Minimalism: Upper-class luxury or liberating lifestyle?

In a world of stuff, there's a movement that sells the idea of space as a path to happiness. But some critics see this lifestyle trend as self-centered, and say it includes its own kind of consumerism that only people with money can afford.

Critics say the lifestyle trend has resulted in a form of consumerism

According to Colin Wright, minimalist philosophy is not "about buying the most expensive Scandinavian-designed whatever and taking photos with stark white walls." (jeanvdmeulen/pixabay)
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Living a minimalist life may feel liberating to some, but freelance journalist Kyle Chayka finds the pressure to conform to the lifestyle trend oppressive — both literally and visually. 

Chayka argues in a 2016 New York Times article that minimalism is conflated with self-optimization. 

"It is a way of controlling the environment around you … it's a way of almost purifying your surroundings and not letting out anything else," Chayka told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

"So you feel like you have this blank empty space where the only thing that exists is yourself and that to me … seems a little arrogant."

Minimalism is about this blank empty space where the only thing that exists is yourself, says Kyle Chayka, author of the forthcoming book, The Longing for Less. (Jess Bidgood)

From tiny houses to micro-apartments to high-end condo-sized couches, living your best minimalist life has become a form of consumerism in its own way — available only to those who can afford buying expensive modern furniture, according to Chayka.

"It's a middle and upper class thing," he said. "The design aesthetic is now connected with an idea of luxury."

Chayka does see merit in some aspects of living a minimalist life. 

"I think choosing what you want in your life and choosing what you want out of it is certainly a good thing." 

What got on Chayka's nerves were bloggers bragging about who owns the least. He said that this competition projects the minimalist lifestyle "as a solution to everyone's problems"  — as if having less stuff will make you happier.

Less stuff, will travel

Minimalist Colin Wright stopped counting how many things he owns—although at one point, it was as few as 52 items. Wright doesn't buy the argument that you have to have money to live with less.

"I've seen bloggers, and spoken to people directly, actually, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who have far less on average than the average middle-class or upper economic class American," Wright told Tremonti. 

Wright traded a well-paying job in 2009 to travel the world in Rambler Imperial RV, a 33-ft. vintage motor home. After living his life with an empty passport, Wright decided to take his first trip abroad on his 24th birthday. The vacation fuelled his focus on living for experience.

Minimalist Colin Wright believes living with less stuff allows him to focus on what is really important in his life. (Kurt Langer)

In his mind, minimalism is just a matter of focusing time, resources and energy on the appropriate things to create the life you want.

That's the philosophy at the core of minimalism, according to Wright, not "the Instagram-able version, where it's all about buying the most expensive Scandinavian-designed whatever and taking photos with stark white walls."

But Wright pointed out there is an inherent privilege and bias in social media communities that gives rise to the movement.

"I, and a lot of other people in this space, we are straight white men who speak English, who live in the United States, who have an American passport."

A start to 'feeling the feels'

Cait Flanders agrees that Instagram sells an esthetic and lifestyle that doesn't reflect the minimalism ideal that she lives by.

"'It's something I've been really conscious of this whole time, to not share pictures of my home or things like that, because I don't want anyone to think that they need to aspire to what I have," she told Tremonti.

Cait Flanders, enjoying her life with less stuff, now that she's concentrating on travel and outdoors experiences instead of consumerism. (Submitted by Cait Flanders)

Flanders is the author of The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in A Store — a title that explains a recent project.

In her 20s, Flanders accumulated $30,000 in consumer debt. She managed to pay it off, but years later realized she hadn't addressed underlying issues about over-consumption, from shopping to alcohol. Now, living with less, she says she's able to face this. 

"Wanting more usually means that there's a lack, or a feeling of lack. Something I've learned personally is how to deal with those feelings as they come up," she told Tremonti.

"I quit drinking when I was 27. And so that I didn't have that to reach to anymore. I think spending sort of just became the next thing that I was doing. So when I couldn't do any of those things, I just had to start feeling the feelings," Flanders explained. 

After giving away about 80 per cent of her stuff when she vowed not buy anything for two years in 2014-2015, Flanders now lives in a home with only books and the basics. She reads a lot more now and says decluttering is about seeing your things in a different way.

"I had to let go of the value I had placed on the object when I had first purchased it. I think that that's something we do when were buying for the wrong reason," Flanders told Tremonti.

"Those were the toughest things to get rid of because I didn't see it at first."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


Produced by The Current's Karin Marley.

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