Minimalism is a philosophy that has gained a significant following in recent years as a low-stress, high-freedom lifestyle choice. However, it wasn’t always this way; minimalism started as an art movement after World War II. Today, minimalism can refer to anything that’s stripped down to its bare essentials. Minimalist living means living in a stripped-down, pure state without extra belongings or attachments.
In the remainder of this article, we’ll go over today’s minimalism and its effects on popular culture. We’ll also touch on the most prominent historical minimalist figures and anything else you might want to know about minimalist philosophy.
The Degrees of Minimalism
One of the first things you should know about minimalism is that it comes in degrees. The word “minimalism” can be applied to something as pure as Tibetan monks at work or something as luxurious as a wealthy mogul’s apartment. While minimalism is most concerned with ridding ourselves of abundance to find increased freedom, one man’s definition of wealth may be entirely different than another’s.
In popular culture, “minimalism” usually refers to a design philosophy or lifestyle that promotes clear, clean, decluttered spaces, and this is what we’ll be referencing in the bulk of this article. However, like the difference we mentioned above, minimalism can mean very different things to different people. Living minimally in a small apartment is very different than living minimally in a mansion, for example.
There are four categories (or levels) of minimalism that people tend to follow today. These include:
- The minimalism of desire: keeping your worldly wants and needs to a minimum. The minimalism of desire is a belief that permeates many cultures and religions, chief among them being Buddhism.
- The minimalism of possessions: the most popular form of minimalism to follow today, minimalism of your belongings involves purging unnecessary or excessive possessions from your life. Doing so increases both your financial and your locational freedom, and it’s known to decrease stress and make cleaning easier, too.
- The minimalism of relationships: minimizing your contacts doesn’t mean keeping yourself in isolation; instead, this means prioritizing a few high-quality relationships over many low-quality ones. The prioritization of quality over quantity is a precept that applies to many different areas of minimalist philosophy, and it’s something we will return to later.
- The minimalism of thought: minimalism of thinking is all about practicing mindfulness. Instead of floundering over decisions and causing yourself grief, make a decision, and stick to it! Mindfulness is another precept of minimalism that we will return to later.
Any interpretation of minimalism should take something from the four rules mentioned above, but of course, that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. As long as the end goal of minimalism – eliminating excess to enrich one’s life in some way – is met, your interpretation is valid.
Minimalist Applications in Everyday Life
Minimalism is a philosophy of action; none of it applies if we don’t enact it in our daily lives somehow. It’s nothing more than a tool in our arsenal that we can choose to utilize or ignore. It helps to right a wrong that we have been raised to accept as logical: that more is always more. On the contrary, we can find greater happiness in many different ways by eliminating excess from our lives.
When you take on a minimalist philosophy of life, you will quickly see many of the benefits that come along with it. Some examples of these are:
- Reclaiming lost time, especially that spent cleaning
- Living in the moment
- Growing as an individual
- Severing ties that hold you down
- Improving your health
- Discovering a meaningful purpose in life
- Experiencing true freedom
The above examples are just a few among many; the benefits that minimalism provides to us are varied and unexpected in many ways. You might be surprised by what can change in your life just by giving up a few of the things you don’t genuinely need.
We’ve sequestered some of the most common minimalist concepts into three categories below.
Most of the time, our culture embraces minimalism through material things. Minimalism is a common and hip design trend, so it’s reflected in both the design and function of the home. A minimalist home is all about showcasing the beauty of empty space. Commonly, minimalist space is decorated with light colors or monochromes, clean lines, and few distractions.
Physical minimalism doesn’t just extend to decorating, though. Minimizing your physical life, even if you don’t live in an expensive, ultra-modern, minimalist home, is all about paring down on excess. There are hundreds of tips and tricks for doing this online, but in short, it’s purging, cleaning, and organizing.
Purging means getting rid of things that you don’t need. Usually, minimalists keep a policy for items that should be purged. A good example is, if you haven’t used it in 90 days and you’re not going to use it in the next 90 days, it needs to go. Certain seasonal items like holiday decorations sit a bit outside this rule, but it’s still a good general rule of thumb to follow.
Cleaning as a minimalist is much different than that of an average person. Whereas a normal person cleans when something is dirty, a minimalist is continuously tidying. A minimalist house never has the chance to get messy or cluttered in the first place, and because of this, the home looks nicer, less stress goes on the homeowners, and less time is wasted cleaning for long bouts.
Organizing is what happens with anything that cannot be purged. Everything has its place in a minimalist household, and all members follow that rule. When something is not in use, it’s tucked neatly away somewhere that doesn’t clutter the space.
If it’s a sentimental item that doesn’t have a purpose or a place, it goes in storage, but it’s always better to purge if possible.
Mental minimalism works a bit differently than physical minimalism. While mental minimalism is still about “less is more,” it’s more about bringing about lifestyle changes that contribute to a more peaceful, mindful headspace. It’s less straightforward than physical minimalism; while it’s rather easy to work towards physical minimalism by just getting rid of things, purging things from your mind is far more complicated.
Purging things from your mind is still on the table, though, as long as you do it carefully. Things like past trauma, current fears, and personal limitations are all things that should be purged from your mental space. These things act almost like mental roadblocks. They keep you from going down certain roads and exploring individual freedoms. In essence, they tie you down, which is anathema to a minimalist philosophy.
However, cultivating mental minimalism doesn’t end there. Mindfulness is an essential part of mental minimalism. Making mindful purchases when you’re shopping is an excellent example. A person who practices mental minimalism will ask themselves several questions before making a purchase, such as:
- Do I absolutely need this item?
- Will this purchase improve my life in any way?
- Will this purchase save me money, effort, or time in the long run?
- Will this purchase clutter my home?
- Am I willing to get rid of something else to make room for this new item?
A mental minimalist should know themselves well enough to make quick, confident decisions about things instead of needing to flounder, and they should feel very secure and happy in their skin.
Digital minimalism is a bit of an outlier here. While it technically falls into the category of physical minimalism, it works a bit differently since most of our digital possessions do not exist as more than data in this world. When we’re talking about digital property, we mean things like pictures, social media accounts, emails, passwords, websites, text messages, files, and much more.
We might not think about our digital possessions when we think of our physical belongings, and they’re not entirely mental, either. Digital possessions fall somewhere between the two, and they’re not something we often consider for purging. With the near-limitless availability of cloud storage on our technology today, we tend just to let things collect instead of addressing them or purging them.
Think back. When was the last time you deleted the emails in your inbox instead of reading them and leaving them there? How full is the storage on your phone? Do you have an SD card full of photos taking up space somewhere, never to be touched again? These are all digital possessions that should be purged just as your physical belongings should.
A digital minimalist keeps only the best, most memorable photos, rather than rolls of imperfect pictures. They remove subscriptions to websites they no longer visit, and they keep their photographic memories organized neatly. Any digital files they possess are protected in the cloud or on some other storage media.
An excellent minimalist takes the time to purge their digital possessions every so often along with their physical ones because, even though we often can’t touch them, our digital media can cause the same stressful effects as real ones if they’re left to build.
Important Minimalist Figures
When we’re talking about important figures in the history of minimalism, it’s important to distinguish between the art movement and the lifestyle movement. Each movement contains different vital characters, of course.
One of the very most important figures to the creation of the minimalist lifestyle (and philosophy) is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi lived such a minimal life that he had little to his name except for the clothes on his back. His mind was also minimal and uncluttered, and he held his most precious ideals, those of fairness, love, and nonviolence, close to him at all times. If you are looking for a prime example of minimalism, Gandhi is an excellent place to start.
Another prime example of minimalism at work is Gautama Buddha. Buddha could arguably be called the originator of the minimalistic lifestyle, as he taught of a “middle way” that relates well to our idea of minimalism. The “middle way” is a path between excessiveness and not enough, and minimalism is a movement away from excess.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is another example of a great minimalist at work. Like Gandhi, MLK Jr. practiced nonviolent protest and worked towards equality for all, and he worked tirelessly for the things he believed in. Rather than causing hurt to those around him or campaigning for the superiority of one race, he fought to stand on even ground because he thought that was what was right.
Some other names to note are Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela, who both practiced minimalism similarly to the others we’ve mentioned here. These great historical names found freedom from the fetters of excess and were able to fight for what they believed in as a result. In turn, they’ve shown us the way to do the same.
Minimalism and Culture
Minimalism in today’s culture is regarded in a variety of different ways. While minimalism carries a sort of glamor with it, it also comes with some wrongly-attributed stigmas, too. In reality, minimalism is an extremely flexible philosophy that’s open to interpretation by the individual. One man’s idea of minimalism can be very different than that of his neighbor, and this is perfectly okay.
However, in practice, many people think that you need to fall into specific categories or fulfill certain roles before you can practice minimalism. This couldn’t be more false, but some examples of these cultural misconceptions include:
- I can’t be minimalist because I’m not rich
- I can’t give up enough things to be minimalist
- My home isn’t small enough to be minimalist
- It’s too hard to be minimalist with a family to take care of
There is nothing inherently wrong with owning things, regardless of what some people might tell you. While owning less can have very positive impacts on our lives, one man’s minimalism might seem like a luxury to another! As such, pure minimalism is exceedingly difficult to pin down. Instead, it’s easier (and better) to interpret what minimalism means to you rather than what it means to your neighbor.
As such, the cultural misrepresentations around minimalism are entirely untrue. You don’t need to be rich to be minimalist (although it certainly makes it easier, as it does with most things). Minimalism doesn’t specify any number of things that you need to give up to “qualify” or anything like that. Your house size doesn’t matter, either, unless you want it to. While it may be more challenging to get a family to embrace minimalist rules and policies, it certainly isn’t impossible.
The entire point of minimalism is to help you make informed, clear-headed decisions about what you’re passionate about. If you want to own a 10,000 square foot home, then, by all means, save up the money to do so and fulfill that dream. If you’d rather travel the world with only a backpack and a laptop, then you should pursue that! Minimalism is all about having the freedom to do what you want to do and the clarity of mind to follow your dreams the right way.
Minimalism was not created to be a philosophy, but it’s blossomed into one nonetheless. Maybe this is because it speaks to us on such a practical level, or perhaps it was just by chance. Whatever the reason might be, it’s all about pursuing a life driven by purpose and passion and giving you the means, the clarity of mind, and the emotional stability to do that.
Health Effects of Minimalism
Minimalism has a bevy of sound effects on the body and mind, and these shouldn’t be overlooked as some of the biggest reasons for pursuing minimalism as a lifestyle. Just as with any other aspect of minimalism, less is more when it comes to your diet, your mind, and your emotions. The effects of minimalism on these aspects of your being are all a bit different.
Let’s consider the effects of minimalism on our diet first. A minimalist diet calls for simple, fresh, healthy ingredients and small portions. Eating because you’re bored is a huge no-no, and you should avoid eating outside of mealtimes as much as possible. Portion control in and of itself is an extremely effective dieting technique, and pairing that with healthy choices and ingredients only elevates that further.
Consider a simple, American-favorite dish: macaroni and cheese. While a non-minimalist might first reach for macaroni and cheese from a box, usually, a minimalist would boil macaroni, add their favorite cheese, and call it a day. Not only is unboxed macaroni and cheese healthier, but there’s more love in a food that’s made from fresh, simple ingredients.
It’s hard to deny that foods made simply and healthily have their own distinct taste and charm. Instead of adding excessive spice or salt to every dish, a minimalist lets the flavors of the ingredients shine.
Minimalism has beneficial health effects on more than just your diet, however. While improving your diet will directly improve your health, minimalism can soothe the mind and the emotions in many ways, too, such as:
- Helping you to figure out when to focus on yourself and when to focus on others
- Assisting in building personal boundaries
- Opening our minds to new passions, interests, and curiosities
- Building solidarity and independence
- Strengthening emotional stability
As we’ve mentioned, practicing minimalism, even if only in the physical aspects of your life, can help you find the freedom to find yourself in other ways. This is the most significant health benefit of minimalism, of course, but many other significant benefits exist that shouldn’t be ignored, such as:
- Increased calmness
- Appreciation for space
- Better self-care
- Increased ability to live in the moment
- More intent behind your choices and actions
The Minimalist Effect
We began to touch on this a bit in the paragraphs above, but for those that practice minimalism in their lives, there is a particular and noticeable effect that starts to happen. The minimalist effect, as we will call it, is what happens when you declutter your home, your mind, your emotions, and your lifestyle as a whole.
Humans do not function well under excessive stress. However, because of the way we’re raised – and, honestly, because of the nature of our world overall – we don’t realize this. We’re taught that, if only we could earn a bit more, spend a bit more, or own a bit more, we could be so much happier.
Then, when we finally reach a point in our lives where we’ve achieved our financial plateau, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. As adults, our lives revolve around working hard and earning enough money to pay for our possessions and what we need to live. However, the more we own and the more frivolously we spend, the more we must work!
Minimalism turns this model on its head by proposing that we don’t need more to be happy. Most commonly, owning less is what makes us happy in the end! While financial freedom is a beautiful thing, we must realize that it’s not always necessary to aim for that next dollar. Instead of letting money guide our lives, we should govern our own lives and have that need follow us.
Unfortunately, transitioning from how we were raised and how society has taught us to live is not an easy task. More often than not, it can feel downright wrong to try to do this. People will even tell you you are crazy at the idea of trying to buck this model. However, take a moment to think carefully about it, and you will have all the proof you need.
Take a second and think about all of the things you want or need right now. If you are like the average person, you probably have a decent list of things built up for the future. Perhaps you need to get your hands on a new couch as soon as possible, or maybe choosing a better medical insurer is the first thing on your to-do list. Usually, these to-do entries cost money, too.
Instead of worrying about what is currently on that list, think about how many things on that list you really, genuinely need. If you live in a house with young babies or toddlers, you might want to hold onto that couch for a few more years until stains or bodily fluids aren’t as much of a danger to the sofa. Alternatively, you could opt for picking up a free or cheap couch from a donation center or a website instead of buying an expensive new one.
Something in you will probably tell you, “But I want a new couch because it looks nicer.” You could make arguments for buying an expensive new couch all day. In actuality, brand-new furniture will probably last longer than anything you could get used. However, does that make sense for a family with young children who might do unspeakable things to the couch over the next few years?
There are plenty of inexpensive alternatives to consider, too. A couch cover or protector can prolong the life of a couch in addition to protecting it from grubby hands, and certain fabrics or leathers can be more resilient to them, too. Beyond that, though, do you really need a couch? Perhaps buying a giant, fun beanbag for the kids to focus on might be a better course of action, to begin with.
Our point here is that there are thousands upon thousands of ways to deal with any given situation. The minimalist effect helps us see past the standard solutions that might normally blind us to the rest. When we have the freedom to choose between these thousands of options, both our selves and our lives improve.
Minimalist philosophy is a curious thing. While minimalism only requires some relatively simple changes to become a part of your life, it can have some profound effects that belie this level of initial effort. Minimalism isn’t just a decorating trend; it’s a world view shared by the world’s most respected revolutionaries and trailblazers and for a good reason.
What do you think of when you think of minimalism? Hopefully, after reading this guide, you think about all of the potentials of minimalism rather than the cultural stigmas that can come with it. Minimalism is a philosophy for everyone, and it’s a shame when this isn’t reflected in someone’s thoughts and ideas.