On Materialism

An often misunderstood part of minimalism is that it is an all or nothing deal.

With popular books, articles and videos showing ‘minimalists’ living in white boxes with just three shirts, two plates, and one pen, it’s no wonder why most people get the wrong idea.

A minimalist lifestyle is defined by each individual’s own terms. For some, owning less than 100 things is their definition. It’s not wrong, but it’s doesn’t fit every aspiring minimalist. Rather than being defined by how much you have or don’t have, it’s about being mindful of the things we introduce and keep in our lives.

Sometimes things have a use, and that’s okay.

A case for stuff

It has become fashionable to demonise acquiring material things as a waste of money and a pointless exercise. Most of us know that buying more won’t keep us happy in the long term, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it.

The feeling of satisfaction or superiority that comes from buying certain things is superficial, which is why the rush doesn’t last long. But some possessions can actually be meaningful to us.

A new suit gives us a much needed confidence boost at work, a set of paintbrushes reveal our creative side, a language course booked to learn something new, a tablet computer connects us to family and friends, a skiing holiday pushes us to take risks, a photo album full of memories makes us smile, a full bookshelf reminds us of how much we’ve learned over the years…

Things like this are needed as part of a life well lived. It may be an unpopular conclusion to come to on a blog about minimalism, but perhaps sometimes buying stuff is not a complete waste after all.

Importantly, however, is the realisation that just having useful possessions is not enough by itself to transform us for the better. Even religions like Zen Buddhism which encourage the use of mindfulness bells acknowledge that a bell by itself is not enough to make us paragons of calm. But for many monks and laypeople, every ring feels like it’s tuning them little by little into the kind of person they aspire to be.

Approached in the right way, material goods can help us become happier people, but achieving the right balance can be difficult. Here is where minimalism as a practice comes in—helping us become more disciplined with our desires and mindful of distractions that tempt us away from the kind of life we want to live.

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On Nature

Based on thousands of years of evolution, our bodies are biologically hard-wired to reward us when we feel pleasure, and punish us when we feel pain. If you do something that your body likes, it rewards you with a rush of dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals making you feel happy. It hardly matters what the consequences are in the long term.

The major flaw in this system is that any pleasurable feelings that you initially felt for doing/eating/getting something will always fade away. This is so that you’ll go out of your way to get it again.

Imagine if a chimp ate a banana and felt happy about it for the rest of his life. He would eventually die of starvation whilst his chimp friends whose dopamine hits faded away would go on to seek the feeling again. The most well fed chimps would be the strongest and most likely to find mates, thereby passing on their dopamine seeking genes. Meanwhile our chimp who got everlasting happiness from his first banana wouldn’t be motivated to do much else, and would likely end up dying without having passed its genes.

Multiply this by thousands of generations of evolution and couple it with the fact that we can get dopamine fixes as easily as buying a new pair of shoes and we begin to understand why living a minimalist lifestyle is so difficult.

To intentionally abstain from the fun and flashy things that wins us social approval is basically going against human nature itself. Indeed, humans are especially difficult to please because it doesn’t take long for our brains to become normalised to the hit of buying the latest gadget before having it is no longer enough. At least chimps are happy with bananas—if they were human they would inevitably get bored and find a way to upgrade to the latest version.

What can we do about this? Unfortunately, short of reprogramming our evolutionary biology, we can’t do a whole lot about the way that our brains react to pleasure, or absence of pleasure. But as Homo Sapiens we do have the ability to override our biology using our intellect. We can look back into the past, come to conclusions about our decisions, and make predictions about the future.

We can look back and see that for almost every material thing we have bought in our lives, the ‘happiness’ we felt in that moment eventually faded. From this we can conclude that continually buying new things may not be an effective or sustainable way to obtain happiness. Instead, we can decide to concentrate on the kinds of things that make happiness last, such as our hobbies and achievements, memorable experiences, and close relationships.

Being human can be both a curse and a blessing. When I see how happy a pet dog is playing in the grass, or how satisfied with life a house cat is, I sometimes wonder why we humans have to make things so complicated.

Maybe if we spent half as much time and effort learning how to be happy as we do on buying stuff, we could actually do it. Just as we can choose to have carrots over cake, our biology can be overcome—it’s a factor, not an excuse. Perhaps the real determinants of happiness are how ready we are make the most of the situation we’re in, and our willingness to make the hard choices. That’s what makes a difference.

Dear Grandma

My dear mama, you passed away earlier this month.

You had been ill for a long time, so it wasn’t unexpected. At least you were surrounded by family when it happened. Everyone dropped everything to go to your house that night. There were a lot of tears.

You lived a hard and busy life, immigrating from Vietnam to England forty years ago bringing your ten children with you. With such a big family, your house always had people coming in and out to visit, to talk about everything and nothing, to eat and drink tea until late into the night. Weddings, birthdays, and Chinese New Years have always been hectic and wonderful and full of food and laughter.

In the end though, old age took over. You got breast cancer, and eventually liver cancer and other ailments that made you so weak you needed help with everything. We all did our best to take care of you, getting you the best treatment we could, but in the end, we had to let you go.

Growing up, you didn’t have much. You married a man, my grandfather, who was from a village in the mountains near the border of China and Vietnam. You had to have ten children because you were so poor you didn’t know how many would survive until adulthood. Some actually didn’t survive—as close as we all are, there are members of our family that I would never know.

So it’s no wonder you valued money so much. Having it meant the survival of your family, which was everything to you. When you all came to England in the 1980’s to look for a better life, everyone worked hard at the few years they had at school to learn English so that they could find work. My own father, who was 14 at the time you moved here, only had a single year of education. Those first few years were all about learning to survive in a new world.

Eventually everyone found their feet. All ten children became adults, found jobs or started successful businesses and married and had children. Some even went on to have their own children and you and Grandad became great-grandparents. Ten years ago, Grandad passed away and although you were alone without him, you were never lonely with all of us being there for you.

We started with nothing but now our family has more money than we could have imagined as refugees from a mountain village. You started a dynasty, but we haven’t forgotten our roots. Although money is useful, it isn’t the most important thing. To this day every one of us would do anything to support each other.

You were a minimalist by circumstance, not by choice. You didn’t have much, but what you did have and all that mattered were things that money couldn’t buy—good health for as long as possible, a loving family, and living a full and happy life. You had everything you ever needed, and I’m glad for that.

May you rest in peace.

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On Maturity

It was my 27th birthday this month. Although I don’t feel that old yet, almost every day I’m reminded of memes I don’t understand, trends I haven’t heard of, or technology I didn’t know existed. I feel a big difference between myself and ‘kids these days’. In fact, I have a brother who is 11 years younger than me, but it often feels like he’s from a different generation.

Amongst all of this change in the world, I realise there has been a lot of change within myself too. I wasn’t always so comfortable with not being up-to-date on the latest fashions and gadgets. Like most teenagers, I overcompensated for my self-confidence issues by trying in my own way to be as cool as possible. For me that meant having cool stuff like the latest iPhone or laptop to show off with. People would gather around me and it would make me feel better about myself, but only for a while. Obviously buying stuff wasn’t a long term fix for my insecurities. Those times sowed the seeds for the minimalist lifestyle I developed soon after.

As a teenager I dreaded getting older, but a decade later I’m in a much, much better place. The biggest lesson I learned is to not give a f*ck. Who cares where I live, what job I do, or whether I have the latest iPhone? No one! Or at least, no one cares nearly as much as I thought.

Realising that and being okay with it has been huge. Once I let go of other people’s expectations of me, I was free to do whatever I want—it’s unlikely people care enough to judge me for it, and even if they did, who cares! Certainly not me.

Hence living minimally to avoid debt and save up enough to be able to quit my job in my mid-twenties to start my own business. Could I have done that if I was concerned about what people thought of me? Probably not. I would have felt too self conscious to say no to spending $100 on a night out, worrying about what outfit I was wearing, or which car I was driving, or staying in a luxury hotel so that I could instagram it, instead of saving up the start up capital I needed to be free of those kinds of traps.

Two years on, I only work a couple of hours a week but earn twice as much as I did in my soul-sucking job. I have the freedom to pursue anything I want to. I can sleep/read/travel whenever I want, and thanks to not being tied to a desk all day, my health is better than ever. On top of that, I can give more to people and causes I care about, because I have more to give.

It wasn’t easy getting here, but neither was it that hard to be honest. It was a series of small sacrifices and good decisions that paid off. I only wish I started started sooner. That is, if I could go back ten years and give advice to my 17 year old self, or indeed to my younger brother now, I would say, “Hey, you. Stop worrying so much about what other people think, they don’t know all the answers themselves. Breathe. If you do what you feel is the right thing, you’re going to find happiness. I promise.

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On Vanity

Why do we buy stuff? Not everything we buy is useful, so there must be other reasons why we work so hard to buy things.

Maybe it’s because we find a sense of happiness or satisfaction when we buy something new, but we all know that that feeling soon fades (even though we almost never remember this every time we buy something new).

Why we buy stuff has less to do with the object itself than with ourselves. When we buy expensive clothes, the newest gadgets or a flashy car, it’s because we believe it will give us recognition from the people around us—we’ll ‘show’ them how successful we are so that they’ll accept us, or even love us.

Humans crave recognition. To be part of a group, or at least not be in some else’s shadow. Most people are more influenced by what other people think of them than what they actually want ourselves.

Think about it—if everyone in the world disappeared tomorrow and you were the only one left (apart from the upset you would have from losing your friends and loved ones) what would you do now that you could have anything you desired?

You could just walk into someone’s mansion, even the most beautiful castle, and have it all to yourself. You could pick and choose anyone’s finest clothing and jewellery, even put on the crown if you wanted to! Drive a Ferrari, swim in bank notes, have hundreds of iPhones. But after a while, what would happen? With no one to impress, the chances are that you’ll find somewhere more convenient and easier to maintain than a huge house, you’ll wear clothes that are more comfortable, you’ll drive something more practical and you’ll get bored of the latest gadget.

Things you thought were worth a lot won’t matter as much any more. You’re the last person on earth, there’s nothing left but to find something worthwhile to do, something that makes you happy, not anyone else.

If no one was around to validate our existence, as society has defined by how much stuff we have, we would wouldn’t actually care about it. Hardly anyone would actually choose to have their life’s purpose revolve around buying things, but so many people do exactly that every day, without stopping to question it.

We don’t have to go as far as erasing every other person on Earth. If we just cared a little less about what other people think, we’d care a little more about what we want, and what really matters to us.

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On Sundays

Sunday is my favourite day of the week. I don’t schedule any plans if I can help it, and I don’t check my phone or emails.

After a long week, I can finally get around to the things I’ve been neglecting, and I can take the time to do it slowly and mindfully.

I tidy the apartment in peace and quiet, then in the afternoons, I love to sit down with a good book and a cup of tea while it’s raining outside.

In reality, the big exciting life changing moments are few and far between. Far from being boring, these moments of small, daily pleasures are what life is all about. 99% of life happens in the quieter, unmemorable moments, so why not make the most of it?

As Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There are times when we have so much to do in so little time that we charge head first into the tasks of the day, answering calls as they come and working with such intensity that the day passes before we even realise.

But in order to fuel these times of productivity, we need to take the time to recharge our batteries. Sometimes we need to dawdle and daydream, and get bored and get lost, and very importantly, get enough sleep.

Stepping back also gives us a chance to reflect on what we’re doing, and make sure it’s actually what we want to be doing. Too many people live their lives on autopilot, cruising through their days without questioning the purpose of it all. Weeks pass, then years, and soon the kids are grown up and we’re old and grey, wondering where all the time went.

We should take the time to reflect and recharge more often. Take a long look at ourselves and where we’re going. I suggest at least once a week, perhaps on a rainy Sunday afternoon like this one.

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On Generosity

Living a minimalist lifestyle is an act of generosity. By forgoing things that you don’t really need you:

  1. help yourself, because you aren’t working tirelessly to keep up on the treadmill of a materialistic life
  2. help others, by freeing up resources for those who need it more than you
  3. help the planet, by not unnecessarily adding to pollution

It’s a win-win-win for everyone. If you’re born lucky enough to have a better quality of life than most, you should pay it back by helping those who didn’t win the Ovarian Lottery.

It’s not just about money. There are a thousand ways to help people, and minimalism helps you find the right way—your own way—because you’re less distracted by the very things that stop you from being helpful to others, such as being self-centred because you care too much about what people think of you, or working long hours yet just scraping by because you need the money to pay for the credit card debts.

And if we give, we can also receive. There is so much we can learn by opening ourselves up to other people. Some of the happiest human beings are those who have the least. They teach us to appreciate the small things, and remind us to be grateful for that we’ve taken for granted. A very generous gift indeed.

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On Power

I’ve just finished reading The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It’s an unapologetic volume on what power is, why those who have it do, and more importantly, why those who don’t have it don’t.

Some might think books like these are evil, but one could argue that they just describe real life. Maybe it’s a shame, but it’s the natural order of the universe—those who are the most powerless tend to be the most unhappy, and those who are bold are the most able to get their own way, whether that means hindering or helping others.

Power doesn’t necessarily mean domination. It doesn’t always mean getting your way at the expense of others. Just like money, the more of it you have, the more good, or evil, you can do in the world. It’s a tool, and it’s up to you how you use it.

Unlike money, most people don’t think about power much at all. We’re unaware of the role it plays in our lives. Starting with our parents and teachers, our beliefs, values, and mindsets we develop as children are dictated by people more powerful than us. These authority figures have the power to praise or to punish, so we follow their instructions and do what’s expected of us.

Eventually teachers are replaced by bosses, and parents are replaced by society’s expectations. Yet, as we become adults, even though the people who have power over us changes, the dynamics of power never do.

If we have little power, we allow other people to form our view of the world. We end up doing things we’re unhappy with, or not living to our potential because we don’t pause to question our assumptions that were forced upon us as children. Every move we make is influenced by what other people think or have told us.

But what if we took more control of our lives? What if we empowered ourselves with the ability to choose? What would we do if we weren’t afraid of what other people think? 

Choosing to have power over your own life isn’t as easy as letting other people tell you what to do. You have to make decisions and deal with the consequences for where those decisions lead, for better or for worse. As a great person once said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but a good life lead on your own terms makes it all worth it in the end.

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On Guidance

How do we guide people towards a life of minimalism?

As with most things in life, preaching about something only makes people more resistant to the idea.

Yet some people just can’t help themselves. They like to humblebrag about how well they’re doing, just to show off how much better their lives are than other people’s.

Unsurprisingly, this approach almost never works. If you genuinely care about improving other people’s lives, it’s much better to live a better life without bragging about it, and if you really are happier people will see it and want to emulate you themselves.

Minimalism is particularly difficult because people are very attached to their stuff, and simply telling people to get rid of their precious things, or criticising them for having too much is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Instead, let minimalism improve your life, then go live it well. Have fun not working as many hours, not being in debt, and not being a slave to your stuff. When people see how much more time and energy you have, they’ll ask you what your secret is.

Then you can tell them, the answer is simple—it’s simplicity itself.

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On Distractions

What do the following have in common:

  • getting rid of, or not buying stuff
  • simplifying your schedule
  • downsizing your needs
  • reducing commitments

Answer: they are all ways of getting rid of distractions.

The point of minimalism isn’t to have a tidy house. The point is to find freedom and focus to do things that matter. 

What matters to you? Here are some clues — they are the kinds of things that you used to dream about, that make you laugh, that you would jump out of bed for, that you’ll think about in five years time with a smile on your face, and that people will be proud to know you for doing.

These are the things that matter, and when it comes to them distraction is the enemy. Too many things in life take our time, energy and resources away from doing things that are worthwhile.

Think about it, what percentage of your time each day are you spending on meaningless tasks? 20%? 50%? 80%? Most people go through their lives without stopping to think about what they’re doing (or not doing) and then making changes so that they’re not wasting their precious days doing pointless things.

Minimalism is the practice of taking away distractions, so you’re left with room to breathe, to focus, to do.

Remember, most things worth doing are hard, and hard things need your whole heart in it to do right. You can’t do things properly if you’re always worrying about work, or if you’re checking your phone every hour.

Nobody said it would be easy, but it’s all worth it in the end because when you do things that matter, with everything you have, well, that’s what happiness is made of. 

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