Here’s Why Minimalism (Probably) Won’t Change Your Life
My first taste of minimalism came from an article about a man that kept all of his belongings in a single suitcase. This extreme example of minimalism seemed crazy to me at the time as I read the article from my disastrously messy dorm room. Yet, something compelled me to learn more.
I studied minimalism for several weeks before I made a pile about as tall as I am of belongings I no longer used. I threw all the clothes, linens, and old books into bags and declared myself an aspiring minimalist.
It felt amazing to get rid of so many material things at once. The rush was maddening and filled me with excitement for days that I couldn’t contain. I found more items I no longer used and got rid of them. I repeated this until I had only a few garments in my closet, my school supplies, and a book on my shelf. I had gone too far.
The pursuit of minimalism didn’t change my life and it probably won’t change yours. As I sat on the floor of my university dorm room I realized I didn’t need minimalism, I needed balance. I realized that to practice minimalism is to do more while owning less. The problem with adopting minimalism is that we all have clutter — physical, emotional, and digital. It’s unavoidable.
Minimalism won’t change your life if you’re pursuing it to escape your clutter or something else. If you want a simple life your pursuit should be balance, not minimalism.
Life is Messy, Minimalism is Not
I wanted to look like a minimalist. That I-have-my-life-together glow that many minimalists have when they talk about how everything they own fits in a single bag. When I took some time to reflect I realized that the reason minimalism was immediately appealing to me was that it had the potential to hide my clutter, right?
Wrong. It took me a long time to realize I wanted the look of minimalism, not the reality. What I truly needed was more balance.
Taking the time to get rid of old clothes and personal items I no longer needed was a great thing to do — therapeutic even because I was able to make more room in my life for the things that mattered. But with my self-assigned label of a minimalist, I had this anxiety around things. If I had too many things would I not be a minimalist anymore? What if I’m a bad minimalist?
I would get rid of things for the sake of it. To clear room on shelves for the sake of simplicity. I gave away items that were important to me because I thought being a minimalist meant I had to surrender my attachment to material things to belong to this club of minimalists.
When I moved back home from a semester abroad in Sweden I realized that enough was enough. Minimalism (specifically the way I was approaching it) wasn’t for me. I needed to find a balance between too much and too little. I had gotten rid of so many things. This felt great and freed up room on shelves and in my closet to be filled with items that matter to me. But something was missing. That’s when I realized this important truth:
minimalism ≠ simple living
simple living = balance
When I look back, I think it’s the word minimal that threw me off. In my attempt to be a minimalist, I tried to live minimally rather than happily. I found that balance in an unexpected place: Sweden.
The Swedish Argument Against Minimalism
The Swedes have an uncanny ability to simplify things. While living there I quickly learned that unnecessary complications are not part of the Swedish mentality. You can see this in the straightforward nature of the Swedish people as they’re kind but direct to the point.
The Swedish lifestyle emphasizes the concept of lagom (pronounced lah-gohm) meaning “not too little, not too much.” This simple word revolutionized my approach to self-care and simple living.
From social situations to interior design to the structure of social welfare programs, lagom is everywhere in Sweden. In discussing my aspiring minimalist lifestyle with a Swedish classmate they rejected the idea entirely. After a long conversation involving many cups of hot chocolate, my approach to simple living changed completely.
The life that minimalists are chasing is a simple one. A life with less to allow us the freedom to do more. On the contrary, struggling to live as a full-blown minimalist left me feeling trapped. There has to be a balance. If you want simple living you don’t need minimalism, you need lagom.
Though it might seem like a vast oversimplification to just “do what makes you happy” it’s what the Swedes have been doing for decades. As a result, Sweden has become one of the happiest and most prosperous countries in the world.
Practicing lagom might seem abstract because it is meant to be something you understand within you. You have to know your limits to have a better understanding of what it too much, too little, and just right. This requires an inordinate amount of self-discipline to enforce limits. Unlike minimalism, which emphasizes restriction, lagom necessitates profound self-knowledge to do what you need so you can cultivate your own simplicity.
Lagom works because Swedes have created a culture that values simplicity and balance. You can use lagom as a frame of reference to shape your own life. Prioritize the things (both material and immaterial) that matter most to you and only keep what adds value. There is no need to limit yourself to a minimalistic life. Find what works for you and go after it.