Schwartz: Want to live better? Have less ‘stuff’

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

Whenever Earth Day rolls around, I’m usually not in a celebratory mood. I mainly feel a deep concern for our deteriorating environment, guilt for that time I accidentally left the lights on in my room and just a little twang of gratefulness for everything Mother Nature gives us. Mixed in is some frustration at large corporations for deliberately exploiting natural resources, as well as general contempt for the government and media for not caring about this fundamental issue as much as they should. And finally, I always think, “How can I improve my personal impact on the environment while still doing the things I want?” This is where a philosophy called minimalism comes in.

To put it simply (which seems appropriate given the concept), minimalism means not deriving happiness from an excess of “stuff.” That doesn’t mean minimalists are “anti-stuff” or meditating on mountaintops for days on end without owning a single material possession. More than just getting rid of stuff, minimalism is about being aware of the relationships we have with our stuff.

Rather than a set of physical rules, minimalism is a mindset. It involves deliberately asking questions about every material possession one owns. Do you need 26 pairs of socks if you only wear eight of them before doing laundry? Do you need a toaster oven if you only eat breakfast twice a week? Do you need a four-bedroom apartment if you’re the only person living there? These questions exist to make you think consciously about why you own the things you do and whether you could live without them.

Before becoming the original “minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus were wildly successful corporate executives who seemed to possess everything except true happiness. They each abandoned much of their superfluous material possessions, and upon doing so found happiness and purpose in their lives. They say of their philosophy, “Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.” We can use material things to make our lives easier, but once we assign too much meaning to them, we begin to structure our lives around them and lose a considerable amount of freedom.

There is a misconception that cutting things out of your life makes it less rich. As someone who has just begun doing so, I can tell you that the opposite is true. Being more conscious about what I own has made me even more appreciative of the things I decide to keep. Having less inspires me to think and do more.

But where minimalism truly shines is in its impact — or lack thereof — on the environment. Owning a smaller home saves heating and air conditioning costs. Owning a smaller car (or no car at all) saves fuel. Recycling or repurposing unnecessary material objects, and purchasing less to begin with, saves materials and energy in manufacturing. Though minimalism is an anthropocentric idea, it has major positive implications for the environment and our minds.

The Western family unit is driven by consumerism, which in turn contributes to the destruction of the environment and the inequitable use of natural resources. A typical home has more television sets than people and over 300,000 items in total. Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on goods they do not need. Of course, we as college students have not reached this stage in our lives yet, but wouldn’t it be great if we never needed to? College is an excellent time to start living minimally — a minuscule dorm room or apartment clutters easily, and we have little time and money with which to buy more things.

So during your next deep room clean, go through one or two of your drawers and really think about why particular items are in there. Maybe you’ll be able to get rid of some stuff; maybe you won’t. But the beauty of minimalism is that you’ll feel lighter, freer and more fulfilled just thinking about it.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.