Materialism and Minimalism Part 2

To describe the philosophy of minimalism I will reuse Leo Babautas excellent description: "It's one that is stripped of the unnecessary, to make room for that which gives you joy. It's a removal of clutter in all its forms, leaving you with peace and freedom and lightness. A minimalist eschews the mindset of more, of acquiring and consuming and shopping, of bigger is better, of the burden of stuff. That earning more and having more are meaningless. Figure out what makes you happy. Get rid of the rest, so you have room for those important things."

The decisive inspiration for me to become a follower of the minimalism philosophy has been a blog post by Mark Manson. I realized that currently even a massive increase in my living standard just wouldn’t substantially improve anything relevant about my life.
That I already own enough.
Even if someone gave me a Ferrari, an expensive suite in the center of Berlin and a check of one million Euro I seriously doubt that it would make much of a difference for my long-term overall happiness. After risking my life, driving the Ferrari with 300kmh on the German autobahn, I would probably just sell it to save me from the constant hassle of finding a parking lot and because public transport is probably generally quicker in Berlin as well. Into the suite I would only move if I could take my two roommates with me and if it’s not farther from my university than my current apartment. Well, and regarding the money, I guess after some sleepless nights worrying about it, I would finally donate most of it to support some good causes and leave the rest on my banking account.
Those things that give real value to my life though would barely be affected.

This insight led me to make a decision.
I am currently living on less than 1000€/month (not that much compared to the average German) and as this already leaves enough room for my usual expenses as well as saving money, travelling regularly and even giving to charity once in a while, I have committed myself to a personal monthly net consumption limit for the future of 1500€ with all net income in excess going to some charity.
Of course you can doubt if I will comply with this when the time comes where I get a big paycheck. And of course this is not 100% inflexible and I will try to adjust it appropriately to the location I’m living and possible inflation. Nevertheless, I am quite confident in my sincerity about this and going public about it here probably improves my chances of keeping my word.

However, the shift away from money and luxuries is just one part of the minimalism philosophy and it also includes a general simplification of one's life away from external stimuli to improve the focus. After some experimention and positive experiences regarding the things I'd cut off, by now I have additionally given up or always abstained from:

  • computer games
  • tv (except selected tv shows and movies online)
  • meat
  • warm showers in the morning
  • porn (this is less normal than you might think)  
  • drugs and stimulants including coffee, cigarettes and alcohol

Usually when people get to know that I abstain from all these things, they are quite surprised and tell me that this seems like a deprived lifestyle and they regularly comment that I would take everything away from life that is fun. Outch!
But as indicated above, even though this abstinence might appear at first glance like a limitation, in its core it is about an improved focus on those things that give the real value to my life and to relentlessly cut out all the rest. It enables me to focus my time, energy and money on things such as travelling & sports, self-improvement & personal challenges, friendship & love, health & compassion, knowledge & wisdom and serving the world instead of consuming it.

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.
— Socrates

So for instance vegetarianism means a better conscience for me and the satisfaction to live in accordance with my ethical standards. Cutting out computer games and tv means more time for sports and other projects that are important to me. A lower standard of living means more time and money to travel and the freedom to choose an occupation that gives meaning to my life instead of one that merely finances my living standard.

And when looking back I actually didn't even experience the giving up of things as a lasting cutback. Yes, there is a painful process of downward adaption - for instance when I gradually reduced my meat intake and became a vegetarian. But eventually the mind starts to settle and accepts the new state and you are as happy with your life as before. By now I would even state that I enjoy my vegetarian meals just as much as I did enjoy my meaty meals before.
It seems just like the exact reversal of the adaptation process to a new acquisition that I described in part 1 - just that this time the beginning period is painful while there are long-term benefits of lower "maintenance costs" (i.e. no meat required, less income required, less time required).

Generally the difficulties rather lie with bringing up the willpower not to give in to some cravings: Ordering a dish with meal, giving in to the peer pressure to drink that one beer or following the urge to take a hot shower. And while it might appear extreme to cut something out completely, this approach is sometimes easier to follow than a mere reduction. Instead of having to ponder each time making an exception or not, this way there is no need to think about it, the mind is settled and the focus can be on things of greater importance.

But generally minimalism is not necessarily about living in poverty deprived of every material possession in some monastery in the mountains (or like the famous Diogenes living in a barrel). While this would be the most extreme form of minimalism, it is really more about the general philosophy of enough and the focus on other aspects of life in general. A better term concerning this matter might be something as Essentialism or Enoughism.
Of course you need food and clothing and admittedly some basic possessions can make life quite nice. A faster, and lighter laptop used daily will save real time and a smartphone can make life a lot easier. Here I see potential absolute advantages instead of senseless luxuries. And as everyone is different, everyone is completely justified in keeping those things that serve his real goals. However, I’m convinced that in terms of this, pretty much everyone in Western societies can already afford the things he really needs.

You might think, well Lino is just a little weird - and maybe I am - but have you ever zoomed out to see the bigger picture? As people tend to make upward social comparisons they always tend to focus on the people that own much more and seem quite happy about it. But what if you compared yourself to the rest of the world? (Make the reality-check here or here). You might be surprised to see yourself in the top 10% quartile.

Have you ever considered the possibility of owning too much? Is it maybe even a little obscene to have billions of people living on less than a dollar per day while you spent the same amount just for your subscription of the fitness club? At least that is how I felt walking around the streets of Manila, Philippines with people around sleeping on the bare stone of the streets and me having booked a four star hotel around the corner.

The machinery of marketing tells you to delight yourself with the pleasure of new acquisitions and luxuries. To gain social status through promotions and a high income. Work hard, play hard. This seems to be the default mode for most people in Western societies at least.

But it can't be denied that this lifestyle is just not sustainable and based on the exploitation of other humans and species. I feel that following the philosophy of minimalism means becoming part of the solution and when I chose to take the purpose of my life into my own hands and not to follow the common sense of consumerism I found much more focus, meaning and purpose than luxuries could ever give me.

Be the change you want to see in the world.
— Gandhi

More on this:

Mentioned Research:

  • Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. MIT Press.
  • Clark, A. E., Frijters, P., & Shields, M. A. (2008). Relative income, happiness, and utility: An explanation for the Easterlin paradox and other puzzles. Journal of Economic Literature, 95-144.
  • Easterlin, R. A. (2001). Income and happiness: Towards a unified theory. The economic journal, 111(473), 465-484.