On Minimalism

February 20, 2019


Over the past few years, the benefits of minimalism have gone from counter-intuitive to commonly-accepted. To a certain point, less stuff means more happiness.

There are many cited reasons why this is the case. A partial list: Reducing physical clutter also reduces mental clutter. Moving away from material objects allows us to focus on experiences instead. When purging, we purge things we don’t like, so we’re left only with things that bring us joy.

I’d like to focus on two angles that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

First, what if the mental benefits of minimalism come not from having less stuff, but rather understanding a greater proportion of the stuff around you?

During much of the evolution of our brains, technology was pretty basic. From earliest man through the dark ages, even a person of modest intelligence could understand how the objects and tools around them worked at a deep level.

But in 2019, technology is everywhere, and it’s essentially magic. How many people thoroughly understand how their drip coffee machines work, let alone their smartphone, car, and or computer? What is the mental cost of being surrounded by things we know we don’t understand?

Even clothes are somewhat magical now. Clothes used to be sewn by hand by someone in your village using the materials around you. Now clothes are made out of different weaves of synthetic materials, assembled with impossibly precise stitching using the help of machines, screen printed by other machines, and imported through a vast supply chain. Even if we understand how clothes work, we don’t understand how they are constructed, or how they find their way into our closets, at least not like we used to.

By reducing our possessions, more of the mass around us is floor, wall, drawer, or shelf. Our eyes fall on the things we do understand deeply.

Now that I’ve made my point, I see that it’s not all that profound. Happiness comes from understanding. Any new parent teaching a toddler to talk can tell you stories of how frustrating it is not to understand (or be understood.) But framing minimalism in the light of “understanding more” allows us to stop getting to a greater amount of understanding through the side window (by getting rid of stuff) and approach it through the front door.

Maybe it makes sense to go on some research tangents and learn how the modern world works? Before now, I would have considered it pretty useless to learn how microfiber cloth is made, for example. Now I see the value.

Second, what if minimalism is really about self-reliance?

I don’t go camping frequently, but when I do, I’m amazed at how little it takes to exist. The feeling stays with me for a few days after I re-enter normal life as I look around at the things I previously “needed” to survive.

I don’t think the human brain can distinguish “what we have” from “what we need”. We assume we need the things we have. With that feeling of need comes vulnerability and a sense of weakness.

Minimalism helps correct this, similar to a camping trip. When we have less, we feel that we need less to survive. As a secondary benefit, having less sometimes means we don’t have what we need, so we are forced to adapt, or to suffer a little bit. It introduces a controlled amount of chaos to our lives, which – when we overcome it – gives us confidence that we can deal with more chaos.

Again, we can approach this much more directly, maybe by randomly giving up some important object every day and forcing ourselves to adapt. Living through a “no car” day, a “no phone” day, a “no wallet” day, “no internet” day, etc. would leave us much less scared of losing any of those things. Purposeful denial of things, small and large, to help us get better at dealing with chaos.

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