This post originally appeared on MainStreet.
Usually, when you hear a person give you lessons in life about living with less and being happier, you assume that the source of it is either religion or a drink laced with acid.
Because, let's think for a minute here – who in his right mind would want to give up all the things that he has accumulated over the years? The answer to this question has shifted from "hardly anyone" to "quite a few" over the last few years. You see, the last decade, with the recessionary economy, has brought about grassroots movements for living with only 100 items or sometimes even scaling back to 50.
In a less extreme form, Gen Y-ers are cutting back on their consumption with 25% of 18- to 27-year-olds saying their shopping behavior has changed significantly with the down economy, according to a "The New Consumer Behavior Paradigm" report from Price Waterhouse Coopers.
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'The Times, They Are a Changin'
Not long ago, a family would have one or two phones in the house; now every adult member has the latest smartphone. The mailbox next to the gate would welcome everyone's correspondence; now everyone carries his own laptop or tablet to communicate with the entire world. There was a time when people only knew two types of coffee at home; now yuppies in cities cannot start their days without using the espresso machine.
Not that these are necessarily "bad" developments, but if you could detach yourself from these for a second and look at them objectively, you might see how these possessions of yours actually possess you. In fact, that is exactly what the life Mildred Lisette Norman (aka "Peace Pilgrim") taught us. An icon of pacifism and minimalism, Peace Pilgrim walked the entire breadth of the U.S. owning nothing but the clothes she wore and a few objects that would fit into her pockets. She might have been one of a kind during her time, but today, minimalism is a way of life for many.
Minimalism: Is It Needed?
To define the boundaries between simple living and minimalism, we need to weed out the terms that are often misused in such discussions. For example, being a 'hippie' or a 'flower child' can be considered a lifestyle whereas a backpacker who travels often and stays at cheap accommodations is part of a subculture.
The 'Beat' generation, which formed itself on the ideals of Kerouac and Ginsberg, believed in the ideals of rejecting the mainstream, but it was related to that particular time. These writers, poets and thinkers understood the need for a counterculture at that time; the question is, do we really need a counterculture now?
The answer is 'yes,' considering how culture or society today has come to be defined on a measure of accumulation. In this age, when people are spending more than ever, on technology, not because it's necessary at all times, but more as a luxury, minimalism is a very valid counterculture response.
"Minimalism is the way to go for people who want to stay mobile in the face of exploring adventures," said Gustav Andersson, a 'modern day nomad' and an ex-employee of UBS in London. Andersson is someone who had spent a good amount of time in a job he hated and a nomadic way of living now offered him something that all these years of money and accumulation could not – peace.
Who Are the Minimalists?
When you hear the word "minimalist," you might often think it implies de-cluttering your life or more aptly, your living space. Minimalist design in terms of furniture or architecture might be a more apt subgroup classification. The true minimalist does not just de-clutter; he de-owns . A piece by Graham Hill that appeared on the New York Times talked about his transition from a life of consumption to that of a minimalist. His is a case of self-realization: the idea that living with more things does not make you happier dawned on him after he had seen how stressful that life turned out to be.
The writer talks about how he lives comfortably in a 420 sq-ft studio with a foldable bed. He talks about hosting dinner parties for ten and owning a maximum of six dress shirts. He runs a website called TreeHugger.com and is clearly conscious about the environment. That's all good, but here's the crux of the situation - he's someone who already has money in the bank, and he does not have children. In America, just like most other developed nations, minimalism can, to some extent for some people, be a choice that pops up as a result of a desire for change. But you cannot ignore the fact that there are other factors that are also at play--not the least of which are income, housing and dependants.
Brittany Manwill, the President of Mazamabar.com, a site that sells nutrition bars for outdoor enthusiasts, uses values of minimalism even in the manufacturing of her product. She follows a school of thought that believes in quality of pure ingredients rather than the number of fillers used. She uses the same philosophy to make decisions stating that too many options often delay a decision. Minimalist practices might not appeal to everyone but to those that go by it, there is no looking back.
Can Minimalism Ever Be Mainstream?
A very clear answer to that would be 'no.' Why? The market forces like buy, sell and accumulate will not let it be. Society, advertising and the market is now based on the idea that you are successful when you buy that first car, own that 2,000 square-foot home, have the latest iPhone. A brand like Apple can be a pioneer when it comes to minimalist design, but the irony of it is, the same brand would run out of business if minimalism were to be mainstream.
Having said that, minimalism will tend to find itself being accepted more by people who have been personally affected by one of the worst by-products of the modern economy--the recession. The recession acted as a wake-up call for many, and some of those it affected turned away from consumerism. Those that might stick to minimal living for a long duration will surely turn others to their path as well and when this happens, the market will adapt to the changing demands. But with the changing demand, the shape and nature of supply will change too. Minimalists are not scared of spending; they just do not spend on unnecessary things and do not give in to the idea that spending only keeps the economy alive. Personal finance will be concentrated more on selective spending, and this, not luxury spending, will define the economy.
In a world where its opposite is the mainstream, minimalism offers a solution from a stress-filled, cluttered life. We human beings were meant to be hunters and gatherers, but the modern consumerist life turned us more into the latter. Maybe it's time to even things out. It might not be the easiest thing to achieve, but the effort alone guarantees results.