Minimalism: Is it the key to living a happier life?

Updated: Feb 19

Are you in search of happiness? Maybe just clearing your desk and room can help.

Which desk makes you happier?


Humans are always looking for ways to improve happiness and wellness in their lives. Cultural values and marketing play a major role in the personal perception of happiness. After World War II, neoliberalism and the idea of infinite growth transformed the USA into a place where the acquisition of material goods was the ultimate goal (1).

A UCLA study of 32 families found that each house had an average of 300,000 items. (2).


Why do we need so much items in our homes?


This suggests that lifestyles, as well as social and cultural practices, are centered on increasing monetary production to achieve more material acquisitions. This is referred to as a consumer society, which has evolved because the market and capitalist interests have taken advantage of the human pursuit of happiness (1). The net result is people working harder to have more money, more materials, and the expectation of more happiness. However, while increases in financial income do show to have an increase in wellbeing, it is only up to a certain point in income, beyond that point further increments in income does not result in higher levels of wellbeing (3). People need basic materials to strive in life, but living a life centered in consumerism and materialism can have negative effects such as personal debt, acting without consciousness (impulsive behavior), and the stress of needing more “stuff” than others to be happier (1). However, there are lifestyles that propose a different relationship between humans and material goods. Minimalism proposes a low-consumption lifestyle in which by having fewer possessions, the person can pursue a more meaningful and happier life (4).


Materialism and its effects

Materialism is the concept that humans use materials or goods to enhance their lives. There are two distinct forms of materialism: instrumental and terminal materialism. Instrumental materialism is when one uses goods to help improve one’s life such as to make obtaining goals easier or quicker. On the other hand, terminal materialism is the desire to add value to materials that have no significant purpose, other than to use them as status symbols. In this case, humans would use their possessions as a measurement of their success and ultimately their happiness. For example, owning a car to commute from one city to the other is instrumental to making life easier. However, buying a brand-new car from the dealership is not essential, but rather it is mostly done to demonstrate a higher social status has been achieved (5). A study found that 69% of respondents characterize materialists as individuals who utilize items to affirm or to demonstrate their status in society and are always looking for something of greater value (6). Overspending on things solely for their monetary appearance can lead to financial debt. The accumulation of financial debt can consequently lead to health issues such as higher incidences of stress and diastolic blood pressure.


A study amongst 8,400 young adults (7) found that individuals with a higher debt had:

  • A 11.7% increase in symptoms of perceived stress relative to lower debt individuals

  • A 13.2% increase in higher depressive symptoms relative to lower debt individuals

  • A small but significant increase in diastolic blood pressure relative to lower debt individuals

Yet, even the slightest change in diastolic blood pressure can have adverse effects, as an increase of 2 mmHG in diastolic blood pressure can lead to a 15% higher risk of experiencing a stroke (8). However, further research is warranted to fully understand the adverse consequences that arise from debt and ultimately a materialistic lifestyle on a person's life. Another study was conducted on 162 Australian adults, with a mean age of 42.5 years, to examine the consequences of individuals who live a materialistic lifestyle. This study showed that individuals who live a more materialistic lifestyle were more likely to be dissatisfied with their life (9). An alternative to this problematic concept of living is a minimalistic living style. This lifestyle is when a person attempts to live a more simplistic life by adding a greater value to intangible life experiences and relationships rather than objects (10).


Benefits of minimalism

Minimalists voluntarily simplify their lives by engaging in low-consumption behaviors (10). A study conducted on 2268 participants that voluntarily lived simpler lives, showed that 87% of participants reported that they were happier now due to living a simpler life (11). However, this study did not explain why they were experiencing a happier life. A study conducted by Lloyd and Pennington with 10 persons that considered themselves to be minimalist, showed different characteristics that they developed and are considered to be responsible for their increased happiness and wellbeing (10). Some of these characteristics were:

  1. Autonomy: being able to choose a behavior that is consistent with one's sense of self. Before being minimalists, the participants stated that they felt trapped by the possessions that they had, but now they felt free of their possessions and societal expectations. This allowed them to know themselves better and to be able to align their actions with their values.

  2. Competence: the ability to control their environment and actions. Having control over their living environment reduced dramatically their stress and anxiety. The excess of unnecessary materials resulted in clutter and often made them feel overwhelmed. Minimalism makes it easier to have an organized environment which is important for their mental health and wellbeing.

  3. Awareness: mental and physical space resulting from minimalism, allow the ideal conditions for reflection, developing new insights, learning and growing. Participants stated that they are now more focused on what’s important to them and can appreciate what they are living at the present moment.

This more conscious way of buying allows people to not only supply their physical needs, but also allows them to supply their physiological needs as stated in the characteristics mentioned above. You don't need to be a minimalist (someone who focuses on what really matters in life) to enjoy the benefits of having fewer items on your desk or in your house. There are still many more studies needed regarding the benefits of minimalism, but what we already know can help us develop a better relationship with material possessions. So, do you really need over 100,000 items in your home, or is it time to reduce the material possessions that you buy and live a happier life?


By Melanie Talavera, BS and Cirenio Hisasaga, MS. Edited by Stephanie Palacio, PhD and Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD


References


  1. Brown, H.S., Vergragt, P. J. (2016). From consumerism to wellbeing: toward a cultural transition? Journal of Cleaner Production, 132, 308-317.

  2. Arnold, J.E., Graesch, A.P., Ragazzini, E., Ochs, E. (2012) Life at home in the twenty-first century: 32 families open their doors. The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press. ISBN: 978-1-938770-12-8.

  3. Easterlin, R. A. (2001). Income and happiness: Towards a unified theory. The Economic Journal, 111, 465-484.

  4. Fournier, S., Richins, M. L. (1991). Some Theoretical and Popular Notions concerning Materialism. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 403–414.

  5. Belk, R. W., Pollay, R. W. (1985). Images of ourselves: The good life in twentieth century advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 11, 887-897.

  6. Belk, R. W. (1985). Materialism: Trait aspects of living in the material world. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 265-280.

  7. Sweet, E., Nandi, A., Adam, E., & McDade, T. (2013). The high price of debt: household financial debt and its impact on mental and physical health. Social Science Medication, 91, 94-100.

  8. Cook, N. R., Cohen, J., Hebert, P. R., Taylor, J. O., Hennekens, C. H. (1995). Implications of small reductions in diastolic blood pressure for primary prevention. Arch Intern Medication, 24, 385-396.

  9. Ryan, L., Dziurawiec, S. (2001). Materialism and its relationship to life satisfaction. Social Indicators Research, 55, 185-197.

  10. Kasey, L., Pennington, W. (2020). Towards a theory of minimalism and wellbeing. International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 1-16.

  11. Alexander, S., Ussher, S. (2012). The voluntary simplicity movement: A multi-national survey analysis in theoretical context. Journal of Consumer Culture, 12(1), 66–86.

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