Ever since Marie Kondo took the cluttered world by storm, simply having stuff has seemed like something of a faux pas. There are countless how-to guides on the need to streamline closets and pare down our book collections to only those that bring us “joy,” whatever that means. I recently read an article that proclaimed the best minimalist workspace was one that didn’t even include a desk, paper or computer — ideally you’d just sit on the ground and think. As I looked around my desk, topped with books, journals, pens and pictures of my family and friends, I couldn’t help but feel slightly ashamed about all of my possessions. Did I really need the 10-pack of Sharpies? Were the two new novels I bought for my upcoming trip bringing me joy?
But the Marie Kondo mindset, as I’ve come to think of it, isn’t just reserved for closets and bookshelves. You can see it in the ubiquity of minimalist aesthetics in clothing, Scandinavian design and tiny homes, in the popularity of alternative decluttering techniques and the sterile sameness of coffee shops and Silicon Valley startups.
And I’m calling BS.
It’s true that clutter can be distracting, and many of us have much more than we need. But the constant hammering of the innate goodness of less stuff now seems more like virtue signalling than a path to happiness.
There’s a level of classism involved. Who exactly can afford Everlane’s $US88 ($114) silk shirts, or to toss perfectly good clothing and books and holiday decorations the second they they’re no longer needed? “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and it’s telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class,” wrote Stephanie Land in the New York Times back in 2016. “For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.”
A similar mindset runs deep in the personal finance community. People who preach FI/RE demonize buying anything more than absolutely necessary (if you ever want to feel bad about yourself and your spending habits, read through some of the comments on budgeting on personal finance blogs and Reddit threads). Any list of ways to save money — including ones I’ve written in the past — will include things like “never eat out” and “cut your own hair.” Cut out absolutely everything but the bare necessities, and you’ll have saved enough to retire early in no time.
All of our problems, it seems, could be solved by simply consuming less, and tossing more.
Naturally, that’s not true, and that’s not how most people live — nor should it be. I keep piles of books I don’t “need” because of the memories they hold, the times in my life they remind me of. But other things I have simply out of convenience, like extra towels (do I really more than two?) and sheets, half a dozen purses and way too many coffee mugs for one person. And of course, my desk, decorated with photos and littered with paper. I could get rid of all of that, but what, exactly, would that accomplish?
By all means, donate things you don’t need and downsize if you find that you’re buying things simply to have more things. But let’s stop pretending that minimising our lives and possessions is the be-all-end-all of happiness and moral superiority. It’s OK if you have boxes of Christmas decorations, a stack of books you haven’t read yet and knick-knacks from your last vacation spread across your mantle. What are you gaining sitting on the ground when you already have a perfectly good desk?