How minimalism teaches you to be happy with less
Every morning, Joshua Fields Millburn blows up a balloon. He does it as part of his physical therapy to strengthen a balky lower back. When he began the routine, he got in the habit of giving the inflated balloon to his young daughter.
She’ll play with it awhile, and then, inevitably, the balloon pops. It’s upsetting to Ella, who is not yet 3. And then she realizes she has no balloon to play with anymore.
Over time, however, Ella has begun to understand that her enjoyment of the balloon is only momentary. It turns out that the balloon is a perfect metaphor for the rest of life, says Millburn. A toy, a job, a home: “If you look over a long enough timeline, everything is ephemeral,” he says. The trick is in the letting go.
In a time filled to bursting in many ways, Millburn has become a leading advocate of letting go. With his friend Ryan Nicodemus, he founded the Minimalists, a multimedia project with a simple message: encouraging people to invest more meaning in their lives by assigning less meaning to the things they own.
On Tuesday, May 3, Millburn and Nicodemus will be at the Somerville Theatre to present their new film, “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” (At presstime, there were still a few tickets available.) It’s the latest in a growing portfolio that includes blogs, books, a podcast, and a crowded touring schedule.
Their following is the only thing about life for the Minimalists that’s getting bigger. After the death of his mother, as Millburn often relates, he needed some significant changes. The corporate ladder-climbing and conspicuous consumption of his young adult life suddenly felt empty, pointless. So he began to reassess. If a piece of furniture, an article of clothing, a gadget, appliance or tchotchke didn’t add value to his life, he got rid of it. The goal was a “well-curated” life.
“My finances were out of control,” he recalls. “My health wasn’t good — I weighed 80 pounds more than I do now. I wasn’t contributing to the community in any meaningful way.”
At first, he says, speaking on the phone from his home in Montana, he thought he was trying to find happiness.
“It took a while to learn that happiness is in the moment,” Millburn says. “The purpose for me was finding ways to live more meaningfully. Happiness is sort of a byproduct of that. If you’re chasing happiness, it’s probably not going to happen.”
Soon Nicodemus, recognizing the benefits his best friend was reaping, adopted a similar philosophy, in more extreme form. Rather than slowly paring down, as Millburn did, he organized a “packing party” and sold, donated, or threw out nearly everything he owned in a matter of days.
“He’s more Type A than I am,” jokes Millburn.
In their new documentary, the Minimalists recount their experiments with simple living while showcasing like-minded reformers: couples who live in tiny houses, people committed to carbon-neutral living, the guy who travels full-time carrying everything he owns in a couple of shoulder bags.
Though they’re in the spotlight, the Minimalists didn’t want the film to focus on them alone. The approach reflects the way Millburn composed his lifestyle, by borrowing elements of other people’s ideas.
“What intrigued me when I first started was that there were a bunch of different voices,” he says — bloggers who talked about minimalist fashion or raising kids with less. None of their “recipes,” as he says, “looked exactly how I wanted my life to look, so I started tweezing ingredients from each one.”
One of the film’s contributors is Juliet Schor, a Boston College sociology professor and the author of several books on sustainability and consumer culture. A vegan and a devotee of clean energy, she says the Minimalists’ emphasis on removing physical clutter can be easier to grasp than the abstract notion of, say, rising methane levels.
“People do tend to have a kind of visceral reaction against an accumulation of things,” she says. “There’s something about the culture of goods that people react strongly to.”
At BC recently, Schor conducted an experiment: For one month, she and her students tried to restrict themselves to a wardrobe of just eight items.
“That didn’t include underwear and socks,” she said.
Such simple living commitments seem to be gaining adherents, as the stresses of modern life and concerns about future generations persist. The Minimalists suggest another challenge: At the start of a month, try getting rid of something on the first day. On the second day, make it two things; three the third day, and so on. Do it with a friend or family member. The person who makes it longest wins.
Millburn, asked to identify the last thing he bought that felt like an indulgence, thinks hard.
“I wish I had a sexy answer for you,” he says, “like a Faberge egg.” Finally, it comes to him: a pair of water shoes.
He’s quick to note that he and Nicodemus didn’t coin the term “minimalism,” and that they’ve adopted most of their ideas from a long history of lifestyle philosophers, from Epictetus and Thoreau to Oprah Winfrey. The reason he and Nicodemus were able to claim themselves as the Minimalists is simple: The domain name was available for seven dollars.