Nomad Life

Living a Life with Less: How to Simplify and Find Happiness

These days, the paradox of hustle culture and the quest for happiness have caught the world in a vicious cycle. We are obsessed with the battle between happiness and consumerism. Living a life with less is encouraged and applauded, yet made nearly impossible. 

In my own life, this battle is raging. I worked hard for financial security and a sustainable career. The only problem? This career makes me miserable on most days. This probably sounds familiar to most of you. As my older sister puts it, “No one likes their jobs”. (I know that I am privileged here, but I just want to provide some context). I have more money than ever before, everyday living expenses are easy, and yet feelings of dissatisfaction and insecurity remain. More money, same problems I guess.

Anyway, as I’m having this existential crisis, I am also moving. And this event is exactly what sparked my interest in the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle. Since moving in with my boyfriend forced me to downsize, I noticed how relieving it felt to rid my closets of excess. I enjoyed the process of choosing what items mattered. What to keep and what to toss became my favorite game. Eventually, it just became a game of toss and that got me thinking, “Am I a minimalist?”. The answer, of course, is no I’m not a minimalist. Not yet. But I am interested, so how do I start a minimalist lifestyle? 

What is Minimalism?

According to Joshua N. Hook, “…voluntary simplicity (also referred to as minimalism), involves a lifestyle that is focused on reducing consumption and the excess in one’s life so that individuals can focus on prioritizing their values” (“Minimalism, voluntary simplicity, and well-being: A systematic review of the empirical literature”). It’s simply a simple way of living so that you can focus on personal development. A process of decluttering your life of “things” and only buying what you need. It’s a self-help movement that opposes cultural and societal pressures to consume to (hopefully) feel more fulfilled and happy. 

So, no more aimless wandering through Target? Are we sure that doesn’t make me happy? What if I value aesthetically pleasing nonsense in my space? 

The Benefits of Life with Less

Preliminary research has shown that voluntary simplicity positively affects an individual’s overall well-being (Hook et al.). 

Better Mental Health in a Life with Less:

It seems that the most robust argument for living a life with less is the positive impact on mental health. A minimalistic lifestyle has been linked to more mindfulness, reduced stress and anxiety, better relationships, and more self-reliance (Hook et al.). After just a week or so of living with less stuff, I can tell you I already feel lighter. I’m less overwhelmed even in the middle of a big move. And, I am more motivated/willing to spend quality time with my boyfriend rather than making my days all about work. A minimalistic lifestyle forces you to shift from valuing material items and money to valuing things like relationships, health, and personal development. This mindset shift has a positive impact on your overall well-being and life satisfaction.  

Reduced Environmental Impact in a Life with Less:

In an episode of NPRs All Things Considered with Mary Louise Kelly and author J.B. MacKinnon, MacKinnon claims that a 2021 U.N. report cites consumption as the leading cause of environmental problems in the world. Consumption has a direct impact on elements of the climate crisis including deforestation, toxic pollution, and the extinction of species. According to Hook, while certain branches of minimalism use ecological awareness as one of their guiding principles, it seems that the minimalist lifestyle lends itself to decreased environmental impact simply due to decreased consumption. 

In addition to just consuming less, the natural shift of consumption and waste habits when you live minimally benefits the environment. According to an article by James Miller on TheRoundup.org when you’re living a life with less, you’re likely going to be more thoughtful about what you consume. Miller explains that you may buy more sustainable, high-quality clothing from environmentally conscious companies while reducing your “fast fashion” wardrobe. Then, decluttering your closet of nonfunctional clothing items supports a “circular economy” via donations and appropriate recycling practices. That is reducing, reusing, and recycling at its finest (“Is Minimalism Beneficial for the Environment?” ).

More Money Saved in a Life with Less:

Minimalist consumption practices help the environment, but even more so, they help your wallet. When you’re consuming less, you’re spending less. Not to mention, Miller reminds us that many minimalists ditch their cars for bikes and larger homes for tiny homes which reduces their cost of living greatly. In our case, we are sick and tired of paying rent in Denver, can’t afford to buy a house, and want to travel. Therefore, we plan to try out van life for a bit. And let me tell you, we cannot wait to be free from rent and utility bills. Elle Penner of the blog Modern Minimalism explains that minimalists tend to save money in smaller capacities as well including selling their unused items, thrifting, and healthier food choices (less eating out).

Less Clutter, More Freedom in a Life with Less:

If you asked my partner what my biggest pet peeve was, he’d say clutter. Choosing a life with less stuff means no more junk drawers or cluttered surfaces. When you’re a minimalist, everything you own can truly have a place and a purpose.  My oasis. 

For me and Elle Penner, a clutter-free space means greater productivity and less time wasted cleaning up, reorganizing, and decluttering. It means that I’m spending my weekends on an adventure rather than worrying about the tidiness of my home. Yes, I’ve spent a Saturday night or two fixing a messy space…It means that we can spend quality time and eat meals at our dining table that is clear and free of unnecessary stuff.  

5 Steps to Start Living a Life with Less

Step 1: Find Your “Why” & Make a Plan

This step involves reflection. Why you are interested in living a life with less? Our van life plans unfolded when we started discussing how “stuck” we felt. Stuck in our careers and stuck between moving back to the Midwest, staying in Denver, or trying out somewhere new. After months of talking, researching, journaling, and ruminating we finally agreed on van life. Why? Because we figured out what meant the most to us. We want to travel more without spending a fortune. We want more freedom from our jobs, and we feel disconnected from the traditional trajectory of couples at our stage in life. 

Your why and your plan will probably look different from ours. Use journal prompts and vision boards, follow minimalist influencers and bloggers, talk to friends and family, and do your research to figure out what minimalist lifestyle benefits you most. Not everyone will buy a van, but maybe you decide to downsize your apartment or maybe you stay put and choose to downsize your closet and unused junk instead. Another option is to set goals for your minimalist lifestyle. It could be a health and wellness goal, savings goal, or environmental impact goal. 

Step 2: Downsize and Declutter

Now that you have a better understanding of your values and a rough idea of your plan (or goals), you can take action on your life with less. I was forced into this step, but I think it’s the simplest place to start. There wasn’t much room for my things in the new digs, so I began sorting, selling, donating, recycling, and yes, trashing :’) what no longer served. Whenever I caught myself waffling on whether or not to keep an item, I slept on it and then returned to my values. If it wasn’t functional to my plan or goals of a life with less, then I got rid of it. To avoid overwhelm, I broke it down room by room and gave myself plenty of time (I started about a month before the move). Now, you might be wondering about the best ways to get rid of your stuff. 

  1. First things first, you should always aim for recycling. I used Denver’s recycling guide to help me understand what could and could not be recycled in my neighbor’s bins that I mooched for 2 years. From there, I determined what had to be recycled in special drop-off locations (e.g. plastic bags can typically be recycled responsibly in specified bins at local grocery stores). 
  2. Next, you can sell items. Most of my furniture and household items went on Facebook Marketplace and made moving a breeze. People just come to your door, pay you, and take the stuff away. You can also try out consignment shops like Plato’s Closet or Crossroads to sell clothing and accessories. Finally, I’m considering selling some of my books to used bookstores. 
  3. Then, sort out donations. Whatever doesn’t sell, but is still in good shape can probably be donated to places like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity. These donation centers accept clothing, furniture, and other household items like kitchenware. Make sure your items are clean and gently used, otherwise, donations will not be accepted and (probably) be thrown away. 
  4. Finally, as a last resort, you can throw away whatever items are non-recyclable, non-sellable, and non-donatable. 

Step 3: Clean and Reorganize Your Space

Now for the fun part. First, wipe it clean down to the baseboards! (with some eco-conscious cleaner of course). Second, time to create the perfect space. Whether that involves having more space and fewer things or less space and fewer things…you get to be creative. You can arrange and rearrange the furniture one-hundred times until you find what’s perfect. If you feel your space is not quite finished that doesn’t mean that you can’t buy more, just buy responsibly. Maybe set a limit on the number of items for yourself? Research sustainable brands and buy from them. Continue to support a “circular economy” and buy used. Just don’t go crazy and return to your values throughout this process. It might be helpful to remind yourself of step 3 when you’re in step 2. It can be super motivating to think about completely reinventing your space. 

Step 4: Create a Budget, Save, & Learn About Finances

I’m not going to pretend like I’ve done this step myself and I’m not going to pretend like I know how to create a budget. But I plan to learn because I think budgeting is a great way to stick to your minimalist plan. I also know that this step can be difficult and overwhelming to start, but I’m hoping that once you get going it will become a habit. Between the internet and influencers, there are so many resources out there about your finance journey, even for dummies. You can find free budgeting resources just about anywhere. I love to use NerdWallet and Chloe of “Deeper than Money” on Instagram for financial literacy. Chloe also has a podcast and courses. Find what works best for you. 

Step 5: Focus and Refocus on Your Values

When you feel yourself pining for that glorious wandering around Target, get grounded in your values. If you value alone time to recharge, then maybe take a walk outside. You may value travel, so take (or start to plan) a solo trip. Maybe you value friendship, so give your bestie a call. And if you value the relationship with your partner, then plan a date night. This goes back to the main idea behind minimalism lifestyle benefits. Minimalism is not just about living with less, it is about finding purpose and meaning through your values to create a more fulfilled life. 

Sources

Joshua N. Hook, Adam S. Hodge, Hansong Zhang, Daryl R. Van Tongeren & Don E. Davis (2023) Minimalism, voluntary simplicity, and well-being: A systematic review of the empirical literature, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 18:1, 130-141, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1991450

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