Is minimalism the path to happiness, or just another commodity?


It is no secret that minimalism has taken over the world: with countless books, blogs, and documentaries praising its benefits, it seems like keeping an uncluttered space represents the key to a happy life. But with the growing obsession for owning simple designer items, have we strayed too far from what minimalism really is?

Deriving its name from the post-World War II art movement, minimalism is known primarily as a lifestyle trend that promotes leading a happier life with fewer material possessions. This trend has been popularised by Marie Kondo, a Japanese bestselling author and tidying expert. Her first book (translated into English as The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising) introduces the ‘KonMari Method’, a tidying method focused on ‘quickly and completely’ removing all items that do not ‘spark joy’. Unlike other methods, it encourages cleaning by category, not by location, beginning with clothes, and ending with sentimental items.

However, according to Marie Kondo, the task of tidying one’s space is more profound than it seems. ‘The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful’, she says. ‘It forces us to confront our own inadequacies and the foolish choices we made in the past’. She also claims that this dramatic reorganisation is ‘life transforming’.

For bloggers Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus – who go by the moniker ‘The Minimalists’ – owning fewer things meant focusing on the more important things in life. Their stories began a decade ago when they both lived the American dream – they had six-figure salaries in technology marketing and owned anything they could possibly want. Yet they were drowning in debt and were deeply unhappy with their lives; until the day they discovered minimalism. They promptly threw most of their things out and found that leading a simple life made them much happier. In their recent Netflix documentary, Minimalism: Less is Now, they emphasise the importance of carefully evaluating one’s life as a way of making change last permanently.

…the ‘KonMari Method’, a tidying method focused on ‘quickly and completely’ removing all items that do not ‘spark joy’.

Yet for a lifestyle that rejects material accumulation, minimalism has also become a deceptively strategic marketing tool. On Instagram alone, #minimalism accrued over 21 million posts, proving its status as a mainstream trend.

Aware of this growing frenzy, many companies now sell minimalist clothes, shoes, and furniture, oftentimes for a staggering price. The minimalist aesthetic, characterised by neutral colours and clean lines, has probably become the very thing it was trying to combat – a consumerist commodity.

Another example of this phenomenon was Steve Jobs, co-founder and former chief executive of Apple. In an interview with Business Week from 1998, Steve Jobs alluded to the tediousness of achieving simplicity. ‘Simple,’ he said, ‘can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains’.

Like Apple’s devices, this focus on simplicity was ever-present in Steve Jobs’ life. In a famous photograph taken by Diana Walker in 1982, he sits cross-legged on a carpet, with a tall lamp by his side. A few items are strewn across the floor, but the room is otherwise bare. He wears plain, dark clothes and holds a mug in his hand.

Did the photograph expose his distaste for material items? On the contrary, says artist and former builder Jamis MacNiven, ‘Steve was the kind of guy who would choose to sit on the floor because there was no couch good enough’. Instead, it highlights how the quest for perfection can lead to paralysing indecision and life-long dissatisfaction.

At its core, this lifestyle trend is not about the obsession with sparsely furnished homes, sleek tech, or curated capsule wardrobes. ‘It’s about having a simple life,’ says Ryan Nicodemus, ‘and to get there, you might have to let go of some stuff that’s in the way’. Perhaps, one might add, it is about finding one’s unique journey towards an uncluttered, simple life.

MACKAYAN: minimalism, the ideal lifestyle