Can we become happier and freer by giving up our belongings? As counter-intuitive as it sounds, minimalists claim we definitely can. They say that they found true happiness when they released things – products, services and even relationships – that were giving them stress, rather than joy.
But how is it possible? If each of our belongings has certain value -which is what we assumed at least when we acquired it – aren’t we losing that value when we let it go?
If the minimalist life style – minimalists typically own less than 100 items – can actually make you happier, the empty space that emerges when a product is gone must be a source of pleasure and satisfaction.
And if that is the case, there must be some fundamental misconception in a way we perceive the “value” embedded in products and services.
We usually buy things to acquire a certain functionality. Pens write, cups hold liquid, blankets provide warmth, and computers connect us. In a commercialized world, product value is almost equal to product functionality. And as our society advanced, functionality attached to each product became increasingly specialized and narrowly defined, so that additional niches could be created for new offerings.
Take a pencil sharpener. The initial “needs” – or our expectation for functionality – must have been to just “cut/sharpen” a piece of wood in general, so people simply used a versatile knife. Then came a pencil sharpening knife. Then knives were taken over by machines: first by manual ones, and then by electric ones.
With an electric pencil sharpener, you can sharpen pencils in a clean and uniform manner with little work. While, at first sight, it seems you only gain from using such a product, in reality you have inadvertently been contracted out, and lost the skill or opportunity to sharpen pencils using your own hands. By embracing the ease provided by an external product, you have lost part of your own potential. Acquiring a certain functionality does not come for free: you are divesting your innate abilities in exchange.
The trade-off between functionality and ability/opportunity occurs almost every time we use products or services. Today we outsource a variety of activities to external devices, from writing, cooking, making, hauling, and cleaning to distributing or collecting information. We no longer hand-write, make tortillas from scratch, rake leaves or go through a pile of books to find one piece of information. But that was the whole point: we developed this system of trade-off as a win-win. We got rid of unwanted tasks, and businesses make profits by taking care of the painful part, leveraging the specific functionality that they developed. So we were supposed to feel happier as we buy more products and let them accomplish more tasks for us.
However, to our surprise, this wasn’t really what happened: many of us started feeling bored and became restless, rather than feeling happy, by owning more. And it was because we didn’t define exactly what “happiness” was in our presumed proportional correlation between the amount of what we own and that happiness. And as it turns out, happiness couldn’t be automatically augmented by increasing the amount of owned functionality. At the end of the day, functionality was not the only value we needed to feel happy.
While basking in the instantaneous joy brought about by products that relieved us from tedious works, a sense of accomplishment has been quietly escaping us. Without realizing, we sidelined ourselves to become a by-stander, not a main player in many activities. Although this guaranteed pain-free status and convenience, it wasn’t inspiring. There is no sense of accomplishment in just watching things getting done with little engagement/involvement. And when we don’t feel accomplished, our satisfaction is surprisingly short-lived.
At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes self-esteem and self-actualization. It’s clear that deepest satisfaction comes from INSIDE us. Although many products deliver great functionalities, they do not help us feel self-esteem. So minimalists said: “Let’s stop letting our belongings define ourselves, because they can’t.”
In a way, the process of becoming a minimalist is also the process of re-discovering and regaining the values we accidentally threw off when we relied on external means to do many activities. Giving up belongings is by no means about giving up values associated with them. It is actually the opposite: it is about collecting and bringing back to ourselves the values that were bestowed on us.
This mindset change shifts our entire value system from external value-centric to internal value-centric.
And when we become fully aware of our internal potential and start leveraging it, true self-empowerment will begin. The power coming from owning “less” is boundless because our internal power is not bound to any physical/financial limitations.