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

“Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” ~Epicurus

Minimalism is the lifestyle of removing the clutter from one’s life to make room for meaningful living. This can be in the form of paring down the stuff one already owns, forging new consumption habits to reduce the inflow of new clutter into one’s life, or some combination of the two.

As a mental health therapist, I’ve had clients in my practice from ages seventeen to seventy mention it in session over the years. This has clearly been a part of the current zeitgeist. Minimalism is a refreshingly simple concept in an ever-complex world. Its mission? Get rid of all distractions and find meaning.

The promise of minimalism may be overrated. A recent article on the newer maximalism trend has caused me to reflect on minimalism’s time in the sun, and popular culture’s apparent transition from the one to the other.

As many others, my interest in minimalism sparked a weekend of organizing. I took several bags full of clothes and electronics along with a few other electronic items and gave them away to my local thrift shop.

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It felt good. It felt good. It was a feeling of lighterness, freedom, and generosity that I experienced.

Through the entire day, it remained in a glow. However, the afterglow had vanished by morning. No problem, I thought—I’ll just unload some more stuff. Then I went through the house, and took another load of stuff to the thrift store. Happiness: restored.

That was what I had in mind This is the timeFinally I found my path to happiness by minimising my life.

I hadn’t. Next day the glow faded once more. My eyes darted around the living room—what else can I get rid of? That’s when it hit me: this was basically retail therapy . . . Just in reverse.

Old shoes can be used for retail therapy or to buy things that make you feel good. But selling/donating/trashing old shoes to feel better had a considerably fresher appeal.

As I continued to learn about the minimalism lifestyle—this trend of getting rid of unnecessary stuff to live a better life—it seemed to me that it was often hyper-focused on the first part of its mission (getting rid of stuff) and not so much the second part (living a better life).

Maybe that’s because the first part deals in the tangible, and the second part the intangible. We can count the number of shirts in our closets, but we can’t put a number on what a better life looks like. It’s a highly personal question that will be different for everyone.

Nevertheless, I began to wonder whether these two parts—minimizing clutter and building a meaningful life, had any relation whatsoever.

Perhaps minimalism and meaning building can be combined to create a whole new world. spurious relationship, or a relationship that seems to exist, but doesn’t.

The famous relationship between crime and sales of ice cream is a case in point: each increase or decreases at the exact same time. One may therefore conclude the other. However, ice cream consumption does not necessarily lead to crime or vice versa. Both are actually caused by temperature increases.

Unfortunately, there are not many scientific studies that examine the relation between meaning-building and minimalism.

The hedonic treadmill is one phenomenon for which we have some scientific support. It contains the hidden traps of minimalism as well as maximalism.

The Hedonic Treadmill

According to the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill, short-term gains or losses don’t have any long-term effect on our well-being. We adapt to our situations. The hedonic track moves along with us to keep us on the right path.

A classic 1978 study of this phenomenon by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman found that lottery winners and paraplegics both reported feeling ‘back to normal’ again a few months after their relative change. Our happiness appears to return to the baseline no matter what happens in our lives. The global average for subjective well-being is 6.7.

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

Minimalalism was a great way to spend a weekend inspired. But just like any other fun weekend, I’m not sure it better equipped me to face the week ahead. While others may have differing opinions or experiences, I found that decluttering was no different from buying a lot of stuff rather than getting rid of it. Stuff, or at least my stuff, isn’t imbued with meaning, whether I’m moving it in or out of my living space.

With minimalism’s blank white walls being replaced with bric-a-brac covered antiques of the maximalist trend—including the dark academia subculture, among others—I suspect it is only a matter of time before many of its adherents realize the same, either consciously or subconsciously: stockpiling antiques and leather-bound books will not make one inherently wiser or more cultured.

This takes us full circle to the Epicurus quote at the top of this article—it is not what we You can find it hereWhat can we do? DoThat is what determines our happiness in life.

Unburdening ourselves from the tedium of cleaning and caring for items we don’t actually value, and from consumer habits that leave us unfulfilled, can create the potential to focus on more important things in life, but it won’t do the work for us of actualizing that potential.

Though a beautiful home can be an inspiration for self-improvement it will not make you happy. However, it may give you the motivation to change. If your goal is inner change, you will find that engineering the environment has diminishing returns.

Living meaningfully requires that you make the effort to nurture and build intimate relationships and engage in meaningful activity, whether it’s professionally or not, as well as to maintain healthy lifestyle habits to ensure we are able to have the energy to pursue these activities. Stuff, and the time we devote to it, can be a barrier to these things, but removing barriers in and of itself isn’t a solution.

My experiments with minimalism led me to reconsider my commitment to the dusty, old things I love.

A meaningful life for me means spending time outdoors with my family and friends. I also enjoy reading the writings of other people for insights into human behavior.

This will help me to build the foundation of my pursuits. I aim for a healthy diet, regular exercise, eight hours sleep, and eat whole food.

That’s pretty much my road map. As with everyone else, I’m constantly bombarded by ideas. I often let the ideas go by but sometimes I will take them out to test it. Afterward, I usually find I’m back in the same place I started, and then remind myself that so much that is branded as a shortcut to a meaningful life is actually a roundabout.

John Mathews

John Mathews, a Midlothian licensed therapist. His practice website Virginia Counseling is where he writes and Therapists Market features digital therapy tools.

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