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Is there life-changing magic to minimalism?

Is there life-changing magic to minimalism?

The Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was into minimalism in the fourth century BC, before it was cool. Leaning into austerity as a comment on contemporary mores, he lived in a large clay wine jar in the marketplace of Athens and owned nothing apart from the sheet of cloth he wore and a wooden bowl – until he saw a peasant boy drinking water from his cupped hands, at which point he smashed it. He upbraided himself thusly: “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!”

Many religious teachers over the centuries have preached the virtue of simplicity, from Lao Tzu to Buddha. Jesus sent out his disciples with instructions “to take nothing but a staff for the journey – no bread, no bag, no money in their belts – and to wear sandals, but not a second tunic." Minimalism has also been endorsed by spiritual leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, who was born with a silver spoon but died with fewer than ten possessions, including his glasses, sandals and a watch. “You may have occasion to possess or use material things,” he said. “But the secret of life lies in never missing them.”

You should, however, thank them before they go, according to Marie Kondo, the kooky Japanese organising consultant who has sold eight million copies of her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying since its publication in 2010. That sounds bonkers, but if you can bring yourself to, or at least adopt that attitude, it’s undeniably helpful for neutralising the guilt that can otherwise stop you from letting things go – especially unwanted gifts, which instead of feeling ashamed about never using, you should thank for giving you pleasure when they were received, then relinquish. Kondo worked in a Shinto shrine as a teen and cleaves to that religion’s belief that objects have souls. Even socks deserve respect, and rest from the “brutal beating” they receive by being neatly folded (never balled up, which stretches the elastic until it’s beyond recovery).

Less a tidying system than a religion, her KonMari Method has won a congregation of “Konverts” who zealously “Kondo” their living spaces, experiencing a kind of ecstasy or “Kondomania”. But before you can tidy, you must purge by discarding anything and everything that, in Kondo’s famously gnomic formulation, doesn’t “spark joy”. The airing of her Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo in January caused a surge in donations to charity shops on both sides of the pond. Some were even folded in her trademark fashion, which enables clothes to “stand up” so you can see everything in your drawer.

Kondo’s is by no means the only decluttering bible ironically filling bookshelves. There’s Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki, or A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsuomoto. Many of them come from Japan, a fact that has been attributed to the smaller living spaces there that make minimalism more of a necessity (although that’s to overlook an observable and opposite tendency to maximalism). The Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 is also referenced as having prompted its inhabitants to reassess their priorities: as Sasaki observes, objects “turned into deadly weapons” then were washed away or destroyed. Trauma often triggers the reverse impulse of hoarding but, whether it was causation or correlation, Kondo’s sales surged in the wake of the disaster.

Many of these books are couched in the spiritual language of Zen, which teaches minimalism and influenced the wider movement in art, design and architecture that took hold in the aftermath of World War II. And like Kondo, they promise life-changing, magic benefits. You will let go of anxieties about the past or the future along with the objects that you often cling to as a result. You will find good fortune, by enhancing your feng shui, and your ikigai or “reason for being”: many of Kondo’s clients change career. Your skin will clear up. You will slim down. “I’ve met a lot of minimalists but none of them (at least so far) have been overweight,” writes Sasaki, an editor at a publishing company who lost 22 pounds, or ten kilos, since he shed most of his possessions. Possible explanations that he gives are improved flow of chi and a reduction in stress-related eating and drinking.

Whatever the truth of these claims, the rapturous response to a book and TV series in which, as one agnostic Guardian critic simply put it, “a woman just tells people to tidy up,” suggests that Kondo and her ilk have struck a chord – or touched a nerve, a sense that things are getting on top of us: “stuffocation”, as futurist James Wallman termed it in his 2013 book of the same name. “Materialism is making millions of us feel joyless, anxious and, even worse, depressed,” writes Wallman, who collates the arguments against: materialism is unwanted by post-materialists whose basic needs are met and protesters who rail against inequality, it’s unsustainable spatially and environmentally, it’s unaffordable as costs rise and wages stagnate and, in an increasingly digital world, it’s unnecessary. Stuffocation is, he contends, “one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century." 

Minimalism is one dramatic solution. Wallman opens Stuffocation with a striking tableau of Ryan Nicodemus – one half of the Minimalists, who help “over 20 million people live meaningful lives with less” via their books, website, podcast and documentary – waking up in a room that was empty except for a bed. Nicodemus had boxed up all his possessions as if he was moving out. (Contrary to Kondo, professional organisers often create distance to get clients to detach from items.) Every time he wanted something, he’d retrieve it, but after day ten, he didn’t take anything else out. He sold the packed stuff on eBay and Craigslist, or gave it away. It’s a bit like the guiltily pleasurable TV show Consumed, in which suffocating families live with bare essentials for 30 days, then they are urged to leave 70 per cent of their possessions in the warehouse where they’re stored.

 

The word “clutter” derives from Middle English dialect word “clotter” meaning “to clot”. Nobody seems to have been too bothered about the bric-a-brac blocking the arteries of our homes like the feng shui equivalent of deep vein thrombosis much before the Fifties, when magazines such as Vogue began publishing guides on how to “declutter your living room”. That coincided with the post-World War II economic boom that facilitated accumulation, driven by advertising that portrayed unrealistically tidy ideal homes.

Advertising was itself a solution to the problem of overproduction. In the sixty years after the American Civil War, industry in the UWS grew four times faster than the population and, by the 20's, was producing far more than it could sell. The answer was not to simply produce (and work) less, but to consume more, which would create more jobs and wages, taxes and profits, a rising tide that would lift living standards for everyone - and did, there and, later, abroad. Products were designed with shorter life cycles and an element of trend to prompt customers to replace them with more up-to-date models before they wore out. Now, everything can be fashionable, and therefore unfashionable.

Products used to be expensive and hard to come by. As Wallman observes, even clothes were passed down through generations: before the Industrial Revolution, a shirt would have been worth the equivalent of around £2,000 today. Now, products are cheap and plentiful. And with everything else as with food, “we are making decisions in an age of abundance using mental tools honed in an age of scarcity”. We’re hardwired to always want more, which is an advantageous survival mechanism as hunter-gatherers, but less so when we barely have to lift a finger to summon junk to fill our faces and our homes on demand. Stuffocation is “the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic”.

But is too much stuff really deleterious to our health, beyond the pathological cases like those on Hoarding: Buried Alive et al? Wallman cites research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2010, in which the parents of 30 typical middle-class families recorded video tours of their homes. Researchers then analysed the language used by the couples, who also filled out reports about their mood and provided saliva swabs. Women who used words like “cluttered”, “messy” or “disorganised” displayed elevated levels of cortisol: a sign of stress associated with negative health outcomes and increased mortality risk. (The men didn’t, which researchers attributed to women taking more responsibility for the home.) They also reported more depressed mood. Incidentally, the smallest home contained 2,260 items in the living room and two bedrooms.

More recently, research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology under the foreboding title “The Dark Side of Home: Assessing Possession ‘Clutter’ on Subjective Wellbeing” surveyed 1,489 residents of the US and Canada with “mild to severe clutter issues” found via the non-profit Institute for Challenging Disorganisation, a community of organisers, productivity specialists and other professionals seeking to understand more about “chronic disorganisation” and help sufferers through education, research and strategies. Clutter negatively impacted not only wellbeing but also “feelings of security, safety and other positive emotional benefits derived from a sense of psychological home,” which is to say home as “a vital source of meaning, belonging and identity”.

Unsurprisingly, clutter has been linked by DePaul University to procrastination and lower life satisfaction. The Princeton Institute of Neuroscience meanwhile has determined that clutter impairs focus, forcing your brain to work harder to filter out the junk and tiring it out quicker. Clutter also prevented participants from interpreting the emotional states of film characters from their facial expressions, which isn’t happy news for real-life relationships.

Clutter can affect your weight in a remarkably direct way. In a study published in the journal Environment and Behaviour, participants in an untidy kitchen ate twice as many cookies as those in a tidy one. In another study in Psychological Science, participants in an orderly setting were more likely to choose an apple than in a messy setting strewn with papers and office supplies. (Sound familiar?) “An orderly environment leads to more desirable, normatively good behaviours, wrote the study co-authors. Studies have found that people who struggle with clutter are 77 per cent more likely to be overweight, while clean homes correlate with greater physical fitness. Whether that’s because the homemakers are fit from all the cleaning, they can clean so much because they are fit or because they’re better at self-regulation - behaving in line with a future goal.

If too much stuff is so clearly harmful, why do so many of us find it hard to part with ours? In two words, behavioural economics. We overvalue things because they’re ours: the “endowment effect”. In a study by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, participants given a coffee mug and asked how much they would sell it for valued it at twice as much as those who didn’t have a mug and were asked how much they’d purchase one for. We’re extremely loss averse – the pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. We’re also vulnerable to the fallacy of “sunk costs”: time or money already put in that can’t be recovered, which disinclines you from cutting your losses. 

Status quo bias is not a debilitating predilection for the music of Francis Rossi and bandmates, but as economist and FT columnist Tim Harford, a Konvert, writes, “a tendency to let things stay the way they are." Part of the genius, or magic, of Kondo’s method, as Harford identifies, is that she flips this. Instead of you having to make a case for parting with things, they’re res non grata unless they spark joy. Status quo bias becomes “a force for change”. And Kondo’s insistence that you pile objects of the same category together before individually applying the spark-joy test makes diminishing returns apparent. (Similarly, Sasaki recommends starting by reducing multiples to one.) “The first pair of trousers is essential; the second is enormously useful,” writes Harford. “It is not at all clear why anyone would want a 10th or 11th pair.” (Options, Tim, options.)

Harford also credits Kondo for making him appreciate the opportunity cost of his possessions – what you don’t buy or do or think about as a consequence. Everything has an opportunity cost, which could be financial – the cost of a bigger bookcase, or house. But it could also be cognitive, “being unable to appreciate what you have because it’s stuck at the bottom of a crate underneath a bunch of other things you have."

The purely economic argument to declutter though can be compelling. “We all have a roommate,” writes Sasaki. “They’re called ‘Our Things’.” And, as he points out, they don’t contribute to the rent: “It’s wiser to kick them out.” Sasaki divested himself of most of his possessions quickly and painlessly by enlisting various auction services, which charge fees but handle the hassle of listing and shipping on your behalf. Some companies even came to his door to pick up his stuff in bulk, which again cost versus what he sold items individually, but he argues that the convenience is well worth it: “Minimising the effort it takes to minimise is often the key to success.” Besides, divorcing what you paid for things from their current value makes them easier to ditch.

After embracing minimalism, Sasaki downsized to a smaller apartment in a different district of Tokyo: moving out took him 30 minutes, including packing, removing the light fixtures and unplugging the fridge. The whole process of relocating, including unpacking, took him about an hour and a half. At 20 square metres, his new place is five square metres smaller than his previous one. (Ideally, he’d like to downsize to just 12 square metres.) His old home always used to be messy, but now he vacuums every morning before work and cleans the bathroom after every shower. It’s so easy that it’s become a pleasurable habit. He’s also minimised his rent and utilities, and no longer worries about retirement, or comparing himself with other people: “There’s no point in putting up with a terrible job or working yourself to death just to maintain your standard of living.” 

Minimalism is not just restricted to possessions: it’s an all-encompassing philosophy, a belief system. “In today’s busy world, everything is so complicated that minimalism, which began with objects, is spreading to other areas as well,” Sasaki writes. “It’s an attempt to reduce the things that aren’t essential so we can appreciate the things that really are precious to us. It’s a simple idea that we can apply to every facet of our lives.”


Reducing your possessions takes items off what Sasaki calls your “silent to-do list”: the nagging messages that, say, unread books send you every time you look at them. But you can also minimise the items on your work to-do list and become more productive by doing less, according to the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, whose insight came after he succumbed to pressure from a colleague to attend a client meeting the day after his daughter’s birth. Essentialism is not necessarily about putting in less effort, but rather focusing your finite resources so that you can make significant, satisfying progress on what matters rather than your energy dissipating ineffectually. It’s asking yourself if you’re investing in the right activities, says McKeown: “You can think of this book doing for your life and career what a professional organiser can do for your closet”.

The value of focus is also the subject of the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, a professor of computer science who earlier this year published Digital Minimalism in response to the worsening problems of information overload and technological distractions. Newport doesn’t have a Facebook account and recommends deleting social media apps so that you can still log in periodically but aren’t constantly beset by notifications. More far-reaching, he prescribes a “digital declutter” in which you remove all “optional technologies” – so nothing that harms or hinders your personal or professional life – for 30 days. In the meantime, you cultivate “high-quality leisure”. Then you set “operating procedures” around any tech that you do reintroduce: only permitting notifications from your partner or boss, say, or limiting your browsing to certain websites.

The fervour with which some minimalists post wardrobe before-and-after shots on social media suggests that the practice is perhaps not entirely spiritual. If stuffocation is the material equivalent of obesity, then minimalism is like a six-pack: it can betoken good health, but it can be a sign of an unhealthy fixation, especially if it’s the goal and not the byproduct. It’s aspirational precisely because the opposite is so common. It encourages an emphasis on image, not what’s underneath. And it requires a lifestyle overhaul to achieve, plus discipline to maintain, if it doesn’t come naturally. As Wallman illustrates, many minimalists love to brag about how few things they have, whether that’s 100, 51, 33 or whatever figure their chosen challenge” arbitrarily stipulates, in a display of “conspicuous anti-consumption”. Pfff,” one Reddit user on r/minimalism commented on a picture of all of Gandhi’s worldly possessions. “Two pairs of sandals is not minimalist.” 

“This spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition,” writes Chelsea Fagan, co-founder of female-centric blog The Financial Diet. As well as a “moral upgrade” on mindless consumerism, minimalism is “a way of aping the connotations of simplicity and even, to a degree, asceticism, without actually having to give up those sweet, sweet class signifiers”. Like other critics, Fagan flags that minimalists are in the socioeconomically privileged position of being able to choose to have less, or spend on sparse, nevertheless expensive products: “They’re another style, as superficial as anything else that might come down the runway at Fashion Week, just with an added layer of condescension.” Hashtag minimalism is an “incredibly tedious piece of personal performance art”. It’s aesthetic, not authentic; less Fight Club, more boutique boxing studio.

In some instances, minimalism can be actively damaging. Too much clutter overwhelms our attentional selection mechanisms, but too little shuts them down altogether. Orderly settings foster conventional thinking, while messy ones stimulate creativity. And if you’re pursuing “Inbox Zero”, you probably won’t have a lot of time or energy left for deep work. 

Possessions that are important to your self-identity make a house feel like your home. There’s no magic number that makes you a minimalist or not, and you can still have and love things. (Sasaki is a fan of Apple, which he says reflects Steve Jobs’ belief in Zen in its design.) In fact, by having fewer, it’s easier for you to do so, and be more grateful for them. Although she’s often labelled a ruthless minimalist, Kondo actually promotes mindful connection to possessions: you can’t tidy up unless you have stuff. She’s also clear that any relief won’t last unless you then tidy your psychological space and address the true cause of your anxiety: “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination." As with the sudden compulsion to clean before a test, the real examination is still to come.

Any behaviour, however healthy, can become unhealthy. Obsessive-compulsive decluttering or spartanism is considered a form of OCD, rather than a recognised disorder in its own right as hoarding is, but it’s no less real or harmful. If anything, it’s arguably more insidious, because of the cultural approval of decluttering. Annabelle Charbit, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California and an OCD sufferer, told The Atlantic that she’d thrown out and re-bought a food processor three times.

Compulsive behaviour can be an attempt to quell anxiety triggered by obsessive thoughts. In the face of uncontrollable uncertainty – economic downturns, geopolitical turmoil, natural disasters, the chaos of online life – people often seize on what they can control, whether that’s hoarding stuff or getting rid of it. If decluttering and tidying provides a sense of comfort, or even the closure that intangible, interminable knowledge work rarely does, that’s no bad thing. But it is a bad thing if minimalism takes up an undue amount of bandwidth, or becomes yet another source of stress fuelling the millennial burnout born of relentless self-optimisation, or papers over an existential void as a vacuous substitute for meaning. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes it’s just less.


Words: Jamie Millar
Illustration: Dan Woodger