There are a lot of changes I've noticed in myself since I ended my stint as a full-time traveler and moved to New York City, but one of the biggest is the way I consume. As a backpacker, I was somehow able to whittle down my possession to a few essentials, but now that I've settled into the city, my appetite for things is almost insatiable. I shop as a hobby, buy $20 sandals to wear once, and think of costume jewelry like plastic cutlery—totally disposable.
I knew that my lifestyle wasn't exactly smart or sustainable (for the world or my wallet), but it wasn't until I watched Netflix's Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things that I started to realize my relentless lifestyle was eating into my happiness, one impulse purchase at a time.
The documentary follows Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka "The Minimalists," and shines a light on the insanity of trying to buy happiness. An hour later, I wanted to donate the masses of unused clothing in my closet and pare back my life to the basics.
So what is minimalism all about? I quizzed the film's director, Matt D'Avella, to find out why it's so much more than a buzzword. Here's why learning to live with less could change the way you see the world—it did for me.
What is minimalism?
"Minimalism is the active intention of paring down so you can focus on what matters in life," explains D'Avella, who learned about the movement in 2010 when he met Millburn and Nicodemus online. The two have amassed a huge following with their simple message that less really is more. According to their website, they've spurred over 20 million people to rethink the value they place in possessions.
Unlike the zero-waste movement, D'Avella says minimalism focuses on happiness. "The two definitely overlap, but I think your intentions are different. Zero waste is born from the belief that consuming less makes the world a better place while the motivation for minimalism comes from feeling overwhelmed and discontent," he says. "We've been sold a story that we have to have all these things in order to be successful, and it's not exactly true."
What's all the fuss about?
I've always been aware that my shopping habits were frivolous, but after watching the documentary, it's clear that thoughtless consumerism isn't as harmless as it might appear. Neuroscientist Sam Harris explains that it has a very real connection with dissatisfaction. "You have this thing that you are obsessed with, but then the new version comes out and now you no longer care about the one you have," he says in the documentary trailer. "In fact, it's a source of dissatisfaction."
D'Avella can relate. "When I first learned about minimalism, I'd just graduated college with $97,000 in student loan debt for a degree that I didn't even expect to make much money with," he recalls. "Then I did the smartest thing I thought of at the time, which was to buy a car, bumping my debt to around $117,000. I was so unhappy about my life because I didn't have the things I was supposed to have to prove to myself I was successful."
When he started to pare down his possessions—donating unworn clothing and re-evaluating odd items—he was able to shift his focus. "It allowed me to move forward and motivated me to pay off my debt."
What's one way to try it today?
So can you practice minimalism without abstaining from online shopping altogether? According to D'Avella, editing your closet KonMari style is a start, but the first step has nothing to do with possessions. "I think the most important thing you can do is ask questions. When we were interviewing people for the documentary, we found that was the most important part of the process. Question what you want, what matters to you most, and what your ideal life to looks like," he says. "People ignore these questions because they're actually really difficult to answer. But if you're honest with yourself and think about what's going to bring you real fulfillment and joy, that's a start."
Have you watched Minimalism? What did you think?
Mahapatra S. An empirical analysis of cause of consumer dissatisfaction and the reasons why consumers enduring dissatisfaction. Serbian J Management. 2014;9:71-89. doi:10.5937/sjm9-5181.