In the summer of 2004, I was a rising sophomore in college on my first visit to Paris. It was midnight; I was riding the metro with a group of excited students when the leader of the group I was with, handed me her cell phone.“It’s your mother,” she said, sounding unworried as only the French can.I grabbed the phone. “Hi Mom! Guess where I am—I’m on the metro in Paris!”

“Baby, are you sitting down?” Her tone instantly got my attention. After all, it was midnight in Paris, and she had called the group leader—a number I didn’t even know she had. I sat down. “Our house burned down,” she said calmly.

“What?”

“No one was hurt, we’re all okay. Even Lando.” My heart warmed with relief. My family was okay; even our dog was okay. “But, it was a serious fire. Most of the house is damaged.”

That fire was the beginning of my transformation from a dedicated pack rat to a joyful minimalist.

Minimalism is all about you

What do we mean exactly when we say “I’m a minimalist?” Well, the answer varies for each person; but first and foremost, a minimalist lifestyle is about increasing your joy through simplicity. It’s all about what makes you happy, and nothing more.

What it is and isn’t

Minimalism is

  • Letting go of that which does not serve you
  • Designing your life based on how you want to live it, not the expectations of others
  • Letting go of negative or obsessive thoughts
  • Looking around and seeing your personality reflected in your living space
  • Being surrounded by colours and textures that make you feel good
  • Putting furniture in rooms to reflect how you really live, instead of how other people live
  • Creatively using one item for more than one purpose
  • Borrowing from friends or neighbours, or renting, if you use something rarely
  • Giving unused things away now, not later
  • Knowing that you have what you need and it is enough
  • Spending money on experiences and adventures.

Minimalism is not

  • Saying “yes” to every request of your time
  • Keeping things out of guilt or a sense of loyalty to someone
  • Making sure your home looks like it could be in a décor magazine [unless that’s truly your passion]
  • Having a couch and a TV just because everyone else does
  • Having a gadget for every possible whim you might have
  • Filling an attic, garage, or basement with things for the kids in case they ever want them
  • Keeping something because it’s easier than recycling it or giving it away
  • Keeping something only because it’s worth a lot of money
  • Renting a personal storage unit
  • Spending money on possessions that require maintenance or management.

Stuff = Stress

Let’s think about the process we go through when we acquire something—when we begin our relationship to a ‘belonging’, say, a gadget. First, we buy or are given the gadget. It’s such a wonderful new addition to our lives. We’ve always wanted one, and now we have the newest, most high-quality gadget on the market. It’s going to make our lives easier. We will be happy, attractive, healthy and rich because we own this gadget.

We take our gadget home, and now we need to take it out of its packaging. The first ping of stress happens, because it’s packaged in hard plastic, and we have to wrestle with it and pinch our fingers getting it open.

Then we throw the packaging away, and feel some more stress about the environment and that giant floating trash island the size of Texas that is out in the Pacific somewhere.

We use and enjoy our gadget for a time, but then it breaks. So then we hire a professional or take it to a shop for repair. It turns out our gadget just needed cleaning and maintenance. This maintenance time takes away from our loved ones and our larger life goals, adding stress as we ask ourselves: where does the time go?

Life is busy and it’s not always easy to remember to clean our gadget when so many other things call for our attention: our jobs, relationships and other activities. With everything going on, the gadget just sits there, gathering dust. One day we are de-cluttering the living room, and we see the dusty old gadget. It’s taking up much-needed space, and we need to find a different place to store it. Somewhere out of the way.

Briefly a thought occurs to us: Will I use this again? Maybe I should give it away. Well, I’ll probably use it sometime in the future. Just not right now. Anyway, I’m cleaning up. I don’t have time to deal with dusting this off and finding a new home for it. Maybe I’ll use it later.

With that, we put it on a high shelf in a closet or in a box in the attic, straining our neck and back in the process.

Then, much later, we think that it would be nice to use the gadget. We look for it, but we can’t find it amongst the overwhelming amount of stuff in the closet or attic. After getting dirty and dusty, we promise ourselves we will clean out our home, but for some reason, we put it off.

This stressful process is how our homes become stuffed full of things we don’t need.

Life is short—enjoy your stuff

Stuff is not evil. We enjoy what we own—when we use it. In fact, our belongings can bring great joy to our lives when they help us connect to each other or pursue meaning and goals. But there’s only time for so many pastimes. There are only 24 hours in the day. We may dream of the dinner parties we’ll throw, the golf we’ll play, or the songs we’ll write, but if we aim to do too much, we may simply spend our time moving, sorting, and maintaining our paraphernalia rather than enjoying it. It’s unlikely that when we find ourselves bored, the existence of the gadget in the attic is going to occur to us and we are going to dig it out, dust it off, put in fresh batteries and enjoy it.

Giving for joy

Another truth is that as you simplify, you’ll probably end up giving away belongings to friends or charity. The act of giving leads to joy. Kelly Palace, my aunt, had an entire wardrobe of cold weather clothes, formal, professional attire, as well as casual wear. After moving to Florida, Aunt Kelly didn’t need most of her clothes—she was able to dress more casually and for the warmer climate. So what she did was spread her entire old wardrobe out on the floor, take a picture of it, and post the photo to Facebook with a short message that said, “This is an entire wardrobe for a woman who is a size 4 – 6, and it’s free to anyone who will come take it off my hands.” What happened was wonderful. A woman came and picked it up. She gave it to a friend who had just escaped an abusive relationship and had left most of her clothes in her old home. This act of giving was a blessing for the woman who received the clothes, but also for Aunt Kelly, who told the story with so much joy.

Designing a joyful life

Minimalist living applies not just to your belongings, but to your time. Do you feel out of control of your days and wonder where the hours go? If so, you may want to de-clutter your schedule. If you aren’t sure where the time goes, you may want to use a computer tool like Toggl to track your time for a week and see how you spent it. Being an anchorless boat tossed about by the oceans of TV-watching, web-surfing, over-commitment, or other people’s expectations can mar your joy just as much as overstuffed closets.

If you’ve committed to something, backing out can feel like a blow to your integrity. Yet your own joy is most important, because your happiness spreads. If you’re doing something with stress or resentment, you might as well not be doing it. You aren’t doing anyone any favours by doing something with a negative attitude.

Have you ever wished you could watch less TV and paint or [insert activity of choice here] more? Where is your television? Does it have pride of place as the focal point of your living room? What if, instead of your television, that was the spot where your easel and painting supplies were?

I ask these questions to illustrate what a strong impact our home environment has on us. The average urban person watches almost three hours of television per day. For someone born now who will live to age 80, that’s a total of eight years of television watching. If someone replaced this television time with self- growth activities, he or she could become an expert in seven different fields according to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s theory of 10,000 hours.

I’d argue that our excessive television watching is at least partly due to the fact that it’s so common to own a TV; it’s odd not to have one. As humans, we are very good at responding and interacting with our environment. What is around us is what we will place our attention on.

Adapt your settings to your needs, not the other way around Using this knowledge about the way we are wired to adapt to our environment looks like this: if you want to eat healthily, get rid of the junk food and replace it with wholesome food. If you want to improve your sleep, remove everything from your bedroom except your comfortable, well-clothed bed. If you’d like to be more sociable, remove your computer and books, and replace them with a big dinner table, games, and comfortable, welcoming décor. If you’d like to be more introspective, remove your big dinner table and games, and install an armchair and a nice lamp surrounded by books, notebooks, pens, and highlighters.

You see where I’m going with this. Options are overrated; they tend to overwhelm us and lead to mediocre lives. When we have too many options, we spend our lives maintaining those options instead of exercising them. “But I like having options,” you may be thinking. “After all, I like to read, and I like to socialise. Can’t I do both?” Of course you can, and you should. However, right now in your life, what do you intuitively know is going to be good for your overall joy? You can always go out of your home for variety. Home needn’t be a place that meets all of your needs. Create your home such that its environment feeds into the essential values and goals of your life—only the essentials.

 This was first published in the July 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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