There is also an emerging movement of “decluttering” and pursuing a minimalist lifestyle, which is a pretty radical form of subtraction directed at our belongings. Just like Plum Organics that re-defined “deliciousness” by eliminating intense and strong flavors from baby food, the minimalists attempt to re-define what “happiness” means to them by drastically reducing how much they own.
Marie Kondo, the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” fueled the trend of decluttering by using the phrase “only keep the belongings that spark joy.” Her decluttering method starts from sorting your belongings into one group of items that spark joy and other items that do not. You need to let go of everything that falls into the latter category. This resonated with many people who have been feeling stressed surrounded by too many clutters.
The reason why so many of us suffer from clutter is analogous to the fact that so many of us suffer from obesity. Fundamentally, our economic system has zero capacity to maximize our happiness at a personal level, despite our perception that it does. It keeps selling us food even when it is unhealthy. It keeps selling us what we don’t need. But we still keep buying, rather than stopping. Why? It is because we assume some kind of linear correlation between the number of our assets and our happiness.
We want to believe that acquiring more brings us more happiness.
But unfortunately, it does not work that way. This linear relationship misses one critical detail: our brain has limited capacity to receive and process information and stimuli. Using the now-familiar Yerkes-Dodson curve, products are definitely the source of joy and added value when we start collecting them. You may still remember the first item you bought with your own money – the first ones are precious. But as we keep accumulating more and more belongings, our focus and attention starts to deteriorate. It becomes harder to neatly manage everything, and our house starts to look disorganized. At some point, we hit a plateau and we start getting overwhelmed, feeling stressed and anxious as we face a messy house. Before we knew it, assets had turned into clutter.
The minimalists realized that getting rid of their belongings was about reducing the information and stimuli they needed to handle and manage, which was actually causing them a lot of stress. After they let go of many things – sometimes including personal relationships – they felt free, relaxed and back to their true self. They were able to re-discover their optimal level of personal capacity, the range within which they could perform best and feel accomplished and happy.
Humans seek happiness. But happiness is often distant, elusive and escapes you before you know. We try to define it so that it becomes more visible, quantifiable, stable and permanent. “More” is an easy way to define happiness conveniently and efficiently: it helps increase our assets and the values they seem to contain which are supposed to help improve our physical/emotional status. We simply call it happiness.
However, as we increase our dependence on “more,” we are unknowingly overwhelming our own abilities and capacities. We eat “more” to feel satisfied, and become sick. We buy more and find ourselves drowning in a heap of clutter. At the same time, “more” makes us rely increasingly on external stimuli in order to feel happy. We no longer do as many chores we used to do, relying instead on the help of a variety of products and services. We read easily digestible information without really using our own imagination or creativity. Depending on the types of stimuli, “more” can make us stressed or lazy.
Subtraction is a powerful tool to recognize where your current physical/cognitive status is, and to re-adjust it so that you can start leveraging your own abilities and capacities. Without realizing it, you’ve forced your own power and potential to take a backseat as you acquired many products, services and other kinds of support. Although they were supposed to increase your happiness, you are actually under-performing or stressed, none of which make you truly happy.
Yes, it’s more work and less easy. But your abilities need to be awakened and activated in order for you to feel a sense of accomplishment and happiness. Long-lasting satisfaction only comes from inside you. It cannot be simply packaged and delivered.
Subtraction awakens and activate your senses and abilities.