Minimalism is adopted by most long term backpackers, who are forced to carry everything that they own around the world with them. Even among this group, a more extreme form of minimalism is increasing in popularity as people become aware of the benefits of one bag travel. Less time wasted checking in and picking up luggage along with increased mobility means that ultra minimalism is the easiest and most stress-free form of travel. Furthermore, the trend is popular even with people who live in just one place, with many people drawn to a life with fewer things.
What is driving this delve into decluttering? Anecdotally, those who have adopted a more intentional lifestyle with regards to the items they purchase and own say that it makes them happier. However, what does the research say? There have been very few studies directly looking at the link between minimalism and wellbeing, but we can infer a link from other research that has been carried out. Minimalism, it seems, boosts wellbeing in four key areas: relationships, experiences, stress, and anxiety.
Minimalists Have More Time for Relationships
There is a wealth of information looking at what it is that makes humans happy. One of the consistent themes across studies is the importance of relationships. More positive and fulfilling connections with other humans is strongly correlated with being happier more generally, while low quality or non-existent relationships appear to lead to unhappiness.
One study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, found that interpersonal relationships are a predictor of life satisfaction. Those who adopt a minimalist way of life are able to dedicate more time towards fostering these incredibly important relationships. When there are fewer items for you to direct your time and energy towards, you will need to find other outlets for your attention. In a world where everyone is busy and distracted, minimalism allows for a deeper connection to other human beings.
Take smartphones for instance. Psychology research suggests that our attachment to them means that we pay less attention to people we are close to. Scrolling through your social media feeds can take priority over cuddling a loved one or engaging in meaningful conversation with a friend. Consider being more intentional with your smartphone usage. Turn it off for a few hours a day and redirect your focus towards forming real human connections and improving relationships.
Minimalists Direct More Resources Towards Experiences
Physical items require physical energy. From choosing which shop to browse to selecting which item to buy; from spending time using the chosen product to cleaning and fixing it, your limited time, money, and resources are being used up. Many minimalists have stopped shopping for anything but food almost entirely, able to get by with the few possessions they own for many years. These resources can then be used for other purposes, including experiences.
A study from San Francisco State University found a clear correlation between experiences and happiness. It showed that the happiness of buying a new object like a car or a laptop fades over time while spending money on experience provides joy long after the experience has ended. The act of remembering a profound experience, such as climbing a mountain or learning to ski, is enjoyable in itself.
Beyond this, though, there is the increased life satisfaction of having gone through the experience. You will have picked up new skills and gained an increased level of wisdom, that cannot be achieved by purchasing a material item. So stop buying clothes, gadgets, or decorative items and instead spend your money on doing activities that you have always wanted to do. Minimalists may not have many physical items, but they live with an abundance of meaningful experiences.
Minimalists Lower Their Own Levels of Stress
Every item you own is taking up brainpower and effort. Exerting too much effort on anything is a cause of stress. On top of your work commitments, relationship problems, and civic duties, why cause yourself more stress by giving yourself unnecessary items to clean and maintain? There are two main problems caused by owning too much stuff: decision fatigue and information overload. Both of these cause increased stress levels.
According to the Ph.D. psychologist, Lucy Jo Palladino, information overload is when the brain is taking in more information than it can process. Every time you observe an object, your brain has to work to figure out what the item is and all the details about it. This is why empty scenes like a desert or ocean can be calming and stress relieving; your brain is given a break from the chaos of urban environments. Dr. Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University in Chicago found that clutter directly increases cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone that causes stress.
Decision fatigue, which has also been researched scientifically, is when you become tired from making too many decisions. If you are constantly deciding which clothes to wear or which app to use to contact your coworker, then your stress levels will already be too high before you even get a chance to contemplate a huge career prospect. By adopting minimalism, you cut down on the choices that need to be made each day. This means that you have more energy for the most important considerations and will be more likely to make a wise decision that alleviates stress rather than adding to it.
Minimalists are Less Anxious
Another surprising byproduct of clutter is that it causes anxiety. By being surrounded by material objects, the brain loses its capacity for creative thinking and is unable to focus. It even becomes more difficult to tolerate pain if your brain is focused on clutter, while a minimalistic environment reduces pain perception.
Anxiety is a state of perpetual worry. If your to-do list doesn’t end, your email inbox is never emptied, and your clothes are never properly put away, then you will live with the constant niggling feeling in the back of your brain that there is something wrong that needs fixing. The worst and most anxiety-inducing part is that you don’t even know exactly what needs doing since there are too many things to remember at one time. Once everything is organized and in order, you are able to relax and enter a flow state. This is a state of mind in which you are not worried about anything other than the task at hand, allowing you to enter a productive and creative flow.
There is so much research into happiness, revealing what it is that we need to live a satisfying and meaningful life. Strengthening relationships, embracing new experiences, maintaining healthy stress levels, and freeing oneself from anxiety, are all huge steps towards increased wellbeing. Minimalism is a tool to achieve these four things. Packing light is more than just a method of avoiding excess baggage fees. It is a step towards a deeper feeling of happiness.