The Facts Behind The Feeling: Backing Up Your Lifestyle Choices With Science

admin // November 22 // 0 Comments

“We increase our possessions only to the enlargement of our anxieties.” Anna C. Brackett

First off, congratulations on choosing to transform your life through minimalism. By decluttering your life on every level you’re making space for increased happiness, a deeper sense of self and connection to the infinite new possibilities.

1.1 In Support Of Simplicity And Minimalism As Lifestyle Choices

We needn’t look far to find support for a radical shift in our materialist habits. There’s more and more scientific research exploring the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle and the advantages of shifting the patterns that drive us to accumulate clutter. When we commit to changing our relationship to consumption every aspect of our lives is effected–from psychological, to social to basic mental and physical health.

If you’re on this path it’s because you’re daring enough to take the road less travelled.In order for these lifestyle choices to last however, you need to start by breaking down the psychological factors that will otherwise inevitably get in your way. Connecting your intuitive sense about things to factual research creates the informed foundation you need to keep on track. It allows you to bypass the mechanisms that will try and get you back on the material accumulation merry-go-round just when you think you’ve finally kicked the habit.

1.2 The Facts Behind The Feelings: The Science of Happiness

Minimalism is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to increasing the contentment and coherency of our everyday lives. It unlocks deeper layers of our psyche that we can’t access when overwhelmed with the hubris of acquiring and managing material goods.

“Living with only the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits such as the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.” (Fumio Sasaki, author of “Goodbye Things) [1]

While social convention may tell you that having more money so you can buy more things is the ultimate happiness jackpot, research says otherwise. An oft-cited study performed by P. Brickman in the 1970’s compared the overall happiness of people who had won millions of dollars in the lottery to that of a control group who were only meeting their basic needs with their daily income. The results were, not surprisingly, that those with drastically more money did not feel significantly happier.[2] This is just one example among many showing the same types of results. Even The Harvard Business Review has published studies stating that there is little to no correlation between wealth and happiness (Raj Raghunathan, 2016).[3]

So money and stuff do not equal happiness. Simple, right? But there are a couple more things in play. In order to establish a sustainable minimalist lifestyle we have to redefine our unexamined beliefs about happiness, understand our basic needs and dissect the underlying cultural neuroses driving unconscious overconsumption.

1.3 There’s a Reason We Always Feel Like We Need More…

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”

Seneca First Nation proverb

When our entire focus goes towards making money so that we can acquire more material comforts it becomes a habit and a goal in and of itself and we forget where our energy ought to actually be directed: towards our actual needs, like clean air, water, food, shelter, and a sense of connection and meaning in our lives. Once that baseline is covered anything else is unnecessary fluff and you need to pause and ask yourself what motivates your desire (not need) to acquire more stuff.

On the psychology front, a 2007 study by Chaplin and John showed that there is a significant link between the drive to accumulate material goods and a lack of self-esteem.[4] In other words, something missing in our psychological or emotional life, primarily confidence and self-love, subconsciously motivates us to consume. In today’s world this is the case for most people, though obviously to varying degrees. While these are deeply rooted issues, by simply being aware of them we can begin to address them accordingly. When we’re not conscious of this connection it can instead lead to an unhealthy pattern where consumption becomes an addiction-like cycle.

Studies by the Association for Consumer Research going back as far as the 1980’s state that “spending can be a compulsive behavior similar to gambling, food disorders and alcoholism.” (Faber, O’Guinn and Krych, 1987).[5] We obtain a short-term sense of success and validation from acquiring something new, but when the feeling of accomplishment doesn’t last we are obliged to go back to the store and get something else. And so it goes, until hopefully one day life kicks us in the ass and tells us to wake up and smell the roses. Which is likely where you’re at if you’re reading this.

1.4 Perceived Lack And Its Effects On Your Brain

“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” Lao Tzu

Of course, many have twigged to this self-esteem soft-spot, giving us the typical ad which plays on themes of isolation and lack of self confidence in order to get us to purchase the product of the day. It’s implied that by getting that new car or buying that hot dress we will suddenly be more desirable, thus magically boosting our self-esteem. Look around you and this message is everywhere. Unfortunately there’s nothing you can buy that can act as a substitute for a basic sense of self-worth. Acknowledging this wholeheartedly is an essential step to letting go of your attachment to “stuff.”

Once you get out of this toxic cycle of scarcity-based consumption you will be able to truly evaluate what you actually need in order to feel happy, fulfilled and valuable as a human being. Not based on what anyone tells you you should want, or what’s “supposed” to make you happy. Actively decluttering your life will allow you to pinpoint what’s motivating your consumption habits and to create your optimum lifestyle. By observing unconscious patterns you will be able to step back and make choices from a place of personal power rather than letting irrational fears or past trauma inform your decisions.

This is made clear in a significant 2013 study in which Princeton University psychology and public affairs professor Eldar Shafir, PhD and Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan, PhD, explored “how people’s minds are less efficient when they feel they lack something — whether it is money, time, calories or even companionship.” .[6]

When we feel that we lack something, whether or not it’s actually “true,” our attention and brainpower is almost completely consumed by whatever we perceive as lacking. By practicing minimalis we can unlearn this ingrained “scarcity mentality,” or perception of lack where there is none.

1.4 The Key Criteria That Will Help You Make Choices To Increase Your Happiness

By choosing not to focus our lives around accumulating material goods we free up a whole lot of time, energy and money to put toward other things. Uncluttering our lives leads to a shift in priorities where experiences become more important than objects, quality more important than quantity.

Research done at the University of Colorado by Van Boven and Gilovich shows that experiences, as opposed to material wealth, have a much more positive impact on one’s long-term happiness. In their words:

“…experiences make people happier because they are more open to positive reinterpretations, are a more meaningful part of one’s identity, and contribute more to successful social relationships.” Van Boven & Gilovich (2003)[7]

Just take a minute to think about your own life. Are your cherished memories full of things you bought? Or of situations, activities and moments you spent with loved ones, or simply immersed in a new environment? Now if every time you have access to disposable income instead of buying something you choose to invest in a trip or an outing with people you care about, imagine the impact on your sense of satisfaction when looking back at your life. Imagine the reduction in clutter and accumulation. Imagine the strengthening of your social network that would result from investing in people instead of things.

1.5 One Important Priority That Can Add True Value To Your Life

In addition to focusing on experiences rather than objects, several studies have looked at the importance of generosity and helping others when it comes to profound happiness. A huge study of over 200,000 respondents revealed that being generous had a positive effect on one’s happiness in 93% of (120 of 136) countries. Researchers looked at generosity indicators such as giving money, volunteering, and even being emotionally available to friends and found that the more generous people were, the happier they recounted feeling (American Psychological Association, 2013).[8]

The article opens describing how U.S. businessman Warren Buffett (notably one of the richest people in the world…) had decided he would be giving away 99% of his money and that he “couldn’t be happier with that decision” (Buffet, 2010). He goes on to explain how giving away his excess wealth will leave him and his family no worse off as they will still be able to meet their needs and live in comfort. The feeling of being able to help others through giving was much more rewarding than holding on to the security of surplus.

There is also significant research supporting the fact that health and healing are exponentially improved when people are able to contribute to taking care of others. The infamous Dr. Patch Adams has written several books looking at how caretaking is a huge part of healing, happiness and self-worth.[9] By reframing our priorities to include both the principle that a) experiences are more worthwhile than objects and b) generosity and helping others is a key element of a truly happy and meaningful life, our entire focus shifts. Running after material wealth seems suddenly pointless. Which leads us to the idea of purpose.

1.6 How Clutter Inhibits Your Sense Of Purpose

It’s a widely accepted fact that a sense of purpose is a huge factor in determining a person’s health, happiness and motivation in life. What do we mean by “purpose?” As psychologist Stephanie Hooker,Ph.D., M.P.H., of the University of Minnesota summarizes in a 2017 paper published by the American Psychological Association “it’s basically the idea that your life makes sense, you’re here for a reason, and you’re significant in the world.” [10]

One of the most convincing arguments for the importance of purpose is psychologist Victor Frankl’s renowned book “Man’s Search for Meaning” which outlines his experience as an Auschwitz survivor and puts forward the well-sustained theory that those who psychologically survived the concentration camps did so primarily due to cultivating their sense of meaning.[11]

The point is not that purging your life of excess stuff should be the focal point of your entire existence. It’s that in order to live meaningful lives we need our environments and our actions to be in harmony with our values. For example, if you’re a vegetarian who objects to eating meat for value-based reasons (as opposed to purely dietary ones such as an allergy) you would find it distracting or outright disturbing to live in a house full of meat products or hunting trophies.

So if you’re someone who values sparsity and simplicity, living in a cluttered environment is going to get in the way of optimizing your life and focusing on whatever gives you a sense of purpose. It starts you off everyday feeling discouraged and out of sync with your fundamental desires. It’s very difficult to serve your highest purpose when you are bogged down by possessions, relationships or activities that don’t add value to your life.

1.7 Action Point Summary – Here’s What You Need to Do Now!

There’s a lot of hype out there these days about minimalism and some may be led to question whether it’s just the next passing fad. The above should give you some insight as to why minimalism is in fact an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. With a better understanding of the mechanisms holding most people back from making the leap you should now be set to begin applying minimalist principles to your everyday life. It’s time to reboot your programmed values and dig in to the day to day challenges and long-lasting rewards of streamlined simplicity.

  1. Read up on the science of happiness. You’ll find lots of material supporting the idea that minimalism is better for you than overconsumption!
  2. Dissociate your self-esteem from your purchasing power! The two intermingled isn’t a healthy combo.
  3. Recognize the effects of “scarcity mentality” and be aware when you’re falling for it!
  4. Make generosity and helping other priorities….(if you want to be truly happy!).
  5. Get clarity on your sense of purpose. This is the number one way to ensure your personal happiness.
  1. “Goodbye things, hello minimalism: can living with less make you happier?”Interview with Fumio Sasaki, theguardian.com, April 12 2017

  2. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1978, Vol. 36, No. 8, 917-927, Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? Philip Brickman and Dan Coates, Northwestern University
  3. Harvard Business Review, “Why Rich People Aren’t as Happy as They Could Be,” Raj Raghunathan, June 8 2016
  4. University of Chicago Press Journals, Chaplin and John, “In Children And Adolescents, Low Self-esteem Increases Materialism,” November 16, 2007.
  5. Ronald J. Faber, Thomas C. O’Guinn, and Raymond Krych (1987) ,”Compulsive Consumption”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 132-135.
  6. American Psychological Association; The psychology of scarcity; Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir explores how deprivation wreaks havoc on cognition and decision-making. By Amy Novotney , February 2014, Vol 45, No. 2

  7. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Dec; 85(6):1193-202. “To do or to have? That is the question.” Van Boven L1, Gilovich T.
  8. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013, Vol. 104, No. 4, 635–652; “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal”
  9. House Calls: How We Can All Heal the World One Visit at a Time, Patch Adams M.D., 2010
  10. Review of General Psychology; Hooker, S. A., Masters, K. S., & Park, C. L., 2017, July 6, “A meaningful life is a healthy life: a conceptual model linking meaning and meaning salience to health.”
  11. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl. Beacon Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8070-1426-4

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