Why People Become Minimalists

One of many youtube/instagram trends right now is to be a minimalist. But there seems to be some disagreement over what this means, and there are different rationales for being one. These different notions and reasons give vastly different outcomes, and I believe we'd be better served in discussions about them if we didn't get everything mixed up all the time.

I was going to start this off with the definition of minimalism from dictionary.com, but it turns out there really isn't one that matches the current usage.

(Check it out; it's just about the music and art forms.)

Minimalism is About Having Less

That's a point that most seem to agree on. I say 'most', because I've actually heard youtubers say the contrary, while making videos about reducing the number of possessions they own. Uhm. Yeah.

Anyways, let's assume for the sake of this essay that minimalism at its core is about having the stuff you need, but not a lot else. But why do people want to have less, and how do different motivations lead to different outcomes?

The Environmental Reason

Manufacturing strains the environment. Both materials and energy required for production and distribution causes harm. Some people approach minimalism for this reason; to lessen their ecological footprint and the harm done to the planet.

When starting on your minimalist journey from this point, the obvious first step is not necessarily to divest yourself of items. Since each new item produced causes harm you may want to hold on to the things you have for as long as you can make any use of them. But you will want to get rid of the things you don't use, that someone else may use instead.

As an environmental minimalist you'll also adapt a lot of your hobbies and interests to be more eco-friendly as well. No more airline travel on vacations, no more car joyriding.

The Economical Reason

You may want to spend less money. A simple enough reason, and very valid in these times where a lot of us don't trust the pension system (or even want to do the FIRE {Financial Independence, Retire Early} thing).

Even though this is a very different rationale than the environmental view, the methods and consequences are very much the same. Carefully divest yourself of things (often taking the time to sell rather than give away quickly), make sure you get as much usage as possible from things before throwing them away.

Expensive hobbies and vacations are often more environmentally stressful, which is why even this aspect of your life would be adapted in a similar fashion as the environmental minimalist.

The purely economical minimalist may however invest more money in the stock market, or take a high-paid job that monetizes from consumerism or environmentally dubious practices.

The Stress/Mindfulness Reason

Maybe your life is just too stressful? Having less things at least has the possibility of creating a more zen-like atmosphere in your home. Maybe the weight and volume of things in your surroundings are a factor that adds stress to your life in themselves. This was certainly the case for me, even though I had a hard time describing the situation.

Maybe you don't even know what you own, what you use, or what you like?

If this is your motivation your end goal might not be to have as little as possible, but to better know yourself and have just so much stuff that it doesn't overwhelm you.

This is definitely a different beast than the environmental or economical minimalists. You might continuously buy new stuff and divest yourself of semi-new items simply because you allow yourself to cycle through phases or different hobbies.

The Aesthetic Reason

You just don't want a cluttered home. Clean surfaces, few decorations, organized wardrobe, colour-coded bookshelf.

I believe there's a pretty big overlap between this group and the stress/mindfulness minimalists, and the methods and consequences are similar. If you're in this group you might decide that five sweaters is all you need, but those five might all be replaced within a year as you find new favourites or follow current fashion.

In a way you may find yourself constantly decluttering, divesting, and organizing, because new stuff is continuously introduced into your life and older stuff is booted out.

The Minimalist Identity(?)

All of these people are minimalists, but they certainly don't live the same experience. Minimalists of the environmental or economical motivation may scoff at those of the stress/mindfulness or aesthetic leanings; those can be seen as living the consumerism and buying into brands, trends, and fashion while maintaining a facade of frugality and ascetism.

Meanwhile environmental minimalists may look down on economical minimalists making investments that power and feed off the consumerism; is it ethical to make money on those still trapped in the capitalist hamster wheel while you're weening yourself off of it?

Minimalists from the stress/mindfulness or aesthetic views may shudder at the thought of introducing the amount of friction into their lives that environmental or economical minimalists willingly do; the very idea of willingly living near the poverty line in terms of indulgence and expenditure certainly doesn't sound very appealing.

From a stress/mindfulness perspective the aesthetic minimalist may look like a perpetually busy person who also makes minimalism difficult and straining it their own ways. The aesthetics, on the other hand, often enjoy practicing minimalism as a hobby.

As always, most minimalists don't fit into any one category neatly. There is overlap, and most will have a combination of motivations.

It's important to understand these differences, lest we fall into the "No True Scotsman" trap in discussions.

-- CC0 Björn Wärmedal