Going minimal

20120122

Less is more.

For a few years now, I’ve been feeling there’s a gap between what we need and what we own. We only use a handful of items daily and yet we possess so much.

When I entered university, I started taking notes on my computer instead of using paper. More and more of my documents were stored on my computer and backed up on some server. It was refreshing not to have these endless stacks of paper with me all day. Briefly after, I started indexing my notes for easier retrieval, classifying them by category, syncing them with my first internet-enabled phones, etc. I felt light and efficient.

Today, as I look around in my room, I can still spot tons of stuff I haven’t touched in years: some old boxes, things that belonged to my brother or sister, things I’ve been offered but never used, course contents from previous years, a scary number of CD’s and DVD’s, without mentioning all the clothes I don’t wear anymore.

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.

A few months ago, I read a book called Life Nomadic. At one point, the author tells about a small survey he did among his friends. He asked those who had debts if they regretted their purchases. It turned out most of them did and wished they could go back in time to prevent their mistake. Their common point? They all used the money to buy material things. On the other hand, the people who didn’t have regrets used the money to afford experiences, like travelling, or applying to some classes.

This little experiment is backed up by a study from San Francisco State University conducted by Ryan Howell to evaluate the impact of material possessions on one’s well-being. To better understand his findings, let’s see some theory first.

The Self-Determination Theory identifies three high-level needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. The need for autonomy reflects people’s wish for independence. In other words, actions have to result from an internal decision, and not some external reward (salary, big car, etc.) or pressure (deadlines, etc.). The competence need is satisfied when a person has control over the outcomes of her actions and feels competent and optimistic about delivering them. Competence improves self-esteem and psychological health in general. For instance, unexpected positive feedback on a task increases people’s incentive to do it. Finally, and what will be important in this article, relatedness translates the need for human beings to belong and feel connected to a group as well as being understood by their peers.

Ryan highlights the work of Van Boven who showed that, in retrospect, people valued their experiences more than their material purchases. However, the reasons why experiential spendings are more valuable to individuals remained unclear, but some tracks were given. For instance, living experiences allows to improve social cohesion by providing sources of conversation and by reducing social comparison, which satisfies the relatedness need.

The study we’re considering tries to expand on these tracks to answer the question “Why do experiential purchases lead to greater happiness?”. First, it was demonstrated that well-being is directly linked to the fulfillment of our needs. The basic need theory suggests that needs are ordered starting with the most basic needs — like food, clothing and shelter — towards higher-level psychological needs — like autonomy, competence and relatedness. Once our basic needs are fulfilled, owning more doesn’t make us happier.

Experiential spending, however, allows people to increase their well-being in three different ways.

The first one is by satisfying their relatedness need by cultivating social interactions. Indeed, living and sharing experiences with others is likely to reinforce relational bonds.

The second one is by decreasing social comparison. Material purchases are more likely to be compared as they answer more primary needs (hedonic well-being). As a result, buyers may be concerned with what others think when purchasing a new object (new car, new computer, etc.). On the other hand, experiential purchases answers a more virtuous need (eudaimonic well-being) and we feel less “social guilt” when paying to learn a new language or going on a trip for example.

Finally, the last one considers others’ well-being. Experiences are more likely to be shared and often provide a feeling of membership to a group (“we both speak Korean”, “we both went in the Catacombes of Paris together”, etc.).

To close this academic note, we can remember that purchasing goods doesn’t systematically result in improved happiness. In fact, once we have food, clothes and shelter, accumulating material goods can damage our relatedness through social comparison!

Riches don’t make a man rich, they only make him busier.

Last summer, I went to South Korea for a 4-months mission as a web architect. I thought it would be the ideal moment to go and experiment a little. How hard can it be to live with a number of things so small I can always enumerate them? Well, the answer is “Surprisingly easy”.

I took only a few clothes, my computer, phone, earphones and camera — and of course my passport and other papers. I packed everything in my favorite backpack — which can contain 40 liters, although it wasn’t full — and left.

First thing I noticed was how easily I could move around, be it going to the airport, taking the bus or moving from one hotel to the other. It was easy physically, of course, but also emotionally. Like a snail, I was carrying my life with me all the time. I could settle anywhere and leave as quickly as I arrived. I didn’t have to triple-check that I didn’t forget anything because I knew exactly where was all my stuff.

During my stay, I was less inclined to spend time alone at home, except for sleeping or working on my master thesis.

When I got back to France, I hardly found any use in all the things waiting for me, and even found it suffocating to possess so much stuff. To be completely honest, I must say I was happy to recover my queen-sized bed (sleeping on the floor is still a little too minimalist for me!), Playstation and second monitor, but that’s just luxury.

In the end, I realized I don’t require much belongings in order to be happy, and even less to survive. In fact, this experiment was one of the most liberating experience in my life. I could grasp concepts like location independence and digital nomadism.

Action expresses priorities.

The insidious thing with belongings is that they provide a false sense of security and stability. It is genuinely hard to get rid of things we won’t need anymore.

Since our childhood, we’ve been taught to value possessions and accumulate them. It may sound like some hippie catchphrase, but think about it. What comes to mind when I say Christmas, or birthday? Now, what are the true meanings of these celebrations? Looking at children opening their presents can get scary at times.

The love we express towards bigger and shinier toys as children soon translates to the love for nice clothes and big cars. The peer pressure forces us to buy and by doing that, we fuel this pressure. And before you know it, your subconscious has built a houseful of crap just for you to bear.

Even when you decide to get rid of what you don’t use, it can be hard to choose what to give away and how to do it. I’ll try to provide practical information about how to dispose of your burden.

For my part, my relatives like to do car boot sales (brocante or vide-grenier in French) and were eager to sell what I gave them. This worked pretty well with clothes and cultural products (books, movies, video games, etc.) and earned me some pocket-money. The hardest things to get rid of were worthless CD’s and DVD’s. For those living in France, here is a website with a neat map showing where you can recycle your disks and other electronic waste.

No one has ever become poor by giving.

To conclude, I’ll send a wake-up call. Take a look around you now and ask yourself why you keep so much stuff. Give away what you don’t use, other people may need it. Even if it’s not for them, do it for you. We don’t have to live the sweet consumerist masquerade.

You can choose the red pill and embrace minimalism. I, for one, don’t regret it one bit. :-)

This post is dedicated to Antoine Blancher, talented graphic designer, because less is definitely more.

Domo-kun!