5 Surprising Lessons Minimalism Taught Me About Life

Some thoughts on minimalism, the KonMari method and transcendentalism

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What began as an art movement in the 1960s and 1970s has now become a way of life for many people, particularly millennials like myself. Deborah Weinswig in a Forbes article called “Millennials Go Minimal: The Decluttering Lifestyle Trend That Is Taking Over”, says that 78% of millennials would rather spend on an experience than on material goods compared to 59% percent of baby boomers, courtesy of a Harris Poll and Eventbrite Inc. survey cited on Bloomberg.

Minimalism is often associated with uncluttered spaces, simple capsule wardrobes and amazingly tiny homes.

But having adopted a minimalist lifestyle in the last few years, I think that minimalism can go beyond the material and into the transcendental.

I see a lot of similarities between the values minimalism encourages and the ideas that have been explored in transcendentalism: the importance of self-reliance, detachment from material goods, the value of simplicity, the validity of intuition…Minimalism has changed my approach to living and become a part of my personal philosophy.

Here are the 5 essential lessons I’ve learned:

1. Happiness is not found in ownership

Some people pursue wealth and material belongings, equating the ownership of material goods with increased happiness and satisfaction. Before becoming a minimalist, I used to think this way too.

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But when I read Mari Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, my view changed. Kondo’s Zen-like decluttering process (called the KonMari method) opened my eyes to all the clutter I was keeping, both literally and figuratively.

Kondo instructs people to ask themselves if an object truly makes them happy, instead of asking questions like: “Do I need this?” or “How often have I used this?” You learn very quickly that it’s not so much about the object itself but about your mental and emotional association with that object. Treasured objects are often linked to valued memories or people in our lives. But what we truly value becomes muddled in all the clutter.

By going through this process, I was able to rid myself of the inessential to make room for the essential.

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” -Henry David Thoreau

I’m able to more easily let go of things I don’t need — and I’m richer for it. The knowledge that I can let go of things that I don’t need has become more satisfying than obtaining those things themselves. There’s a degree of self-restraint and self-reliance in this.

2. Clutter affects the mind

After I had decluttered and organized my space, a strange thing happened.

It felt as if a fog had lifted over my mind and I could suddenly zero in on what was really important to me.

I was shocked that physical clutter could have such an effect on my mental state and space.

The home is often seen as an oasis, a familiar place of refuge away from the chaotic world. However, if your home is cluttered, it can instead become a place of distress and alienation.

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A 2016 study at the University of New Mexico by Catherine Roster and her colleagues showed how clutter affects a person’s view of their home and their level of satisfaction with life.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

This illustrates to me how much the immediate space around us affects our well-being. It’s not the mess we see — it’s our perception of what the clutter in that space conveys to us.

3. Time spent in nature is essential

I started spending less time buying things and more time doing things that mattered. One of the most noticeable differences was that I spent more time outside in nature, either photographing scenes that inspired me or cycling outside in the mornings.

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Similar to his fellow Transcendentalists, Thoreau spent lots of time around nature — and I understand why.

Escaping my busy town and immersing myself in a hike in the woods is a balm to my spirit. It’s restorative, inspiring and uplifting. It reminds me that there are more important things in life than making money and achieving the next big thing.

“In the hopes of reaching the moon, men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet.” -Albert Schweitzer

4. Ideas can dramatically change you

Since adopting an attitude of minimalism toward all things, I feel more in control of my life and my decisions. I’m not as easily swayed by advertising or impulse purchases (although my weakness for sweets could use some work). I’m less likely to put up with situations or people that detract from my happiness or well-being. And I realize how crucial it is to make time for the things and people that are important to me: friends, family, hobbies, interests, causes, etc.

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

5. Trusting your instinct is important

Through Mari Kondo’s approach, I learned about the importance of quiet reflection. One caveat with her approach to cleaning is that you can’t have any music on while doing it. Otherwise, it interrupts the meditative-like state of tidying. And when you finally ask yourself if an object sparks joy, you won’t be distracted by any external stimuli and you’ll be able to have that necessary inner dialogue with yourself. I often play music while I’m cleaning, so this was a challenge for me — but a worthwhile one.

I not only learned about the importance of having an inner dialogue with myself but also about the importance of relying on my own intuition. I didn’t follow her instructions to a tee, so when I did try tidying with music on, it backfired. I realized that the music was distracting me from the intuitive decision-making process.

But I learned to trust myself, remembering her words about regret and how regret is a natural part of life. So I grew more comfortable with making decisions, even if I did regret a few of them afterward.

But that’s how we learn.

I’ve become more aware of my intuition and am always shocked that my instincts are usually right. I believe that we should always be as rational as possible in life but I also believe that intuition has real value too.

In a New Scientist article, Jonah Lehrer, author of The Decisive Moment, explains that emotional, intuitive decision-making often serves us better when we need to make complex decisions such as buying a car or choosing a life partner. Since our emotions come from our unconscious mind, they give us more information in these situations than our rational mind.

“Intuition is the undoubting conception of a pure and attentive mind, which arises from the light of reason alone, and is more certain than deduction.” -Descartes

What began as a simple lifestyle change has become a way of life for me. It’s changed my way of thinking, my values and my approach to living. Most of all, it’s made me question myself, humanity and society.

In short, minimalism has led me to a mode of philosophical thinking, and that’s more valuable than anything else.