This week I watched a documentary by two viral minimalists, Ryan and Josh, who open up about their journey toward living minimally. I really appreciated this documentary, because they were not just preaching minimalism, and showing you how to do it for yourself, nor were they shaming people who have a lot of stuff. They shared very intimate and vulnerable parts of their lives and discussed how living “The American Dream” is an inherently flawed concept, fueled by an intensely consumerist society designed to keep us unhappy, as we keep chasing a never ending horizon of aspiration.
I’m going to go into a lot of details about the documentary in this review, so if you want to watch it for yourself first, then do so before reading anymore. This post might actually be more of a summary, mixed with my own takeaway points at the end, rather than a review-style post.
The documentary opens by discussing how we live in the age where there is the opportunity to have so much; where you can anything you want on your doorstep in less than 24 hours. We are also living in the most advertised-to culture in the history of the world. This is mainly a result of the pervasiveness of the internet and smartphones. The bulk of advertising used to be on the radio and television, but now, it is on the internet. Personal smartphones are able to track your location, know what billboards you pass, who you spend time with, and what stores you frequent, allowing advertisers to tailor the ads you see on your phone, to show you exactly what you want, before you even know what it is that you want. They map you and all your interests and hobbies out, to know exactly what product to target you with, all with end goal of getting you to buy more stuff.1
This is the foundation of capitalism; corporations always need to keep growing, turning profits and finding new ways to get people to keep buying their products. One of the main ways of doing this, and I have discussed this previously in my #anticonsumerist posts, is deficit advertising. This is the type of advertising designed to make the advertisee think they are inadequate in some way, if they don’t have that particular product. With this constant bombardment of messages of inadequacy, it’s no wonder the cycle of emotional and impulse shopping is so pervasive. We are told we will be happy if we buy this item, and we are happy the moment you get it, but it never lasts long. Slowly, the shame and guilt creep in for spending money on something you know you didn’t really need, and didn’t make you as fulfilled as the ad falsely promised. Then come the bills and the ever-increasing debt, further increasing that guilt and shame, also known as buyer’s remorse. and with that continues the cycle, going out to buy that “one last item” that will really make you finally truly happy, once and for all. But if we keep attaching happiness to money, success, and items, then we will never truly be happy. This is the birthing place of minimalism.
In consumer-capitalist culture, we are taught that if we make a certain benchmark salary, then we will have everything we want and be happy. All too often we find that we get there, and realize that we’re definitely not happy. Americans work more hours than any other industrialized country, commute longer hours to get to and from these jobs, and spend more time alone in front of screens. In addition to this, they also don’t take long vacations, with 50% of the working population taking less than two weeks of vacation per year. Chasing The American Dream, costs so much more than money. Because we have lost other ways of being “enough” and fulfilled, like being part of a strong community, having a purpose in your life that is greater than yourself, having an identity. Deficit advertising is telling us that we can achieve these things by buying their stuff, turning community, purpose and identity into endless working and buying stuff. Attaching social rewards to buying items. From here, people become so focused on success, achievement, and the accumulation of stuff, attaching money to happiness, and spending even more money in the pursuit of happiness, of The American Dream.
The American Dream is not our dream. it was a dream pushed on us, by greedy, money-hungry capitalists, it is something we are told we should all want. We are told that if we can buy more things and have more money, then we’ll be happy, so we work longer hours, to make more money, chasing a false hope, an endless horizon of aspiration.
As we get more money, we get more space, and fill it with more things; then find we need need more space to keep all of our stuff. But do we ever stop to question how much of this stuff is actually adding value to our lives?
The average American household contains more than 300 00 items. So how do you know when you own too much stuff? It’s not when you run out place to put it all, but rather, it’s when you’ve run out of purposeful things to do with them. If you are getting more of the wrong things, it becomes less, like binging on all the wrong things, while dying of hunger for the things that really matter.
In the middle of the documentary, Josh told the story of how when his mother died, he was left to deal with 60 years worth of accumulated stuff in her Florida home. Upon searching through it, he discovered four boxes filled with his old report cards and school test papers. It became clear to him, that his mother was holding onto these papers, “for the memories,” like she was trying to hold a piece of him as well. However, these boxes had clearly been sealed and put away for decades, she had not actually accessed these memories in so long. That’s when Josh realized that our memories are not in our things, they are inside of us. You cannot get value out of the things that are locked away in perpetuity. Of course, having sentimental items can bring value to our lives, but by having fewer sentimental items, that we can access, look at, and use, Josh realized that he was able to enjoy them much more.
Toward the end of the documentary, Josh and Ryan told their own stories of how they finally eliminated unnecessary possessions from their homes, and included testimonials from others who have followed in their footsteps. They now don’t own much, but everything they own adds some kind of value to their lives. Every possessions serves a purpose or brings them joy in some way. With the clutter gone, they explain how they had more space to ask themselves deeper questions, and make room for life’s more important things.
The main takeaways for me, were:
- Companies selling items is not always a bad thing, and it’s not about condemning people for pushing a product, it’s about understanding that what they are pushing is not an avenue to happiness and fulfillment, it is just an item. What they are saying you need to be happy is not always compatible with what you actually need.
- Come up with your own ideas of what makes you happy, not what others tell you will make you happy, especially if those “others” are just companies that want your money, and whose job it is to keep you perpetually unhappy, so that you will keep buying their things. Never look outside to know how to make yourself happy, turn inward.
- With less things in the way, with less focus on the need to always have more stuff, you’ll be left with more time to add value to other people’s lives. To focus on building community, not consumerism; on giving, not taking or having; on people, not possessions.
- Living simply/minimally, is not easy. You are always going to be pulled back into consumerist culture, and have to constantly refocus yourself.
- Imagine a life with more: time, meaningful relationships, contribution, growth, contentment. To get there, you might have to get rid of some stuff in the way.
1 There is another documentary, The Social Dilemma, that goes into depth about this that I also recommend watching!