The Zen of Minimalism: How Minimal Design is a Catalyst for Happiness

While the life style trend to become a “minimalist” is relatively new, the word “minimalism” has been around for quite some time. It was expressly used by the artists and architects in the early 20th century who participated in a movement called “De Stijl,” which was founded in the Netherlands in the wake of the World War I. Mies van der Rohe, an innovative German architect and the last director of Bauhaus, famously declared that “less is more.”

From left: Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow by Piet Mondrian, Red and Blue Chair designed by Gerrit Rietveld, and the Farnsworth House designed by Mies van der Rohe

About five hundred years before the De Stijl movement, Zen priests/artists in Japan were already applying minimalism concept in Zen arts, most widely known in a form of Zen garden (kare-sansui).

Left: Ryoanji Right: Tofukuji designed by Mirei Shigemori. Both are the Zen temple in Kyoto.

Are then minimalist movement and minimalist art/design related?

Becoming a minimalist is a life style choice to stop relying on your belongings to pursue happiness. Minimalist arts and design find beauty and satisfaction in “less,” or “emptiness/nothingness.” Although the motivation behind them seem different, there is a common enlightenment they share: there emerges something – a surprisingly large and profound something – in the void created when things are subtracted from “more” to become “less” or “empty.”

Our life is a quest for happiness.  We try to do things that would help us become happier. And pursuing “more” is a common approach because we believe that having more of something means more happiness: we usually seek more money, more assets, more friends or even more likes on social media.

“More” is also popular as a design approach because that’s what customers want: more quantities, more functionalities, more amenities, more decorations, and so on.

But interestingly, an increasing number of people are overwhelmed, stressed, and feeling distracted surrounded by so much “stuff.”  They are realizing that it’s easy to lose control when you sink into a heap of “more.”  So the minimalist movement emerged: minimalists decided to give up excess belongings that caused stress and distraction. Decluttering follows the same path: it forces you to go through your belongings so that you ONLY own what “sparks joy”- what you can happily manage.

If it is true that more does not guarantee happiness, and can even cause stress, can we understand it scientifically? We could tap on to the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is an empirical theory between arousal and performance. As you can see in the black bell-curve above, the law maintains that our performance increases as we become physiologically and mentally aroused – or become alert and concentrated – but only up to a point. When the level of arousal becomes too high, we feel increasingly stressed and anxious, and the quality of our performance decreases.

If you change the Y-axis from “performance” to “ability to feel happy,” and add a linear line of “the amount of belongings” (red line), you easily see what’s going on.

Applying the Yerkes-Dodson Law, we can establish a hypothesis that our ability to feel happiness is not limitless. There is an optimal point after which our happiness actually start diminishing, even if we keep increasing the amount of our belongings.  And it’s something we all experience: you cannot stay with someone 24/7 no matter how much you love her/him, nor can you keep eating ice cream forever even if you are a big fan of Cherry Garcia (that’s me).  We’ve known that “moderation is the key,” even before the minimalist movement.

Zen, or the Buddhism in general, has been pursuing this “optimal point of arousal” for thousands of years. Whereas we almost automatically believed a liner correlation between happiness and the amount of belongings that could satisfy our desires, Buddhism knew that the relationship was a bell-curve with a plateau. And it resolutely assumed that the highest point could be attained when we minimized the amount of external help, whether it was materials or relationships, to satisfy our desires.

And Zen arts such as Zen garden (kare-sansui) are what Zen priests/artists saw at the culmination of their optimal arousal, which was achieved mainly through isolated meditation. Below is a Zen garden at Saiho-ji, Kyoto, which was designed by Muso Soseki, a renowned Zen priest, in the 14th century. This is the temple Steve Jobs loved.

Interestingly enough, arts inevitably emerge when we minimize the help from external sources.  It is so because minimizing external input means maximizing and unleashing our own ability.  Just like our body tries to heal on its own when it’s wounded, our mind/cognitive ability has boundless power to compensate for, or even overpower the loss of external stimulus.  Art is the most universal way to record that potential. And since it’s the demonstration of our own potential, we find it beautiful.

This is probably the reason why Zen was profoundly tied to arts, and minimalist movements started as an art movement.  It was so powerful that the essences triggered by “less” or “least” influenced various types of Japanese traditional arts, from haiku, traditional architecture, flower arrangement, bonsai, tea ceremony, noh theater, ukiyo-e to kintsugi.

Pine Trees by Tohaku Hasegwa (1539-1610) [Public Domain]

Left: Ikebana (image courtesy of Ikenobo)
Right: Bonsai “Shinpaku” (image courtesy of Nihon Bonsai Kyokai)

Katsura Rikyu (Imperial Villa), Kyoto, built in the 17th century

The aesthetics of Zen/minimalist arts are still very powerful and effective today, and are often embedded in modern design.  They continue to inspire and excite a life with “less,” because design elements that are rooted deep in “less is more” philosophy work as a catalyst to find profound happiness.