The long read: From the KonMari method to Apples barely-there design philosophy, we are forever being urged to declutter and simplify our lives. But does minimalism really make us any happier?
Sonrisa Andersens childhood home was a mess. Her parents split when she was eight years old and she moved to Colorado Springs with her mother. Then she realised she was living with a hoarder. It might have been grief over the lost marriage that caused it, or maybe it was a habit that had grown worse as her mothers dependence on drugs and alcohol intensified. On the kitchen table there were piles of clothes stacked all the way to the ceiling, things they would get for free from churches or charities. Furniture that Andersens well-meaning grandmother found on the street accumulated. An avalanche of pots and pans spilled all over the kitchen counters and floor. Anything her mother could get for free or cheap, she would bring into the house and leave there.
As a child, Andersen kept her own space under control, but, beyond her bedroom door, the mess persisted. At 17, she left home, joined the air force and moved to New Mexico. Over time, her career took her to Alaska and then to Ohio, where she now lives with her husband, Shane, and works as an aerospace physiology technician. But the anxiety over her oppressive surroundings at home never left. Clutter was creeping back in, she realised, even though this time she thought she was fully in control.
Andersen wanted all the things she had lacked in childhood, the comforts her colleagues and neighbours enjoyed. She wanted to be like the people in adverts, with their immaculate stage-set living rooms. Each new purchase brought a small dopamine rush that faded as soon as the thing was out of its box and taking up space. As she began to acquire more and more stuff and more and more debt, she began to feel as if she was falling into the pattern set by her mother.
She went online for a solution. The search turned up blogs about minimalism: a lifestyle of living with less and being happy with, and more aware of, what you already own. The minimalist bloggers were men and women who, like her, had an epiphany that came from a personal crisis of consumerism. Buying more had failed to make them happier. In fact, it was entrapping them, and they needed to find a new relationship with their possessions usually by throwing most of them out. After jettisoning as much as they possibly could, the bloggers showed off their emptied apartments and shared the strategies they used to own no more than 100 objects. The advice gained them large followings and they began soliciting donations or selling books. Presiding over them was Marie Kondo, a Japanese cleaning guru whose books were becoming international bestsellers. The principal commandment of Kondoism was to abandon anything that didnt spark joy a phrase that soon became familiar around the world.
What the bloggers collectively called minimalism amounted to a kind of enlightened simplicity, a moral message combined with a particularly austere visual style. This style was displayed primarily on Instagram and Pinterest. Certain hallmarks of minimalist imagery emerged: clean white subway tiles, furniture in the style of Scandinavian midcentury modern, and clothing made of organic fabrics from brands that promised you would only ever need to buy one of each piece. Next to the products were monochromatic memes with slogans such as Own less stuff. Find more purpose. The trend wasnt as subtle as its name suggested; minimalism was a brand to identify with as much as a way of coping with mess.
Andersen bought the minimalist books and listened to the podcasts. She removed everything from the walls of her home, cleared every surface and installed furniture made of light pinewood so that the rooms glowed in the sun. Without buying new stuff, the couple had enough money to pay off their bills and Shanes student loans. Andersen felt a weight being released that went beyond the absence of clutter. She felt consumerisms spell over her had been broken. You dont have to want things, she said. Its a meditative thing, almost like repeating a mantra.
I met Andersen in 2017 in Cincinnati, where we were both attending a lecture on minimalism held at a local concert venue. We had come to see a pair of ebullient bloggers named Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who started calling themselves the Minimalists in 2010. Both had enjoyed six-figure salaries in technology marketing, but amid mounting debt and addiction problems, they hit the reset button, turning to blogging instead blogging about how they got rid of everything and started over. The Minimalists self-published books and accrued millions of podcast listeners. In 2016, their documentary about minimalist practices across the country was picked up by Netflix. Most of the fans I talked to in Cincinnati cited the film as their conversion moment to minimalism.
I had been tracking the rise of this minimalist movement and the style that it produced for a few years, but its momentum still surprised me. It was a new social attitude that took its name from what was originally an avant-garde art movement that started in 1960s New York. How could that have happened? Minimalism in the context of visual art was not particularly mainstream (certainly not on the level of Andy Warhols pop art) nor even well understood, all of 50 years later, and yet it was also a viral hashtag. There in Cincinnati were suburban commuters and retirees discussing how they had embraced minimalism. Millburn and Nicodemus told me that they had found fans as far away as India and Japan.
Over the following two years, minimalism kept popping up around me in new hotel designs, fashion brands and self-help books. Digital minimalism became a term for avoiding the overwhelming information deluge of the internet and trying to not check your phone as much. But when I caught up with Andersen, I learned that she had left her local minimalism Facebook group and stopped listening to the Minimalists podcast every week. It wasnt that she didnt believe in minimalism any more. It had just become an integral part of her life, the basis for her entire approach to the stuff around her. She noticed it was sometimes more trendy than practical: there were people who liked talking about minimalism more than actually minimising, she said.
On one hand there was the facade of minimalism: its brand and visual appearance. On the other was the unhappiness at the root of it all, caused by a society that tells you more is always better. Every advertisement for a new thing implied that you should dislike what you already had. It took Andersen a long time to understand the lesson: There was really nothing wrong with our lives at all.
In the 21st century, across the developed world, most of us do not need as much as we have. The average American household possesses more than 300,000 items. In the UK, one study found that children have on average 238 toys, but only play with 12 of them on a daily basis. We are addicted to accumulation. The minimalist lifestyle seems like a conscientious way of approaching the world now that we have realised that materialism, accelerating since the industrial revolution, is literally destroying the planet.
Yet my gut reaction to Kondo and the Minimalists was that it all seemed a little too convenient: just sort through your house or listen to a podcast, and happiness, satisfaction and peace of mind could all be yours. It was a blanket solution so vague that it could be applied to anyone and anything. You could use the Kondo method for your closet, your Facebook account or your boyfriend. Minimalism also seemed sometimes to be a form of individualism, an excuse to put yourself first by thinking, I shouldnt have to deal with this person, place or thing because it doesnt fit within my worldview. On an economic level, it was a commandment to live safely within your means versus pursuing dreamy aspirations or taking a leap of faith not a particularly inspiring doctrine.
Minimalism, I came to think, is not necessarily a voluntary personal choice, but an inevitable societal and cultural shift responding to the experience of living through the 2000s. Up through the 20th century, material accumulation and stability made sense as forms of security. If you owned your home and your land, no one could take it away from you. If you stuck with one company throughout your career, it was insurance against periods of future economic instability, when you hoped your employer would protect you.