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The false hope of minimalist living

The secret of life unfolds when one acts not to become happy, but out of happiness

– Swami Viditatmananda

There is a rage sweeping the blogosphere and it’s all about minimalism. I stumbled onto an extreme variant of minimalist living after reading the 100 thing challenge in Times Magazine and first started thinking hard about minimalism after a conversation with my friend Darrick 5 years ago. If you do quick Bing you’ll see dozens of popular blogs out there talking about this topic.

Several years ago I was definitely in a phase of thinking I needed more stuff. This was in part because I had recently graduated from college and literally had nothing but a few suitcases, and old futon mattress and a couple of bicycles. After a few promotions at work and a positive balance in my bank account, I moved out of the small room I renting in a house and into a bigger place in downtown Seattle as gift to myself, complete with nice views of the Space Needle and Elliot Bay, and filled it with furniture and a bunch of other random nonsense and nice electronic gadgetry.

Darrick came into town and stopped by for a visit, the first time we had met in a long time. He walked into my apartment and set his large backpack down on the floor. He joked that my place was super nice, very “cushy” and full of stuff…a lot of stuff for a yogi...I joked that for an overnight stay he brought a more stuff than a Hollywood actress….especially for a guy that was supposedly “living the simple life” as I knew he was downsizing his lifestyle. He mentioned that this was literally all he owned! Everything else had been sold: his cars, homes, business he founded, everything. Over the course of a few years he totally simplified his lifestyle. It blew me away.

If he wanted to get a book, he would give one away since he only had room for 1. Same rule held true for clothing and other stuff, if he wanted to get something new, he had to let go of something old. I thought I had a pretty simple life, but looking around at my over-sized apartment I realized that he took things to a whole new level of simplicity. Darrick went on to travel around the world, and is still living in this way. I think he is on an island in the Pacific eating durian fruit at this very moment 🙂 .

Since then there have been a whole host of bloggers coming up that talk about the benefits of minimalist living. There have been stories in the mainstream media about it. Many minimalists even have lists of all their possessions, with all kinds of rules around how they count the number of items they own (e.g. do you count socks as 2 items or just the pair? do you count every utensil or just count them all as 1? do you count every razor you own or just treat the batch as 1? etc.). It almost seems like living with few things is the goal, but I find that to be a shallow goal, one that can make it harder to be at peace and really happy over the long term.

I think that minimalist living carries with it a false hope. The hope is that getting rid of things and not wanting to consume will somehow make you happy.

This is the problem. You can never get rid of everything. You can get rid of all your possessions and even then you are left with your own thoughts! You can get rid of thinking and then you are left with your emotions. You can try to control your emotions and then you are left in the grip of needing to control everything. You can get rid of controlling tendencies and then you are left with a gaping void…the gaping void of not feeling complete because you think there is actually something that you can still rid yourself of that will make you even more happy, but you can’t find anything left to jettison. You continue to search endlessly. Minimalism becomes a crutch.

The false hope of minimalist living is the expectation that it will make you happy. Nothing can make you happy. You can only just choose to be happy.

Happiness is really just your true nature. You can be happy and content as a billionaire with lots of toys just as you can as a monk living in a cave in Bhutan.

What amazes me about my friend Darrick is that he got rid of things not to be happy…but out of happiness. He wanted to see the world and experience new places and people, and realized that the things in his life were just not needed for him to do that. They got in the way, so he got rid of those things. That’s a smart way of going about things. Minimalism should therefore not be a goal, it at best is a potential outcome one has in the process of realizing some deeper purpose. It is a side-affect that may come along as you move along your path.

Instead of trying to get rid of things to be happy and content…be content with whatever you are doing…and then if you have an intention to buy less and live more simply…fantastic…go for it by all means, but let go of the expectation that it will lead to nirvana, you are already there if you are willing to see it.


  1. Cathy_H says:

    Just ran across this post. I love the line “What amazes me about my friend Darrick is that he got rid of things not to be happy…but out of happiness.” Very glad I ran across your blog.

  2. Find the essential….
    Eliminate the rest…
    all you need to do is define “essential” and that is different for everyone…. but once to do that it is a wonderful feeling!

  3. Leopold says:

    The other thought I had is the starving Buddha. The story is told in my own words, according to how it has meaning for me.

    Before Siddartha Gautama was Buddha, he was attempting to achieve “enlightment” (I’ll use the common vernacular here). He had been told that the way to achieve this was through fasting. Siddartha fasted better than anyone. Still no insight. So, he thought, he must not be fasting enough. He fasts more. He fasts for days and weeks. He is so weak, he almost drowns in a small river.

    Finally, insight does come to Siddartha, but not the insight he was seeking. He finally says “this is bullshit!” He realizes that those who are teaching him how to achieve insight through fasting have not achieved insight either. And he tells everyone from that point on: Don’t believe something to be true because someone told you. You must find truth for yourself.

    I realize this is heavily paraphrased, but it relates to those who believe that a “fast” of objects will also lead them to insight. They have lost track of their purpose. They make the fast the goal. It is sad to see people go astray like that.

    Some will hear what I just wrote and say: Someone told me NOT to get rid of excess stuff.

    I didn’t say that either. That’s just another delusion. First, decide what YOUR goals are. Not someone else’s goals. Your goals. What makes you happy. That is the start of finding your way.

  4. Leopold says:

    Some thoughts on this essay. Yes, some people see “getting rid of stuff” to be the goal. And they are competitive and want to “win”. Ugh.

    For others of us, we want to say no to the mediochre, so we have room in ourselves to say yes to the great. That’s where some of these extremists lose me. The great comes along, and they say “no” because they are still so focused on winning the game of having the fewest possessions. They lose track of what they are doing this for.

  5. Nora says:

    That is the far end of extreme minimalism. In my own journey a cluttered home (even hidden behind closet doors) creates clutter in my mind. Visual noise can create mental noise. I don’t feel the need to be rigid. But letting go of “stuff” does create some inner peace for me. People can become obsessed with anything. Feng Shui isn’t just nonsense.

  6. R U Ayn Rand says:

    Living lightly on the earth is a worthy goal – it is not just about being “happy”.

    “be content with whatever you are doing” is foolish advice at best. Drive your SUV, be a pedophile, eat your burgers, beat your spouse…consume…consume…consume……just be content right?

    Selfish and shallow.

    • Forest says:

      I agree with R U Ayn Rand. This post appears to say its ok to consume with excess if it makes you happy. None of the minimalists I’ve known over the years have had any of the false hopes described here, not even the ones termed “extreme”. Most are looking for simplicity, less stress and anxiety, breaking from modern mindless consumerism, primal/tribal/ancestoral/animal/environmental/ecological connection, harmony, etc… And yes in many ways it does lead into a sort of zen concept

  7. ultrarunner says:

    I don’t think it’s the stuff (which is just the symptom, not the disease), or lack thereof, that is important, but your emotional attachment to individual inanimate objects (and animate ones, too). A person who can’t bear to part with one of the fourteen things he owns in the world, is as much a minimalist as the person who has closets full of things that will possibly come in handy one day.

    Keep the stuff. Dump the emotional attachment. The stuff will then disappear on its own. Dumping the stuff itself is simply a palliative.

    Now, if you can take this pebble from my palm… I’ll go bananas. It’s my favorite.

    • Julie says:

      Ultrarunner, very well expressed. What great points. I’d still rather be the dude (or dudette) with the 14 things. Yeah, sometimes the pebble is the hardest to part with. Thanks for the emotional attachment reminder. And thanks, Ravi, for this topic. It’s a lovely one quite worthy of pondering.

      • ultrarunner says:

        Go and throw one “useful” thing out within the next five minutes (or ultimately don’t, it doesn’t matter). Consider everything you went through doing it. All your thought processes. How you defended things. How you vacillated. How you formed excuses. How you chose. Learn about yourself. You’re important, not the amount of stuff you have or don’t have.

        Keep the stuff. Throw out the fears.

  8. i think that minimalist living carries with it a false hope. The hope is that getting rid of things and not wanting to consume will somehow make you happy.

    great point. i do however think minimalising possessions and consumption leaves space for realising what will make you happy.i think a lot of us spend a lot of the time numbing ourselves with the short high of buying something new.

  9. Julie says:

    Simplifying over the years did not make me happy all by itself, but it has been key in clearing my mind and my life so I could get to the juice of living with much less material debris. It has helped me become more clear-headed and content. Minimalism in an of itself will not do the trick, especially if the motives are off. But there is much to be said for living with just enough to satisfy and not too much to complicate. The book that changed my life was, of course, a simple one called, “Living the Simple Life,” by Elaine St. James.

    • Robyn says:

      Me too, Julie! Found that book one night. Went home and cleared out so much stuff. It was the beginning of simplifying my life. Very helpful.

  10. Marsha G says:

    Well said Ravi. I love this post. Just now I was in my garage looking for something and had the feeling that If I just got rid of all this stuff I would be lighter, more free, etc. I do believe as you say that we are already free underneath the thought that we aren’t free. I never put striving for minimalism and unhappiness together before. Thank you.

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