When More is Less: debunking the cult of clutter

Maureen Wolff  |  Editor-In-Chief

Perhaps you’ve seen the immaculately stylized pictures sweeping social media–the clean lines, the earthy tones and the barren walls. Then there’s the “tiny house” trend–HGTV boasts a series called “Tiny House Hunters,” in which individuals across the country search for shack-sized abodes and transition to an exponentially downscaled homespace. Interior designers cannot get enough blank space, but it is not the kind Taylor Swift sings about.

The minimalist philosophy itself is nothing new. In fact, minimalist thinkers can be found across the decades in the forms of music, art, architecture and literature. In recent days, individuals are applying minimalism to their homes, seeking to remove physical and mental clutter and practice mindfulness toward modern consumerist values.

The Quest for Less

Christian minimalist bloggers David and Christina Diller find an intrinsic compatibility between minimalism and Christianity. The parents of two offer simple living tips on their website “Tico and Tina,” embracing the motto “Make Room for Greatness.”

“For us as Christians, we want to be centered around truth, relationships and creating,” said Christina Diller, pointing to Jesus as the “ultimate minimalist.” Indeed, in Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells a man who asks about his inheritance, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Lifestyle trendsetters Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus author a blog called “The Minimalists,” which touts minimalism to be the “thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which actually aren’t things at all.”

Profoundly unhappy with their high salary jobs and cluttered lives, Millburn and Nicodemus spent 21 days rethinking their time, donating and selling belongings. Their film, “Minimalism: a Documentary about the Important Things,” will be released next year.

The “More” Mantra

“Men have become the tools of their tools,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden” in 1854. Over a century and a half later, these words sound almost prophetic. A 2007 study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicates a connection between positive perception of an owned object and positive self-evaluation. In other words, consumers psychologically tie their self-worth to their possessions.

Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College Tim Kasser said that materialistic values among youth have been steadily rising since the 1960s. Kasser has spent over fifteen years studying materialism and its ties to environmentalism and happiness. He asserts that modern advertising perpetuates the idea that owning more means living a better life.

“We are constantly bombarded by messages that the key to happiness is consumption and materialism,” said Kasser, connecting materialism to depression and anxiety among youth. With so many products and services competing for our attention, more can quickly turn into less. Less time, less money, less energy and less freedom.  

In one of the classes he teaches, Kasser challenged students to go four days with no exposure to ads. Through this activity, Kasser noted, students discovered that clothes, posters and countless other items in their surroundings were subtly or overtly advocating a materialistic lifestyle.

A survey conducted by Havas Worldwide last year suggested that many consumers know that they own too many things. Of over 10,000 individuals surveyed around the globe, 52 percent of consumers agreed with the statement, “I could live happily without most of the items I own.” Yet according to the Self Storage Association, 9.5 percent of American households utilize a storage unit. In the United States. There are 7.3 square feet of storage space for every individual, meaning the entire American population could theoretically fit into the nation’s combined storage space.

Minimize, Maximize

Critics of the minimalist lifestyle trend are calling it impractical, considering the numerous uncontrollable variables of life. After all, not everyone can reasonably own less than 100 things or live out of a suitcase, and many individuals who share space may not have the option to clutter-control their environment. In addition, the minimalism movement is receiving  pushback as a socioeconomically privileged ideology. After all, one must be in a position of excess in the first place in order to start cutting back.

However, Millburn and Nicodemus addressed the idea that a minimalist must be “a young white male from a privileged background,” countering that minimalist thinkers can come from a diverse array of backgrounds. Minimalism is not determined by number of possessions, but redirection of happiness and time into nonmaterial interests.

“Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself,” the Minimalists write on their blog. “Thus, it’s up to you to determine what is necessary and what is superfluous in your life.”

Citing the example of buying camping gear and planning to use it eventually, David Diller warns against the draw of convenient purchasing patterns. He suggests that minimalism lends a sense of liberation and encourages individuals to resist opportunistic consumerism.

“It’s the mentality of, ‘just because we can get it, we should get it,’” said Diller. “Minimalism is a way of being free from all that stuff.”

Collegiate Minimalism

The college twenty-something demographic often bounces from place to place, transitioning from one home space to another for jobs or school. Christina and David Diller point out that with such a transitory lifestyle, it can be a nuisance to pack up masses of personal belongings every time you move. The fewer things you try to fit in your home, the fewer items you will have to try to cram into your car or moving van.

When it comes to college students, Kasser suggests an evaluation of how time is spent at home and what home space is designed to center around. He adds that students should decorate their homes in a way that makes them feel safe in order to foster creative activity space and positive, community-driven relationships. His three methods for minimizing materialism—focusing on intrinsic values, fostering a feeling of safety and decreasing exposure to materialistic messages—are applicable in the home setting.

But it’s not just about what you keep in your apartment or dorm room. Christina Diller says that students often neglect to go through the belongings they leave with their parents and suggests that students purge their left-behind clutter. She adds that students should “start small” and begin forming minimalist habits now, dropping expectations of living at parents’ lifestyle level immediately after graduation.

“I’ve never heard of anyone regretting choosing a minimalist mindset,” said Diller. “If anything, most people wish they would have considered it sooner.”

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