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. – Henry David Thoreau
Research Shows that Possessions don’t Make us Happier
There is plenty of research to show that owning things not only doesn’t make us happier but over time it also makes us less happy. Like here and here.
Possessions are subject to a biological phenomenon known as adaptation. In an article on FAST Company, Dr. Thomas Gilovish, a psychology professor at Cornell University who has studied the connections between money and happiness for over two decades, said, “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”
Based on Gilovish’s research, we do experience a sense of happiness when we purchase something, but over time, our satisfaction with our purchase decreases.
In contrast, when we spend money on experiences, the happiness we felt from that experience stays with us.
Why is this the case? While we adapt to our physical possession and become bored with them, our experiences become part of our who we are. What we do becomes our identity.
“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says Gilovich. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”
Another reason for the increased happiness that comes from experiences, is the shared connection experiences can provide. When you experience something with someone else, you remember it together.
Even when you’ve experienced something difficult with another person or group of people, a bond is formed. When I was in high school I played basketball and water polo. Neither team was ever that great and we didn’t win in all that much, but the members of the team became best friends.
We worked hard together through a difficult experience and it connected us. It became part of our identity.
The natural result of spending less time focusing on things and more time focusing on people is deeper, more fulfilling connections.
An interesting piece of research published in Sage Journals by Amit Jumar and Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University and Matthew Killingsworth at UC Berkeley demonstrates that waiting for experiences is more enjoyable than waiting for material purchases.
While you might be excited to buy the next Apple product, that experience of waiting does not induce as much joy as waiting for a special event in your life, say a trip or a reunion with a loved one.
Focusing on experiences rather than possessions, can actually make you happier, before you even do the thing your anticipating. There’s more joy through the entire life of the experience, from concept to memory.
Buyers Remorse and Comparisons
We also experience less buyer’s remorse for money spent on experiences. This makes sense, right? People are more likely to be unsatisfied with the new material possession they purchased than the vacation they just took.
Even if the experience was a poor one, the remorse is weaker than when we make a bad purchase decision. This goes back to the idea I shared earlier that people begin to associate their experiences with the story of their lives.
Also, we tend to think of experiences more on their own terms, rather than in comparison with other things. Learning that someone got a better deal on a sweater is probably more annoying than learning that someone had a lot of fun in Mexico, while you were in Hawaii.
Today We Don’t Even Need to Own Things
My final argument for owning less is that in the modern age, we actually don’t even need to own things. This may be truer for some people than for others, but intentional living is about making the decisions we think are the most reasonable, even if they require some sacrifices.
Especially if you live in a large city, you probably don’t need to own a car. When you need to get around there are plenty of options – public transportation, walking, riding a bike, carpooling, and even Uber or Lyft.
For anything that you want to do outdoors or on the water, you are sure to find rental options (e.g., boating, kayaking, tubing, stand-up-paddle boarding, hiking, skiing, climbing, and camping). If you go fewer than a few times per year, then renting is probably cheaper.
If you are a student, you can most likely rent electronics from your school. Public libraries have all sorts of resources; from computers to of course books. And they make owning books unnecessary unless you really want to mark them up with notes.
Owning DVDs and music CDs is completely unnecessary, as you can have quick access to almost any content you want via your computer or phone. And if you don’t own these things, you don’t need to own a shelf on which to store them.
In any situation, where you own something or are thinking about buying something, you can simply ask yourself, “Will this bring value to my life?” If the answer is no, or even maybe, then the decision of whether to keep it or buy it should be fairly simple.
When my wife and I began practicing minimalism it was exciting. We moved through the house cleaning out one room at a time. We’ve done the same thing multiple times since, and have been able to remove more and more through each sweep of the house.
We still buy new things, and people are always giving us stuff, so we make decluttering a periodic event. It’s also made it easier for us to say no to certain types of purchases of things we don’t really need.
Overall it has brought more cleanliness to the house, and for me at least, a little more sanity and tranquility.
I hope this was helpful in some way. If so, please leave a comment below and share with your family and friends. Thanks.
Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.