Do you live simply, or minimally? Can you do both? Are they even the same? And is simple living the real answer to finding balance? Emma Johnson uncovers the difference between being minimal and living simply…
Minimalism has often been understood as a purely aesthetic construct – typified by high-end design, empty spaces, clean lines, cutting edge modernity, neutral palettes and so on. Its influence has found its way into art, design, architecture, interiors, fashion and even food and philosophy. Being ‘a minimalist’ has become a kind of identity, a way of living that reflects this pared-back, thoughtful curation of one’s life.
In a world where consumerism is all-consuming, where the clutter threatens to overwhelm, minimalism acts as an antidote to this need for ‘stuff’. In some ways, it is a form of therapy: carefully, over time, honing our sense of self till we truly understand who we are, and what we truly need.
And yet minimalism itself comes from a desire for a simpler way of life. Simplicity is about an uncomplicated, uncompounded way of living. It too asks us to reduce our clutter, to embrace the joy of having just what we need, to make the most of what we have; but it also asks us to be conscious in our consumerism, to be aware of our footprint on the planet and on those around us.
And it goes further than minimalism – because it speaks to a simpler time. It steps back from modernity and instead embraces nature, self-sufficiency, homesteading, living off-grid and focusing on family. So, while minimalism requires us to need less, to
be more frugal in our consumerism, to edit our possessions down to just what we truly need, simplicity does all this, but it also asks us to live in a more holistic, gentle, conscious way too.
The problem with minimalism is when it becomes an absolute, non-negotiable way of self-editing.
Minimalism has always been about having a freedom from possessions, and not accumulating stuff that doesn’t make you happy. Minimalists are finely-tuned to need, reducing what they own to the bare minimum – hence the name. The goal is to have as few possessions as possible. And this can be severely limiting. ‘Minimalism is almost solely driven by having a lack of things. With minimalism, I think of trying to own as little as possible. The focus is on the necessities, with the goal of not having too much beyond that,’ says author of The Simplicity Habit, Julianna Poplin. ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with that goal at all. It just isn’t my goal.’
The thing about things
The problem is that minimalism offers no space for want, desire or nostalgia. While there isn’t an exact number of items that defines minimalism, for many of us it’s just too limiting to bring joy. Serial tidier Marie Kondo has made the phrase ‘spark joy’ an international moniker for how to declutter without losing yourself, and it’s this idea that goes against minimalism. ‘I have too much stuff to qualify as a minimalist,’ says Poplin. ‘My daughter has a rock collection. And my other daughter has a stuffed animal collection. My husband has a book, paper and tool collection. We have an impressive supply of teas.’
Poplin says that she focuses on simplicity, not minimalism, because it feels more attainable, less intimidating. ‘Work on having less and being more mindful? Yes, I can do that. Work to try to narrow down to just the necessities? That feels daunting and a little bit sad. Call me materialistic if you must. I do like some things. I find joy in my toss pillows, candles, teas, excess paper products and overstock of food. And I’m okay with that.’ In letting in that part of herself that finds joy in the little things, Poplin finds a perfect balance between clutter and minimalism.
Modernity v simplicity
Aside from necessity and need, there is also little space in minimalism for the ebb and flow of our lives. The beauty of simple living is in how conscious we are in what we use and what we throw away. Minimalism becomes quite problematic here because it reduces what we have so radically that often we end up having to re-buy items.
While the intent is to get rid of many of the things that clutter up our homes, this does seem counter-intuitive when we think about simplistic qualities of reducing our carbon footprint, our consumerism and what we throw away. In the pursuit of perfect minimalism, it is possible to lose sight of what drew us to this way of living in the first place.
In addition, minimalism often makes use of the latest technology. Curating music into one high-tech, space-saving device; or spending large sums of money on multi-purpose furniture in a cutting-edge material. Simplicity would focus more on making what you have work, but paring it back so it doesn’t overwhelm. Equally, there is usually less focus on technology and more on giving up the devices that keep you so connected to the world.
Space & time
When we retreat from the world, we also instinctively reconnect with nature and, in so doing, learn to take up less physical space. Vast white spaces, a key feature of minimalism, are eschewed in favour of small ancient cottages, cosy cabins, rustic spaces, wood, warmth. Tiny homes, nomadic camper vans and low impact living all offer a thoughtful alternative to the need for vast swathes of empty space which often typifies minimalism.
Space itself is a key tenet of simplicity, but the focus is more on metaphorical space than physical space. In simple living, we still do the work to find out what is important to us – things, tasks, people – and then remove everything else. This created space usually also gives us more time to devote to the things we love, allowing us to live simply in our surroundings, resources. Living simply means making fewer daily decisions, spending less time cleaning, tidying, putting away. To have a clearer mind because you have a clearer life.
‘Minimalists are just like you, with less stuff,’ says author Courtney Carver. ‘When we remove the label and focus on the action, like living with less, the idea becomes accessible and intriguing instead of scary and intimidating. And really, what you call it isn’t nearly as important as what you do with it.’
And she is right. Perhaps the biggest problem with minimalism is its label. Driven by being overwhelmed and the endless duty to look after and organise everything we own, we often find our way first to minimalism, before realising how powerful, and freeing, simplicity, in all its various guises, can be.
‘Call it what you want,’ adds Carver. ‘Simplicity, minimalism, life-edited – and then put it into action. Sure, you’ll have less. Less stuff. And then you’ll have more. More love. More freedom. More happiness. More purpose.’