As part of Diane's remote author interview series, she had the chance to speak with Ann Patchett in January over video Zoom as a live audience watched. Here's that conversation.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
A battle is being waged across the nation this summer – in closets, garages, attics, even drawers. It’s a struggle against…stuff. For some, the goal is to declutter, for others it’s much more – a desire to pare down on material objects and prioritize experiences instead. In a messy and complex world, many of us are seeking simplicity, but try as we may, getting it isn’t simple. Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has sold nearly 6 million copies, while the duo known as “The Minimalists” attract 4 million visitors annually to their website and have just released a new film that tries to get us to focus on “the important things.” The appeal of minimalism…and why it’s so difficult to achieve.
- Joshua Fields Millburn Bestselling author, writing instructor, and international speaker; best known as one half of The Minimalists with Ryan Nicodemus; their new film is called "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things"
- Ryan Nicodemus Bestselling author, entrepreneur, and co-founder of The Minimalists with Joshua Fields Millburn; their new film is called "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things"
- Juliet Schor Author of "The Overworked American" and "The Overspent American," is a professor of sociology at Boston College.
- Elizabeth Dunn Professor of psychology, University of British Columbia; co-author of "Happy Money: The Science Of Happier Spending"
Official Trailer: "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things"
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. American homes today are, on average, three times the size that they were in the 1950s and more space has enabled us to accumulate more stuff and new technology has meant new toys. Now, a growing number of advocates say it's time to simplify. The lure of the minimalist lifestyle and what it could mean for our health and happiness.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining us now from KUFM in Missoula, Montana, the duo who call themselves "The Minimalists," Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn. From her office at Boston College, sociologist Juliet Schor, and from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, psychologist Elizabeth Dunn. Welcome to all of you.
MS. ELIZABETH DUNNThank you.
MR. RYAN NICODEMUSThanks for having us.
MS. JULIET SCHORThank you.
LAKSHMANANAnd you, listeners, we want to hear from you as well. We will be taking your comments and your questions throughout the hour. You can call us on 1-800-433-8550 (sic) . You can send us an email to email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet to @drshow. Tell us whether you are striving for minimalism. Have you been downsizing and throwing out stuff or is it just impossible for you to part with that old college T-shirt? All right. Ryan and Joshua, I want to start with you guys.
LAKSHMANANYou call yourselves the minimalists. And aside from your books, you're out now with a new documentary on minimalism, subtitled "The Important Things." Explain to us what minimalism means to you.
MR. JOSHUA FIELDS MILLBURNReally, for us, minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life's most important things, which, you know, really aren't things at all, not material things at least.
NICODEMUSNo, I was gonna say for me, minimalism is -- it's living deliberately and it's making sure that the things that I bring into my life, they are serving a purpose or they are bringing me joy. But it helps me really to get all of the superfluous things out of my life.
LAKSHMANANWell, the way that you both came to this vision is interesting. You were both successful in your 20s. You made a lot of money and then you walked away from it all. Joshua, tell us what happened to you.
MILLBURNYeah, we both grew up really poor. Ryan in a trailer park, me on government assistance and sort of dysfunctional households, before that term dysfunctional was en vogue, and we were discontented by the lack of money. And so throughout our 20s, we decided to work really hard, 60, 70, 80 hours a week climbing the corporate ladder and by my late 20s, I was living the American dream. I had the six-figure salary, the big house with more toilets than people and all the stuff to fill every corner of my consumer-driven lifestyle.
MILLBURNAnd I was really living the American dream, but then my mom died and my marriage ended both in the same month. And these two events forced me to look around and start question what had become my life's focus. And when I realized I was so focused on so-called success and achievement and especially on the accumulation of stuff and, yeah, I was living the American dream, but it wasn't my dream. And it sort of took getting everything I ever wanted to realize that everything I ever wanted wasn't actually what I wanted at all.
LAKSHMANANYou write about how you were only 28 years old, had not children, but you owned 70 Brooks Brothers shirts and, you know, had everything you could ask for financially, but not in your heart. Ryan, I'm curious, what made you want to follow Joshua's path?
NICODEMUSWell, you know, it's really funny. If you were to tell my 18-year-old self what my 28-year-old self was going to have, I would have been the most excited 18-year-old. Like, oh, my god, I'm gonna have a 2,000 square foot condo with three bedrooms and two bathrooms and two living rooms? Wow, that's gonna be awesome. And I have no idea why I thought I would ever need two living rooms. But, you know, there I was at 28 having all those things that I grew up without and I really relied on those things to being me happiness, to bring me contentment.
NICODEMUSBut what I found was the exact opposite. Instead of happiness, I was depressed. Instead of content, I was discontented. And not only that, but I was forsaking some of the most important aspects of my life. I was not focused on my health or my close relationship or focusing on things that I was passionate about. And I definitely wasn't -- I found myself in spot where I was stagnant. I wasn't growing and I certainly contributing. And I was, you know, I was ignoring those things because I was working 60, 70, sometimes 80 hours a week to maintain that lifestyle.
NICODEMUSAnd I just found myself out of control. I found myself basically living on impulse every single day. And I noticed something different about Josh. It was several months after his mother has passed away and his marriage ended. He was happy. And I was really confused because, you know, I thought to myself, you know, six, seven months from that month, he should've have been as happy as he was, especially because we were both working at the same corporation. We were both miserable. And I sat Josh aside -- I took him out to lunch and I'm like, hey, man, what's going on with you?
NICODEMUSWhy are you so happy? What drugs have they put you on? You know, I thought he was on Prozac or something. And he's like, you know, I'm not on any drugs. He goes, I've been focusing on the essentials of my life. And I have been paring down and I have been really trying to be deliberate with my time, with my money, with everything. And he introduced me to this concept called minimalism. And then, he introduced me to an entire community of people who called themselves minimalists. He introduced me to, you know, anywhere from -- there's a guy named Colin Wright who is a single guy who travels the world.
NICODEMUSHe carries everything he owns on his backpack. Then, there's this other guy named Leo Babauta, he's a husband and father of six and then there are people in between that spectrum. And not, you know, that I looked at any of these people's lives and thought, oh, I want to live just like Colin or I want to live just like Leo, but what I noticed -- I noticed two things about this group of people. You know, first, they were all living deliberate, meaningful lives. They seemed much richer than any of the so-called rich guys I worked with in the corporate world.
NICODEMUSAnd second, they attributed their meaningful lives to this thing called minimalism. So I thought, yeah, this is something that I am willing to try out. And, you know, being the typical must-have-it-now American attitude, I'm looking at Josh and I'm like, hey, it's really cool that you've been able to pare down over the last several months, but how can I, like, be a minimalist right away? So for me, my minimalist journey started with a packing party. And what we did is we decided to pack up all my belongings as if I were moving and then I would unpack only the items I needed over the next three weeks.
NICODEMUSSo, literally, Josh came over and helped me pack up my clothes, my kitchenware, my towels, my TVs, my electronics, my framed photographs and paintings, even my furniture. We covered up my furniture. Everything. So I spent the next three weeks unpacking what I needed. You know, my toothbrush, some toiletries, some clothes for work, so forth and so on. And at the end of the three weeks, I had 80 percent of my stuff still sitting in those boxes. And you know, I had the option there. I could have most certainly unpacked everything and moved back into my place, but instead, I felt this sense of relief of being able to figure out what was actually adding value to my life, what was actually bringing me happiness.
NICODEMUSAnd it wasn't the majority of the things that I owned. So I donated and I sold all of it and that's really where the minimalists.com started. It was with that packing party story.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, you remind me that I moved into my house a number of years ago and so many boxes are still in my attic that have never been unpacked and I have somehow managed to live without all that stuff these years and yet, the idea, where my husband has said, oh, let's just go upstairs and throw out all those boxes, we don't need them, I'm like, no, because I don't know what might be in there that I might want. So Joshua, you know, from a practical point of view, how, you know, if you want to tell listeners to do this, what's the sort of way starting small.
LAKSHMANANIf we're not going to do this thing with the packing party, which sounds, you know, good for a single man, but maybe not so practical for everybody else, what is a practical way to pare down your items without feeling that you're sort of ripping a part of yourself and your history away.
MILLBURNIsn't that interesting how we get so attached to the boxes that are in the attic or in my case, it was the basement. I had a very organized life, but really, I was a well-organized hoarder. I mean, everything looked great because I had an ordinal system of boxes and bins and everything from The Container Store to make it look organized, but truthfully, most of those things weren't adding any value to my life. It was a security blanket, but the security blanket, of course, doesn't actually bring us any security.
MILLBURNAnd so my journey started with -- when my mother passed away, I had to -- she had moved down to Florida a year earlier from Dayton, Ohio, where we lived, and when she passed, she -- I had to go down and deal with her stuff, basically. So I flew from Dayton, Ohio, to St. Pete Beach, Florida. And when I arrived, I found about three apartments worth of stuff crammed into mom's tiny one bedroom apartment. Now, it's not like she was a hoarder, either, right? I mean, I didn't find any dead cats in her freezer or anything.
MILLBURNIt wasn't like she could fit onto that TV show. She just owned a lot of stuff. She had 65 years worth of accumulations. I’m sure a lot of your listeners will know this, but the average American household has 300,000 items in it. And I think most of us aren't hoarders. We just hold onto a lot of stuff. We hold onto all of those memories. Like you, you have the memories that are in your attic. And so as I was looking around at all of mom's stuff, I realized I couldn't co-mingle her stuff with my stuff. I already had a big house and a full basement full of stuff.
MILLBURNAnd so I did what any good son would do. I called and I rented a U-Haul. In fact, I asked for the largest U-Haul they had. I had to wait an extra day until the 26-foot truck was available and then I invited some of mom's friends over to help me deal with her stuff and she just had a lot of things. And I didn't really know what to do with any of it so I rented a storage locker because I couldn't fit it into my large suburban house. And so a storage locker would let me hold onto everything, just in case I needed it someday, in some nonexistent hypothetical future.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, hold onto that thought for a second because we have to take a short break. But I look forward to hearing from our listeners, your questions and your comments when we come back and we'll hear more from our guests. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, a Boston Globe columnist, sitting in for Diane Rehm. If you're just joining us, we are talking this hour about the drive for a simple lifestyle, which has captured the imagination in the United States and around the world. Joining us are Ryan Nicodemus, bestselling author, entrepreneur, co-founder of The Minimalists, and his new film is called "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things." And his partner in this enterprise, Joshua Fields Millburn, who is a co-founder of The Minimalists as well.
LAKSHMANANAnd joining us by phone, Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "The Overworked American" and "The Overspent American." And Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of "Happy Money: The Science Of Happier Spending."
LAKSHMANANSo, Juliet, I want to bring you into this conversation. Ryan and Joshua have told us about how much happier they felt downsizing. They've written about how when they had fewer material possessions, they had a sense of calm and less clutter and less to clean. But I want to ask you, you know, they sound like kind of extreme examples. But their evangelism for the minimalist lifestyle has struck a chord with many people. We've seen the bestselling decluttering books by Marie Kondo, the tiny house movement. Why are people wanting to go small when America has always been about going big?
SCHORWell part of it is timing. If you look at the period before the financial crash, America went on a kind of consumer binge. I've studied this in terms of the actual weight of the things that people were buying and the number of units, something that typically social scientists don't look at. We normally would look at the prices to look at consumer spending. But one of the things I found is that, in sort of the 10 years before the crash, there was about a 60 percent increase in the weight of the things that people purchased. And in certain categories, you had far more than that -- 150 percent increase in things like furniture, enormous increases in consumer electronics, apparel purchases just absolutely skyrocketed.
SCHORSo there was that sort of really rapid accumulation did lead a lot of people to sort of feel that stuff overload. They were mostly people who had the money to purchase these things. But that sort of behavior moved sort of far enough down into the middle class because of very cheap prices for a lot of these things, kind of what I call the IKEA effect, as well as easy credit in that period. So there was a big sort of hangover after the crash. And to some extent, that's still going I think, as we, you know, look at the popularity of these ideas.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's striking to me because you, you know, you point out that by the mid-1990s, Americans could almost buy a cheap version of anything they wanted. You know, so much cheap apparel made in China, elsewhere in Asia. And it's like clothing had become almost disposable. You talk about how the Great Recession, people fell hard, got burned, and then maybe had to, on some level, return to a previous lifestyle. But we've still got Target, Wal-Mart and other places to buy cheap stuff. So I wonder, you've looked at other simple living movements over the years. Is this movement somehow different?
SCHORI don't think it's different in some ways. So what's common to it is that it has -- it's got these sort of dual characteristics. One is the sort focus on the stuff. And I saw that in the mid-90s studying downshifters and voluntary simplifiers and, you know, it's gone -- simple livers, it's gone by a number of names. But the flip side of that is -- and I think sometimes we focus too much on the stuff part of it -- is the lifestyle and particularly the work changes that people go through when they make these sorts of changes. So for most of the people I've studied, the spending less is driven by the fact that they're earning less, which is coming from a job change.
SCHORSo it's, like Josh and Ryan, there's that job burnout dimension of it. And many people are doing that kind of mindless spending because their jobs are much too stressful and demanding. And so the spending is a compensation. So changing jobs is really key to the newfound sense of wellbeing.
SCHORAnd, you know, most of the people who downshift -- now that's a much bigger category than a minimalist or even a simple liver -- but the -- most of the people who downshift reduce their spending because they have to, not because they want to. I think the fraction of people for whom less stuff is better, without any consideration of other changes in their life, is a small fraction.
LAKSHMANANWell, isn't it, in the past you've studied movements where there were these so-called, what you call voluntary simplifiers? And a lot of those people came out of movements, like the environmental movement, everything was about reuse and recycle, or the counter-culture. And it feels to me like now it's not so much a sort of social movement as it is something around happiness and personal well-being, not necessarily a higher purpose. Am I right?
SCHORWell, I think the people who engage in it would say that is a higher purpose. Because it allows them to -- it's not just an individualist thing. There is that part of it. But if you notice, one of the big themes in what these folks talk about is their connections to other people or doing what really matters to them. I mean, Josh and Ryan are spreading a message that they really believe in. So they have a very meaningful life. And that's really important to people. It give them -- it gives people a lot of well-being to have a meaningful life. And for most people, meaning involves connection to others.
SCHORBut I do think you're right. There's a strand of this which is more individualist than many of the past movements.
LAKSHMANANHmm. Elizabeth Dunn, you have written about this eternal question, whether money really can buy you happiness. Joshua and Ryan say it was the lack of stuff that, to use Marie Kondo's words, sparked their joy. Is there research to support what they're saying?
DUNNWell, there is some research. So I would liken it to sort of being like the current state of science surrounding organic foods, where there's some reason to believe that this might be beneficial. But the scientific jury is still sort of out. So there is some evidence that people who identify as voluntary simplifiers are happier. But, interestingly, as Juliet Schor sort of alluded to, it might not be about the stuff. It might not be so much that, you know, dumping everything out of our lives, getting -- clearing out of attics is truly providing us more happiness, but rather that it's the other things that tend to go along with those choices.
DUNNSo people who are voluntary simplifiers may be more likely to value personal relationships and growth over things like popularity. And it may be those sort of intrinsic values that are leading them to be happier, rather than, you know, it truly being about clearing out those boxes.
LAKSHMANANWell, Elizabeth, part of your research shows that material objects do offer us some kind of happiness. How so?
DUNNWell, so I've had sort of an inflectional journey with this issue, because originally in our book, we wrote about how people should buy experiences rather than material things. And that was based on quite a bit of research showing that people feel happier in the long term about buying experiences as compared to material things. But then a graduate student in our program actually came to me and said, you know, I think there's something wrong with your argument here. And in fact, maybe we're missing those sort of small moments of pleasure that come from sinking into that comfortable couch or, you know, putting on that crisp Brooks Brothers shirt that looks great on you. And so we realized that some of...
LAKSHMANANYou just don't need 70 of them maybe.
DUNNYeah. You probably don't, right. So there's -- but maybe having a few of them, right, might actually be beneficial. And so what we might be missing out on is -- or what some of the previous research seems to have perhaps missed is those little bits of sort of momentary pleasure that our material things can give us. So because of this research, I'm not a little resistant to the argument that, you know, it's really our material things that are bringing us down. And instead, I think, you know, it may be about the values that are driving us to purchase...
DUNN...70 Brooks Brothers shirts that are really the problem.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Ryan, let me push you a little bit on this. Is there some room in your philosophy for really, let's use the word, pleasure that one can get from material things? And, you know, again, I want to go back to this question of, there are a lot of objects that we all keep that have sentimental memories attached to them. I mean, I hold on to some pieces of art or old clothing, even if they're not hanging on my wall, even if I'm not actually wearing them, because they remind me of experiences. They remind me of places I've traveled to and happy times. Should we be culling out things we don't use that may just sit around our house and collect dust? Because what about the fact that they spark joy in us when we see them?
NICODEMUSYeah, certainly things can bring us joy. I mean, there's no doubt about that. I mean, talk to a homeless guy in the street. I mean, give him a roof over his head and 10,000 bucks a year, that's going to increase his happiness quite a bit. I think where, you know, people get stuck is, you know, you brought up sentimental items. I think that might be something where I know I've had problems with when I was going through the packing party and I was at the end of it and I was getting rid of everything, I came across this shoebox with, like, all my high school memorabilia in it...
NICODEMUSLetters from my mother that she had wrote -- written me that really meant a lot to me, and pictures of me and my prom date and, you know, the shot glass that they gave us for our gift at prom, which is like the worst gift to give a high schooler.
MILLBURNWhy would you give a high-schooler a shot glass?
NICODEMUSBut I was sitting there with all that. And I'm like, okay, Ryan, you're a minimalist now. You have to get rid of this. And I went to go toss it in the trash and I couldn't do it. And I was like, all right, I got to do -- I've got to compromise somehow. Like, I need to at least get, you know, stick my toe in the water with getting rid of this sentimental stuff. So what I did is I took a letter from my -- that my mom had written me. I read it. And it's funny about reading that letter, when -- so the memory I had of that letter, it meant a lot to me. It was like, man, yeah, my mom really cares about me. And there was like all of these feelings that it evoked when I thought about the letter. When I actually read the letter, it did not evoke the same memory that I had.
NICODEMUSBut regardless, I mean, it still did mean something to me. So I read it. I took a picture of it. I scanned it. And then I threw the letter out. And worst-case scenario, you know, I thought the next day, if I couldn't sleep, I could totally go get that letter out of the trash and put it back in that shoebox. But I didn’t' even, like, think about it until I got home from work the next day. And it kind of hit me that, you know, I don't have to hold on to the letter in order to feel good about those memories. The memories are not inside that letter. The memories are inside of me. And I took a picture of (word?) ...
LAKSHMANANWell, you're young enough now that the memories are still inside of you. A few decades from now, you may need some outside...
LAKSHMANAN...prompting to remember things.
NICODEMUSThat's a great point. So, yes, it meant -- items, things can certainly trigger memories. There's no doubt about that. And that's why I scanned some of that stuff. An I took pictures of a couple items. But then I tossed it. So I still do have access, you know, to look at those objects. But holding those objects, clinging to those objects, it weighed me down -- the weight that it weighed me down with was far less valuable than the weight lifted when I was able to start to let go of those things.
NICODEMUSAnd Josh had it even harder than I with his mother's stuff. When he, you know, he was getting ready to pack everything into a storage locker and just hold on, you know, hold on to it, just in case, one day.
MILLBURNYeah. Yeah. I found that...
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, hold that thought for one second. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join our conversation, you can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find us on Facebook or send us a tweet to @drshow. Joshua, you wanted to make a comment.
MILLBURNYeah. Just those three dangerous words, just in case. We hold on to all of these things just in case we need them some day in some non-existent, hypothetical future. And I agree with Elizabeth and obviously with Juliet. But Juliet, in our documentary, even talks about, you know, the problem isn't that we're too materialist. We're -- she says we're not materialist enough. We don't care about the things that we bring into our lives enough now, because everything seems to be so disposable. And I think that some things can certainly bring joy to our lives. Is this going to add value to my life is always the question I ask before I bring something into my life or before I decide to let go of something.
MILLBURNAnd so I don't think consumption is the problem. We all need some stuff. Compulsory consumption is the problem. And we're in a society now where we think it's our duty, our obligation to consume. You know, back in the eighties, we were told that we needed to stimulate the economy to get us back on track. Well, to me, that seems like, you know, fixing the problem with a problem. You know, you don't fix a broken mirror with a hammer, and yet that's what we try to do.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, I want to bring in -- we have absolutely tons of emails and tweets and Facebook comments, you can imagine. This is something that's really striking a chord with people. Stan says to us on Twitter that minimalism and declutterers are doing serious damage. Imagine if the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian took their bad advice? And then a different view from her own personal home is Elizabeth on Twitter, who says, I was finally able to let go of many books that I was afraid I would forget by taking pictures of my bookshelves.
LAKSHMANANIt's something that you referred to, taking picture of a letter. I've heard people advise parents, when we don't want to let go of those beautiful little stick-figure drawings that we put on our refrigerators that clutter up our kitchens, to just take pictures of all those little five-year-old drawings and then just throw out the original. We have an email here from Jody. And Jody asks, I'm wondering if Ryan and Josh have given any thought to their shared upbringing of having very little and if that shaped them and allowed them to do without? What do you guys think?
NICODEMUSYeah. We both grew up fairly discontented with money. And when I turned 18, I thought, well, I don't want to keep living this life of poverty. And so I'm going to try to make money. And once I started making money throughout my 20s, I started to realize that actually it wasn't the lack of money that was necessarily making me discontented growing up. That certainly contributed to it but it wasn't the sole reason. The bigger reason was that I was -- we were making poor decisions with the resources we had. And that was just magnified when I started making really good money.
NICODEMUSBecause when I was in the corporate world making six figures, I was spending even better money. And so I was -- I had massive amounts of debt and anxiety and stress. And that money just allowed me to magnify those bad decisions. There's nothing wrong with earning money. I'm certainly not allergic to money. The key is, it's no longer the primary driver for doing what I do once my basic needs are met. I have shelter, if I have food and I have clothes, then I want to start focusing on, what are my values? And for me, that has little to do with money. It has to do with my health, my relationships, and really being able to contribute beyond myself in a meaningful way.
NICODEMUSI'd like to touch on the point of the Library of Congress and museums. You know, I would say that we need good curators to curate things like that. Me, I am not a curator. I would just hold on to everything.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So don't take over the Library of Congress.
LAKSHMANANWe will take a short break.
NICODEMUSWe certainly need places like that.
LAKSHMANANWe'll take a short break and when we come back, we will have more of your questions and your calls for our panel. Please stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back, I'm Indira Lakshmanan, a columnist for the Boston Globe, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me are the duo who call themselves the minimalists. They have a website, a new documentary and books. They're called Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, and they live out in Missoula, Montana. Also joining me are Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, and Elizabeth Dunn, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
LAKSHMANANSo I'm struck by this comment that we got on Twitter from Stephanie, who says, how diverse is this minimalist movement? It seems to be a lot of white males. Juliet, you have talked about voluntary simplifiers. Are they a privileged class? Is it, you know, the virtue of downsizing, is that really a luxury for rich people who have a lot to downsize?
SCHORI think one of the really interesting things about Ryan and Josh is that they represent a movement away from this -- what was the core of this group, which was the upper-middle class, particularly very highly educated, and, excuse me, historically it's been a little bit more female than male. But what we've seen now it the really wealthy, some of the people like Grant Hill and others, he's in there, in "The Minimalists" film, and then also moving down through the middle class to people like Ryan and Josh, who started their lives with a lot of economic deprivation.
SCHORSo there's actually something new happening here in recent years, and to me that's pretty interesting. I would say overall it does tend to be a more female movement, but disproportionate number of men probably in the spotlight.
LAKSHMANANWell, Joshua, minimalism is of course having its moment in popular culture. There are -- you know, not only has Marie Kondo with her decluttering books, you know, become really a popular culture icon, and she's got all these consultants now out there who are being trained, but we are also seeing backlash, and there has been criticism the, you know, lucky you if you get to downsize. What do you say to that?
MILLBURNYeah, you know, I think that there are people from all walks of life who -- we went out on a tour recently to 100 cities in eight countries, and it's really the reason we made this documentary, was to show all the different flavors of minimalism. So we went out and interviewed minimalist families, minimalist entrepreneurs, minimalist architects and artists and writers but also neuroscientists, neuropsychologists to try to show that there is this diverse group of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, black, white, male, female, rich, poor.
MILLBURNWe have -- we had a CEO and a factory worker show up at the same exact event in Atlanta, and what I'm learning is that all these different people from all these different walks of life are striving to live a meaningful life, and I think it starts with the stuff. I don't think that -- I think the purpose of minimalism, though, has to do with the benefits we experience once we're on the other side of decluttering.
MILLBURNSo removing the clutter is not the end result. It is merely the first step. I mean, I think you feel a weight lifted right away when you get the excess stuff out of the way, but you don't experience lasting contentment by just getting rid of your stuff. I don't think minimalism works like that. I think it's possible to go rent a dumpster, throw all your stuff in it and still be utterly miserable and come home to an empty house and sulk after removing all of your pacifiers, and that's because we need to be able to focus on the more important questions, you know, why have I been so discontented, why have I given so much meaning to this stuff, who is the person I want to become, how am I going to define my own success, what is my template for living a more meaningful life.
LAKSHMANANWe have a couple comments here on Facebook, which I want to share. Bev says 40 years ago, everything I owned fit into my Chevy. I so want to go back to those days. And Prinny says I'm just trying to figure out how we got four can openers. We have Aaron, who says, we bought a triplex and lived in one unit, 800 square feet, with two kids, and that small space does help you say no to all those things that well-meaning people want to give to you.
LAKSHMANANYou know, I think that -- that all, you know, sounds right. But I wonder, Elizabeth, you know, you've looked at people getting happiness from treating themselves, and I wonder are we denying ourselves happiness if we become aesthetics and deprive ourselves of stuff?
DUNNWell, I am a big believer in treats. So I think that there is value in consuming less, but that can ultimately contribute to helping us actually enjoy those things more. So I do really like the ideas that Ryan and Josh have been articulating, that when we have less, we may appreciate what we've got more. But I think, you know, this doesn't necessarily have to involve packing up everything into boxes or, you know, spending all summer in your attic clearing everything out. So, you know, one simple exercise that I would suggest for people if they want to kind of do the minimalist minimalism, the smallest form of minimalism might be to think of something that you started out buying because it made you happy, maybe it's a latte, maybe it's designer shoes, and try just taking a break from buying that thing.
DUNNBut I'm not saying give it up forever. So go back to it at some point and then see if when you go back to it you end up actually appreciating it more.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well let me take a call here from Ian in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ian, go ahead.
IANHi, my question is I recognize that I've got a friend who places a lot of value on material possessions, and my question is how do I best advocate and help them from becoming so emotionally attached to these things and be into lift their heads up and see what experiences they could enjoy in their life?
LAKSHMANANAll right, thank you, Ian, Josh and Ryan, some thoughts?
MILLBURNI think it's really about setting the best example. You know, when I started simplifying my life, I never jumped up and said, hey, Ryan, I've become a minimalist, and in order to be my friend, you need to be a minimalist, too, because you've got a lot of crap because it's not about judging other people. I think really judgments are just a mirror that reflect the insecurities of the person who's doing the judging anyway.
MILLBURNAnd so for me it was about showing that happiness, and when Ryan came to me one day and said why the heck are you so happy, it allowed me to open the door so that I could talk about this thing called minimalism and how I had been paring down my life and simplifying. And I had shown it through my actions. It's not like you come over to my house, and you walk in, and you say oh my God, this guy is a minimalist. No, you walk in and say wow, he's really tidy. And man, I think that would be freeing and less stressful, and I'd feel calmer, and I want to experience the benefits.
MILLBURNSo ultimately it's about showing people the benefits of simplifying, not the how-to side of things. That's easy. We all know the 67 ways to declutter our closet or whatever. That's easy. We don't care about the how-to. I'm much more concerned with the why-to, what's the reason I'm simplifying.
LAKSHMANANInteresting. All right, let's take a call from Joyce in Huntsville, Arkansas. Joyce, go ahead.
JOYCEYes, I can relate so much to your conversation. It really struck a chord with me. My husband and I have been married 47 years, and we've only moved three times that whole time. So we had accumulated so many family heirlooms, and that was probably the most difficult to deal with. But I came to the conclusion that, just as you had said, we were getting rid of stuff, but we weren't getting rid of our memories.
JOYCEAll those things are -- both our parents had passed, and, you know, so many objects we had had a history with our parents. But we finally came to the conclusion that we're going to have those memories no matter what. The stuff does not -- it might ignite some memories, but you can keep the memory without keeping the stuff.
LAKSHMANANWell, that's a lovely thought, Joyce, thank you for sharing that. She reminds me that when I had to move my mom out of her house, emptying the basement was so hard not only because of what of her stuff to keep and go, but I had, like, my entire Barbie collection from my childhood, and I didn't want to part with it. But, you know, I finally had to just take pictures of it and say, okay, those will be my memories because I can't keep all this Barbie dolls and their stuff. I think there's a larger question for our listeners, though, guys, which is, you know, exemplified.
LAKSHMANANWe have this email from Laura, who says I'm constantly trying to cycle things out of our house and reduce clutter, and my husband has the opposite sensibility. He wants to keep everything. And he gets upset when I get rid of things, even broken items. How do you -- so how do you help people find harmony in a relationship when one may be a minimalist, and the other may be not quite a hoarder but on the other end?
NICODEMUSYou know, my partner Mariah, she is not a minimalist. She would not call herself a minimalist. In fact, when we first met, she had, oh my God, 80 to 100 pairs of shoes. I mean, it was crazy. But, you know, it's not that her having 80 or 100 pairs of shoes made her any less of a person to me. We shared the same -- a lot of the same values and a lot of the same beliefs, and she's a wonderful person.
NICODEMUSSo, you know, what I encourage people to do in that situation is to embrace their partner and accept them and not just accept them but appreciate who their partner is. So with Mariah, you know, I have never told her, hey honey, you've got too many shoes. Can you imagine if a news crew came in here, I would be ruined. Well, look at all these shoes. I mean, I've never pressured her into getting rid of her shoes.
NICODEMUSShe has, over the last three years, she is down to about 15 pairs of shoes now. And she -- you know, the job that she has, she wears those shoes a lot. She gets a lot of joy out of that. And again, she didn't pare down on her items because I told her to, she pared down on her items because she can see the benefit of having a few pairs of shoes that she really, really loves. You know, she's not trying on a million different pairs of shoes now. Now she picks a pair of shoes out, she knows she's going to love them. She knows that she's going to look good in them.
NICODEMUSSo I would encourage anyone again to just, you know, accept your partner and kind of like what Josh was saying, or not accept but appreciate your partner. And what Josh was saying earlier about living by example and showing the benefits, that is the best way to move someone. It could even start with, like, a donation box, like hey, honey, I'm just going to throw a donation box right here in the foyer or whatever, in our bedroom, whatever it is. Things that you think you might not want and could add value to other people's lives, let's go ahead and throw it in the donation box. I know a lot of families have started that, and it's really created some good conversation and dialogue and has helped people change their attitude toward stuff.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Juliet, I want to ask you, you know, this -- there's this whole theme now. We've seen Real Simple magazine, Living Simple magazine. I wonder at some extent are we kidding ourselves. Have we commodified simplicity?
SCHORWell, there's no doubt that there has been a sort of marketization of these, and I think Real Simple is the greatest example of it. It tried to capitalize on the voluntary simplicity trend of the 1990s, ended up being just another lifestyle magazine trying to sell people junk. So yes, and you see this in most of these kinds of movements. It's a little bit inevitable because we live in a society in which commerce is such a big part of our life.
SCHORI don't get too upset about that. I do think the key thing with these movements is the fact that they encourage people to ask questions about what their spending is doing to their work lives, to their family lives. For many people the focus is on the environmental impacts of all this spending, something we haven't talked about yet, but that's an enormous dimension of sort of hyper-consumerism.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well let me bring in some thoughts from our listeners because we have so many. Rob in Baltimore talks about one of his takeaways from reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is how small apartments in Scandinavia are, as small as 300 to 600 feet. He wants to know, are large homes that something that basically force Americans to hoard? And we also have -- we have an email here from Joyce, who says considering -- sorry, from Jorge, who says considering the capitalist system we live in and the service-consumption-based economy, what would be the impact in the long term if a considerable portion of millennials, for example, start living this new lifestyle or mindset? Quickly, Josh.
MILLBURNYou know, I think we all need some stuff, and really I think we're shifting from a culture of ownership to a culture of access. And in that culture we're having a lot more experiences, so we're going to have a much more experience-based...
LAKSHMANANSo like the sharing economy?
MILLBURNYeah, I would say...
LAKSHMANANWhen you say access, does that mean like Uber, you don't have to have a car, you can do ride-sharing, for example?
MILLBURNYeah, I would call it an access economy, yes. So it's not necessarily sharing, but we have access to all of these things and no longer have to own every single trinket.
LAKSHMANANAll right, another one of our listeners, Julie in Crofton, Maryland, points out that she's in the process of becoming one of Marie Kondo's consultants and says that the process is connected to mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy. Is -- you know, you guys have talked a lot about the sort of quiet that it gives your mind, but I wonder, you know, so ingrained in our culture is this question of keeping up with the Joneses, and I would think there's also a lot of peer pressure against downsizing, especially for people of any income level who have children, and children always want what their friends. Elizabeth, quickly, what are your thoughts on how we deal with that?
DUNNWell, I think it's worth considering who our children are comparing ourselves to. So I happen to live in a pretty small condo in Vancouver. My son is in a tiny bedroom, and my husband and I have kind of fretted, he's only three, but we've kind of fretted about when he gets older, is he going to wonder why his bedroom is the size of a closet. And -- but fortunately a family just moved in next door, and they have three kids in a similarly sized place. So what he's seeing around him is that this is perfectly fine. We're like, oh, you're living in the lap of luxury.
DUNNSo I think, you know, it's worth considering, and this is something we might not often take into account when we move to a new neighborhood, but what are our children going to see as the sort of expectation of how much space we need, how much stuff we need because that's going to shape their understanding of what the sort of necessary things in life are.
LAKSHMANANAll right, Josh, one quick thought from you on sort of advice about being happy when it's so hard to part with things in real life.
MILLBURNI think that for me, the biggest lesson I've learned over the last five, seven years is to love people and to use things because the opposite never works. And I think for the longest time I forsook the most important things in my life because I was constantly chasing happiness, and I think a meaningful life is really the point, and then happiness is a byproduct of that meaningful life.
LAKSHMANANAll right, well, I want to take us out on some thoughts from our many listeners who have written in or called in. Lindsey from Auburn, Alabama, says we moved out of our house thinking we'd buy a bigger one. It turns out we love our interim space, which is a mother-in-law apartment. It made us rethink everything. We might now buy a tiny home. I used to have to shop constantly. I'm so much happier now.
LAKSHMANANRob from Cincinnati, Ohio, says I've traveled the world and made sure that my money goes toward experiences instead of things. We bought a small house because we don't want to collect things, even though we do have small kids. And just one contrary view from Jesse in Charlottesville, Virginia, who says you're evangelizing getting rid of your objects, but maybe this goes too far, it pathologizes. I love my piles of stuff. So another view there. All right, joining us were Ryan Nicodemus, Joshua Fields Millburn, the minimalists, Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, and Elizabeth Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Thank you all so much for joining us, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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