Minimalism In The Age Of Consumerism: 6 Steps To Unlearning Overconsumption

“The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependant on what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.” Wendell Berry

While more and more people are realizing the toxic effects of overconsumption on individual and global health and happiness, we’ve still a ways to go before simple living becomes “the norm.” It can be a real challenge making the transition to a minimalist lifestyle when you’re surrounded by people and media messages telling you that you “need” to buy more stuff in order to be happy and successful. There are however a series of steps you can follow to make the shift a whole lot easier.

6.1 Start From The Source: The Evolutionary Context of Overconsumption

As with any kind of personal transformation, if you want it to last you have to really get to the root of the issue. Simply making superficial changes will inevitably lead to a relapse back into old patterns. For most people, holistic minimalism implies a radical shift in their daily actions and outlook that’s not to be taken lightly. There are probably a number of reasons you can think of off the top of your head why minimalism feels like the right choice for you at the moment. Maybe you’re already deeply aware of the ways in which you have learned to overconsume. If that’s the case then you can skip right ahead to the next section.

Most of us however still have some lingering tendrils of unconscious over-consumption habits that need to be recognized and named before we can start living out a new model. The basic contextual elements you need to keep in mind moving forward are first of all the socio-cultural evolution of humans and interpersonal dynamics that creates and secondly the current-day use of individual insecurities as leverage points for corporate marketing.

As Darek Gondor writes in an article published via global think-tank The United Nations University, “the characteristics of human behaviour that became fixed in our population through natural selection occurred over the 95 percent of our pre-modern existence where we lived in sparsely populated hunter-gatherer bands with local community connections…Early human societies had primitive and inefficient ways of collecting resources, so those that thrived were ones that developed high rates of consumption and new innovations for resource gathering. They also had built up strong identity with their own community and competitiveness with others, and short-term thinking (discounting the future).”

This is an extremely important piece of the puzzle. Gondor goes on to explain is that the shift from scarcity to abundance happened so quickly (in relative terms) that humans haven’t adapted out of these patterns. Basically we’re still programmed to accumulate food and material goods as a way of a) ensuring survival of our family or “tribe” and b) attracting sexual partners by demonstrating our relative status. The thing is that we tend to surround ourselves with people at a similar level in the social hierarchy. This pushes us to constantly “keep up with the Jones’” as our relative status is lowered by the purchasing power of those around us and so continues a never ending cycle of unconscious drive to consume.[1] Once you recognize the impact socio-cultural evolution has had on your learned patterns you can take a step back and choose not to let these forces drive your lifestyle choices.

The second piece of the contextual puzzle is being hyper-aware of the way in which corporations use your insecurities and unconscious motivators to sell you stuff on a daily, sometimes even on a minute-by-minute, basis. There is more and more data out there on the way algorithms are being used, with increasing success, to understand people’s tastes and present them with what will seem most irresistible to them as individuals. Advertisements are constructed around concrete facts about human psychology and targeted at extremely specific profile types. In a world where this is the case, we need to be extremely firmly anchored in our true needs and values in order to see through the smoke and mirrors and say “no!” to the unnecessary stuff being marketed to us. And to be prepared to do so over and over and again (because let’s face it…marketing is not going to go away anytime soon!).

6.2 Applied Self-Awareness

“The business world is bent on creating hungers which its wares never satisfy, and thus it adds to the frustrations and broken minds of our times.” Fulton J. Sheen

Once you’ve got a handle on the evolutionary and environmental context (i.e. being constantly bombarded with pro-consumerist marketing) the next step is to take time to reflect on and clarify your base values and actual needs. These are two fundamental aspects of self-awareness that will allow you to make choices from an informed, confident place. If you haven’t already you may want to take a look at the oft-cited hierarchy of needs chart created by psychologist Abraham Maslow. This can be useful tool in really getting to the essentials of your true needs. It will also help you evaluate if there are some more basic needs (referred to as”deficiency needs” in Maslow’s theory) of yours that are not being completely met. If this is the case then you may have a harder time making the shift to a minimalist lifestyle as you will be more vulnerable to the impulse to buy stuff in order to obtain temporary validation or satisfaction. [2] Be aware of the impact unmet needs can have on your choices and try and find ways to meet those needs so as to free up your energy for reaching your highest potential. Having a firm grasp on your underlying need means you can evaluate anything you’re thinking of adding to your life based on whether it meets an actually or “manufactured” need.

While needs can, for the most part, be broken down to generalizations that apply to most people, values can be a bit more complex as there are so many factors that influence our individual values. Since the goal is to practice holistic minimalism as a lifestyle you may want to focus on your values as connected to simple living. Start by asking yourself what it is what draws you to the minimalist lifestyle. Are you craving a decrease of stress and clutter in your life? Is it the freedom of movement of owning little that attracts you, the option to just pick up and go travel when you want to? Or does buying less just make sense from a financial viewpoint?

Whatever your main motivators are they can give you some big clues as to the core values driving your life. These motivators are key to keeping you on track in your shift to minimalism. You absolutely need to have a clear idea of your core values in order to remain steadfast in the face of consumerist pressures. If you’re not sure, take the time to think, write or talk it out (depending on how you best process your thoughts…everyone’s different in this regard) and make the necessary connections so that next time you’re faced with the option “to buy or not to buy” you have something solid to base your decision on. Without this solid base saying no to consumption can rapidly become exhausting.

6.3 Catch Yourself: Observe, Brainstorm and Adjust

So now you’ve got a good understanding of the context you’re living in, the social and evolutionary pressures influencing your everyday choices. You’ve taken the time to identify your actual basic needs, to see where and why you may be likely to take the easy road out by trying to “buy happiness” and you’ve identified the core values motivating you to switch from overconsumption to minimalism.

The next ongoing part of the process (which bears repeating even if you’ve heard it before because it’s of such primordial importance) is to continually observe yourself (without beating yourself up about it! Just practicing self-awareness…) and notice when you’re falling into learned patterns and habits of consumption. Try and identify situations in which you tend to often give in to the temptation to buy even when you don’t need whatever it is. Once certain patterns emerge, take note and brainstorm (again, in whatever way suits your individual thought-processing needs) habits you could use to replace the ones you’d like to change.

6.4 Create Your Own Indicators of Progress

In a recent article Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics talks about new indicators of progress (suggesting moving from GDP to “GPI” or “Genuine Progress Indicators”) on a global scale being essential in creating societies not fueled by consumerism. [3] If you’re going to create a long-lasting, sustainable holistic minimalist lifestyle you need to apply this same principle to your own life. This ties together the idea of social and evolutionary factors driving us to unconsciously consume as well as that of replacing old habits with new positive ones. In other words, if we don’t create new indicators of progress for ourselves there’s a part of you that will keep believing you’re essentially failing in life because you’re not meeting the imposed standards of consumption still widely associated with success and status. How can you measure your progress in life differently? What are some quantitative or qualitative factors that you can regularly evaluate to check in with yourself and make adjustments as needed?

6.5 Support Networks and Social Validation

“The people who have more money and goods than any people in the history of the world spend most of their time worrying about not having enough.” Jim Wallis

You may remember above how people tend to accumulate as a means of maintaining their relative status within the social hierarchy. If we as humans are driven to adapt to the standards of our “tribe” or surrounding community of individuals would it not then make sense that if you want to create a solid foundation for your minimalist lifestyle you ought to also create a social context in which your lifestyle choices will be supported and encouraged? Rather than being in “competition” with people who’s idea of success means increased wealth and material goods, why not nest your new life in a context that will help it, and you, thrive? It may not be easy to contemplate completely shifting social circles, but at the very least you can add to your options. With the number of online social networking tools available today you can almost inevitably find like-minded people to commiserate with. Ideally you can even find some groups to hang out with in person. Check out the possibilities.

6.6 Food For Thought: Self-Educate to Perpetuate Minimalism

“Everything in excess is opposed to nature.” Hippocrates

While it’s hard to avoid being influenced by our socio-cultural context and social circles, we don’t always want to be looking outside ourselves for validation of our life choices. Maintaining a minimalist lifestyle means continually nourishing your understanding of why you’re choosing non-consumerism. While we started out by establishing some of your core values and basic needs, as you grow and change so may your motivations and your relationship to the whole concept of minimalism. In addition to immersing yourself in online or actual tangible communities of people on a similar lifestyle track, make a point of nourishing your inner world as well.

Create a reading or watching list of inspirational articles and videos to feed your reflection on integrated simplicity. Keep a journal where you jot down the ways in which you notice minimalism impacting your life in different areas. What do you find challenging and why? In what ways is minimalism contributing to a greater sense of self-awareness, clarity and general satisfaction with your life and-or living environment? Because the shift to minimalism can be such a transformational process for many people it’s worth it to take notes as things evolve and to give yourself all the tools you need to support a healthy, conscious transition.

6.7 Don’t Forget To Constantly Renew!

These six steps should be revisited regularly as you move into living a holistic minimalist life. You’ll very likely need to remind yourself every now and then of the context in which you’re making this important lifestyle shift and coming up against the potential culture clash between your choices and the consumerist paradigm. Re-center, apply self-awareness and get back in touch with your true needs and values. Observe your daily habits and replace unconscious consumerist ones with new minimalist-oriented choices. Create your own barometer for progress and success with which to evaluate your life when you need to. Embed yourself in social contexts that will encourage you rather than break down your morale and don’t forget to make room for ongoing inspiration and growth!

6.8 Breaking It Down

That may seem like a lot of information to absorb and apply to your life all at once. The good news it, when you break it down, it’s really quite simple.

  1. Start by reminding yourself of the historical and social context you’re working with. Understanding the context helps you accept and move through the discomfort that may pop up every now and then on your path a holistic minimalist lifestyle.
  2. Once you’ve got a handle on the big picture, you need to clarify your needs and wants. Evaluate anything you’re thinking of adding to your life in terms of whether it meets an actual need or a “manufactured need”, i.e. something you’ve convinced yourself you “need” but don’t really.
  3. Practice self-observation and replace any habits or patterns that don’t support your minimalist lifestyle.
  4. Come up with your own indicators of progress. What are your personal markers of success that don’t involve accumulating stuff?
  5. Create social support networks for yourself so that your choices are constantly validated and positively reflected back to you. This will make a world of difference in making your lifestyle choices sustainable!
  6. And finally, never cease to self-educate and find new sources of inspiration to nourish your evolving relationship to holistic minimalism.
  1. “Why Do We Over-consume? Darek Gondor,2009•12•14, Our World brought to you by the United Nations University,
  2. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Saul McLeod, 2018, Simply Psychology,
  3. “The great challenge of the 21st century is learning to consume less. This is how we can do it,” Jason Hickel, 2018. World Economic Forum

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