Debunking Minimalism: What it is (not) and how it came about

female motioning to be quiet

This article may contain links to products and services we use and recommend. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For more information, see our Disclosure Policy.

Decluttering and reorganising seem to be the pastimes of people during the COVID-19 lockdown. And there is nothing wrong with that. We can all use a spring clean every now and again. All too often though we’re finding decluttering and minimalism being used as if they are the same.

We’ve also come across people who’ve given up on minimalism, feeling it’s unattainable for them. This is a great shame, as we believe everyone can benefit from adopting a more minimalist mindset. It also tells us that minimalism (how we perceive and live it) is misunderstood. And being the opinionated people we are, we felt we needed to rectify this misconception.

So, in today’s article, we’re debunking minimalism. We’ll be looking at what minimalism is (and what it isn’t) – at least in our humble opinion – and how minimalism came about.

Sign up to receive our email newsletter full of actionable tips and practical advice every month

Subscription Form - No Downloads

No furniture

Minimalism is not about living in a home devoid of furniture

Ever wondered what personal values are? Or what common core values WE live by? We list our top five values and why they are important to us.

What is not minimalism (by our definition)?

Minimalism is not about depriving ourselves or denying pleasure. And it certainly is not about glorifying or romanticising poverty.

It’s not about owning a fixed or maximum number of items. And it is not a contest as to who can live with the fewest possessions. Likewise, it’s not about living in a home devoid of furniture.

Minimalism is not reorganising our wardrobes/kitchen cupboards etc – Marie Kondo style or not. And it is not decluttering – though for many, decluttering can be the first step on their minimalist journey.

Minimalism isn’t a one size fits all. And it is not a project with a finite end date.

Finally, it’s not a trend that will go out of fashion soon (more on that below).

Minimalism is about more than getting rid of stuff. It is actually about aligning my life’s resources with my greatest values. – Joshua Becker

Cluttered house

Decluttering doesn't make you a minimalist, though for some it's the start of their minimalist journey

What is minimalism (by our definition)?

Minimalism is about finding happiness not by chasing material possessions but by aligning what we do with who we are.

That means, firstly, and most importantly, minimalism is about knowing what is truly important to us. It’s about understanding our inner compass – our personal values.

And secondly, it’s about making conscious decisions based on our values – by inviting into our lives what gives us value and eliminating what doesn’t. Or put differently: By freeing ourselves from distractions (excess/debt), we can (re)direct our energies towards what truly matters to us.

Minimalism is about living without external pressures (from peers, society, clever advertising). It’s about living in a way that feels full and authentic, being more grounded and less stressed.

Minimalism is about quality, not quantity.

Minimalist living is different for everyone, as we are all individuals with different values.

Ultimately, it’s a mindset, a lifestyle choice, and a life philosophy. As such, it’s an ongoing process.

Minimalism is a tool to create the life you want. – Hannah Faed

My Way Highway by Rommel Davila on Unsplash

Minimalism is about directing your energy where your heart is | Image courtesy of Rommel Davila on Unsplash

A brief history of minimalism, its various roots and incarnations

Minimalism (by our definition) is not new. Though it wasn’t always called minimalism.

Common spiritual theme

Gaining spiritual wisdom by letting go of possessions (in the broadest sense of the word) has been the subject of religious teachings (across all religions) for centuries:

  • Jesus is said to have lived a very simple life. He even requested that anyone of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)
  • With fasting during Ramadan, Muslims are reminded what it is like to be poor, to be grateful for what they have and to be generous towards those less fortunate.
  • In Jewish burial practice, people are cleansed and then clothed in a white linen robe without pockets, symbolizing that we are judged on our merits, not on our material wealth when we leave this world.
  • According to Hindu scriptures, materialism and spirituality are two paths in life one has to choose. Only if we overcome our attachment to worldly life can we reach eternal heaven.
  • In Zen Buddhism, meditation helps us live (in the here and now), without distractions, and in greater harmony with ourselves and those around us.
Meditating Monk

Gaining wisdom by letting go of possessions has been the subject of religious teachings for centuries

Societal critique

Whenever humans have felt let down by or disconnected from mainstream society at the time, counter-cultures have developed.

In the 19th century, for example, philosophers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson criticized the (pre-civil war) America of their days: an increasingly industrialized society with institutions that undermined and corrupted the power of the individual and of nature itself. Their answer to it: Transcendentalism – a philosophy which believed (like Hinduism and Zen Buddhism) that we already hold the answers to our questions, and that simplicity and self-reflection lead to insight and enlightenment.

Thoreau even tested his views in an experiment, living in the forest far away from society for two years – the experience of which he shared in his book ‘Walden’.

Simply decorated room

Find the answers you hold inside by removing distractions and living simply

Artistic revolution

As a design form, simplicity (re)gained popularity in the 1920s/1930s. After World War I, Walter Gropius and later Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, led an experimental art school that brought together applied and fine arts, and would influence art, design and architecture to this day. The German Bauhaus style was known for its clean lines and its ‘everything you need/nothing you don’t’ approach to function and design.

Stripping away superfluous layers in art and design continued in the decades after the Bauhaus closed. In the 1960s/1970s, an art form developed that aimed to create a zen-like experience based on simplicity, utility and elegance. Minimalism as an art form aimed to ‘heighten certain experiences by reducing distractions. It’s trying to do the most with the fewest number of things.’ (Stephen Chung/Architect).


Nothing superfluous: Minimalist art, design and architecture unify function and design

Could minimalism be the solution for a healthier planet? Learn about the evils of consumerism and how we can overcome our addiction to stuff.

Post-modernist counter-culture

As counter-culture and lifestyle choice, voluntary simplicity gained traction from the late 20th century in response to an increasingly self-destroying society driven by exponential economic growth, materialism and over-consumption. The two-part documentary Affluenza/Escape from Affluenza, for example, was made during that time.

Minimalism as a life philosophy has gained further popularity since the Global Financial Crisis, thanks to big-name bloggers, podcast hosts and book authors like Joshua Fields-Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (The Minimalists), Joshua Becker (Becoming Minimalist), Courtney Carver (Be More With Less), Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) and Brooke McAlary (Slow Your Home).

Without them sharing their learnings, we may not have embarked on our minimalist journey (or at least not when we did). If you’re putting your energy where your heart is you’re bound to create ripples. We even met Ryan and Joshua in Sydney in November 2014 (and gave them a big hug – physical distancing wasn’t a thing back then).

Should minimalism as a lifestyle choice be renamed?

Minimalism is derived from the Latin word minimis (the least). It’s no wonder that minimalism as a life philosophy is often misunderstood. So, should we rename it?

We’ve thought about this question a lot and haven’t come to a satisfactory conclusion yet. Given the misconception that exists about minimalism, maybe a better description would be values-based living. Though that isn’t as catchy as minimalism, is it?

If you have a great, snappy word that better encapsulates what minimalism as a life philosophy is actually about, let us know.

What questions do you have about minimalism? Please leave them in the comment section below or email us, and we’ll try our best to answer them.
Author: <a href="" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.