Doing without makes you happy: what sounds like a contradiction to the promises of mass consumption is becoming a way of life for more and more people. They call themselves minimalists and reduce their possessions to a few hundred things. The average European, on the other hand, heaps 10.000 items on.
It’s just a little experiment. One thing, however, that could open the eyes of many: "Go through your home in your mind, room by room. Try to list all the things that are in it: every piece of furniture, every book, every object, no matter how small." This is what you can read on an Internet blog for the art of living. An unmistakable instruction – and yet a task that most people would fail at.
Because at the latest, when the inner eye turns away from bed, closet and table and turns to the household goods in its abundance and smallness, the overview is likely to be lost. What exactly is hanging, lying and standing there in the closet, in the bookcase, on the bathroom shelf, in the spice rack and in the countless drawers, which literally invite you to put undecorative and useless things in them??
Not to mention the countless things long since orphaned in the basement, attic and garage. The average adult in Western Europe owns around 10,000 items, but people with a strong passion for collecting or even a reasonably well-stocked library have significantly more.
"I used to be a shopping queen
Different Katharina Finke. Almost all of the 30-year-old’s possessions fit into two suitcases and a travel bag. Two jackets, three pairs of jeans, a few simple dresses, a few items for festive and business occasions, two pairs of sturdy shoes for the winter, two lighter ones for the summer, underwear, a handful of selected mementos, cosmetics, a smartphone, a camera, a laptop that also holds her digital book and music collection – and an old racing bike, the only item that doesn’t fit into any of her suitcases.
With more things the free journalist does not want to complain. "A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d end up like this, says the young woman, who in her tasteful outfit – a black blazer over a sleek top – by no means looks like an ascetic who is averse to all things material. "I used to be an uninhibited shopping queen", says Finke "my closet was bursting at the seams."
The graduate of a journalism school in Hamburg bought a lot of things back then – although it was already clear to her in the store that the joy of the new acquisition would hardly outlast the payment process. And not only that: "At the time, it was not at all on my radar that many of my shopping trophies were not produced under fair or ecologically sound conditions."
Ethics play a role in determining consumption
It was only through her professional involvement with issues such as exploitation, climate change and human rights violations that she realized that many of the miseries of globalization and her own personal consumer behavior could not be viewed separately from one another. "If you see these connections, you can’t go on as before.", says Katharina Finke.
A realization that is apparently on the minds of an increasing number of people – but which only persuades a small proportion of them to actually limit their own consumption or at least to do without goods from questionable production.
Every two years, the Hamburg Trend Bureau determines for the Otto Group the extent to which ethical criteria are decisive for consumer behavior. The most recent study found that 56 percent of those surveyed regularly buy goods from sustainable and humane production, and that "ethical consumption has arrived in the middle of society" be.
More and more, cheaper and cheaper
In fact, sales of fair-trade products have increased fivefold in the past ten years, from less than 200 million to more than one billion," says Finke, not without pride. At the same time, however, some industries – above all the textile industry – are firing up the production machinery with unprecedented ferocity. A number of fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, Adidas and Gap, as well as more exclusive labels such as Boss, Louis Vuitton and Dsquared, are pushing new collections onto the market at monthly intervals.
In order to maintain the incentive to buy despite full closets, consumer prices are calculated so tightly that a "clean" closet is the only option Production per se is impossible. On average, a German buys 60 items of clothing a year, and wears only about half of them regularly. At best, the other half is recycled; at worst, it ends up in the trash as good as new. This is just one example of the lunacy of today’s consumer world.
So if action is to be taken, it must be taken consistently. The occasional purchase of a packet of fair trade coffee cannot possibly outweigh many bulging bags of clothing: This is how more and more people, especially younger people like Katharina Finke, think – and decide to radically limit their material possessions. "Minimalists" or "downshifter they are called – and according to a status symbol study of the market research agency "diffferent" admired by 70 percent of Germans for her consistent behavior.
But it’s not only their conscience that drives downshifters, but also a desire for self-fulfillment: the desire, for example, to be able to work in as self-determined a manner as possible, not to waste precious time in life, to remain flexible. Certainly: Compromises must be made by all. Minimalists do it in favor of their personal freedom and are willing to limit themselves materially for it.
Katharina Finke, for instance, wants to travel, discover foreign countries and people, report on her experiences. Too many things are a burden to her in the process. Four years ago, the young woman decided to sell almost all of her possessions and limit her consumption to the necessities of life. What’s left fits into the two suitcases and the bag: "These are the containers for my possessions. I don’t want to have more than goes in there. A self-imposed target that still works today", says Finke, not without pride.
Even a permanent residence Finke does not have. "As a reporter, I see myself as a "professional nomad" anyway, she says. Since then, Finke has worked in the USA, China, India, Australia and New Zealand, always staying in hostels or simple apartments, living more or less out of a suitcase. "For some, such a life may not give enough support, but for me it gives freedom and liveliness", Finke enthuses and says: "I first had to let go of all my things before I really found myself."
Religions preach poverty
The idea that a simple, undemanding life will bring more contentment, depth, intensity, even "truth is thousands of years old. Even the thinker Diogenes, who lived in a barrel, found some 2500 years ago that doing without the superfluous makes you happy. The evangelists, in turn, have handed down Jesus’ statement, which has long since become a common saying, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.
Monks of various denominations, whether Carthusians, Benedictines or members of Tibetan mendicant orders, have committed themselves to a life of poverty and abstinence. Islam, Christianity and Buddhism warn as with one voice against avarice and greed, against the blind striving for more and more. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven: This is the cross-denominational message about the happiness of the dispossessed.
In this world, on the other hand, material things have meaning and identity. By feeling and manipulating objects, infants open up the boundary between inside and outside, between self and world. Transitional objects like stuffed animals and cuddly blankets make temporary separations from their caregivers bearable for young children. Mementos – the grandfather’s wristwatch, the mother’s wedding ring, the family photo album – reinforce our inner historiography.
Possessions as a substitute for identity
Absurdly expensive luxury items like private islands, French wineries or multi-million dollar diamond jewelry maintain the distinction threshold between the truly wealthy and the rest of the world. Hip clothes, smart books, fancy food preferences, exquisite taste in music: All these are sometimes more, sometimes less material consumer goods that people use to define themselves, position themselves in the social structure and create the appearance of individuality.
What it can mean to involuntarily lose all one’s possessions is shown by a U.S. study for which dozens of people who had lost their homes and all their belongings in the flames were interviewed after a major fire in California. Most of those affected continued to show depressive behavior or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for years after the disaster; many of the victims even equated the loss of their belongings with the erasure of their identity.
On the other hand: Too many things overwhelm. The US psychologist Barry Schwartz speaks of the "Paradox of Choice", the paradox of choice, and claims that when people have too many choices, it makes them unfree and dissatisfied – comparable to the proverbial trees for which one cannot see the forest. The big picture, the essence.
The essentials. Christof Herrmann calls it "the essence". Coming from a stressful and unmotivating IT job, the computer scientist purged his life until he felt truly at home in it. The turning point came in 2006 with a bicycle trip around the world. Actually, his employer would have granted him time off for this, but Herrmann needed a consistent cut – and quit.
"I used to be slim, athletic and close to nature. But the too much work and too little fulfillment had turned me into an unhappy, overweight person who hardly moved anymore and shoveled unhealthy things into himself.", recalls the 43-year-old.
The bicycle journey, a year and a half in which Herrmann and his then partner covered 20,000 kilometers on three continents, proved to be above all an inward journey: "Being on the road, the adventure of being exposed to wind and weather, the liberating feeling of being able to fit everything you need into just a few bicycle bags – all this gave me an infinite amount of joy."
Only the bare necessities
An attitude to life that Herrmann was determined to save for his everyday life after his return to Germany. Unlike his girlfriend, who felt the trip was more of an episode than a life-changer. The couple separated. "That’s one of the bitter lessons I learned: The more consistently you change your life, the fewer people remain from your old life."
On the other hand, Herrmann adds, new friends have been found – and new intersections of content: "In the past, the conversations were mainly about soccer and barbecuing, but today they’re about vegan food and hiking." For several years now, the Nuremberg-based Franconian has been working as a freelance travel writer and blogger. His platform simply conscious.de has been online for three years.
Herrmann’s mix of topics – hiking, healthy cooking, sustainability and tips for decluttering one’s life – is well received. 2.4 million times his posts have been read so far. The household goods in Christof Herrmann’s sparsely furnished one-room apartment are limited to the bare essentials, but the closet is still quite well stocked: "All things from the old life, they are now consistently worn out, says Herrmann. For two years he has not entered a fashion store.
Under 100 things as a yardstick
When he scans his home in his mind, he can easily make almost all of his possessions appear in front of his inner eye. "I don’t count him. But it is clearly less than 1000 things", says Herrmann.
Things count: Some of the minimalists make a real sport out of it. The U.S. blogger David Bruno, for example, started the "100 Thing Challenge" in 2008, a project with the goal of reducing one’s personal possessions to less than 100 things. Since then, the number 100 has been regarded by ambitious imitators as a kind of benchmark, a mark to reach.
Accordingly, the question of what exactly 100 things are has developed into a debate of its own on the web: Do you count socks individually or in pairs? Do you have to count e-books, music in MP3 format and image files just as much as "real" ones? Books, photos and CDs?
Arrived in the mainstream
If you surf the net a little more extensively, you will quickly discover that the minimalism phenomenon has many sympathizers. In recent years, dozens of blogs have sprung up in the German-speaking world alone, whose operators dedicate themselves to the simple life with comparable verve, as does Christof Herrmann, for example.
"Minima Muse – Creative consumerism in a collective self-experiment", "Mr. Minimalist", "The discovery of simplicity – This is the name of just a few of the blogs that are characterized by one and the same basic tone: an almost childlike joy in the discovery of a manageable island in the midst of boundless abundance. One could almost regard minimalists as a social avant-garde, even as the driving force behind a change, because they courageously exemplify on a small scale what could possibly prove to be the answer to the ecological and social problems of our time on a large scale.
But sociologist Kai-Uwe Hellmann, a professor at the Technical University of Berlin, disagrees: "I don’t believe that minimalism has the potential to change society." Because the phenomenon has long been established in the mainstream and is therefore part of the consumer world, says Hellmann. Accompanying trends such as exchange rings, upcycling workshops and repair cafes offer downshifters sufficient opportunities to live in harmony with their convictions, even in the middle of society.
Perhaps it is not the self-image of minimalists to go to the barricades and start a revolution anyway. Pia Mester, for example, only wanted to spruce up her overstuffed closet and succumbed to the magic of cleaning out. So much so that the trained editor has now published several minimalism guidebooks. The most recent: "Minimalism meets clothing: In 4 weeks to a closet full of favorite pieces."
Well over 100 kilograms of clothes piled up in Mester’s apartment, more than 70 of which went to a secondhand dealer who buys at kilo prices. In a way, her closet was only the object of study that helped the 30-year-old to recognize the underlying principle: If you keep your possessions manageable, you’ll also have a better overview in life.
A maxim that gives Mester a good deal of security and inner clarity in her not-so-profitable job as a freelance writer: "Of course, I’m also concerned with responsibility and sustainability. But above all, I’m realistic: My life plan doesn’t allow me to take too big a leap."
Minimalism as a means to an end
Mester’s apartment looks quite reduced and tidy, but by no means monastic. Probably also because her partner is open-minded about downshifting, but only goes along with it to some extent. "For more consistent minimalists, there can be spats if their partner is more consumerist or has their heart set on things that are actually superfluous", says Mester. "I see it calmly. Finally, I don’t make my philosophy an all-encompassing law."
Most downshifters, for all the determination with which they go about their business, are not dogmatists. Mester has met many like-minded people at regular minimalist meetings. She didn’t meet any fanatics or preachers there, but "lots of great, open-minded people who just don’t want a life off the rack."
Reducing and doing without, the material restrictions, the self-discipline – everything that makes the simple life seem all too hard and joyless to many is little more than a means to an end for Pia Mester: "Minimalism is really just a tool. The key to a life that’s a hell of a lot of fun."
Interview with tidying coach Julia Poetsch
"Chaos makes you dissatisfied"
Ms. Poetsch, why is it important to clear out??
Many people accumulate far too many things. Then they lose track of what they’re buying and become dissatisfied – or buy the same items twice. So you can even say that regular cleaning out saves money.
Where to start?
I am not an advocate of minimalism. I like to browse flea markets myself. Every person must find out for himself how many possessions make him happy and what he can do without. But it’s no use if I let the china cat collection gather dust in the drawer. If my heart is in it, it should be shown off to its best advantage.
How is it that so many people get help to clean out their house??
More and more households are run by dual-income earners, which often means people don’t have time to declutter. And we also have our tax returns and house cleaning done by service providers. So why not also the order?
Don’t we learn to keep order anymore?
I am not a scientist, so I can only report from my experiences. Sense of order is a question of education. If I don’t learn as a child to wipe the crumbs off the table after a meal, I won’t do it later either.
How do you help your clients?
I don’t tidy up for them. We do it together. They should learn how to bring structure into their everyday life themselves. I help many people, including companies, to sort out their paperwork. You wouldn’t believe how many account statements are piled up there. Many don’t know that you don’t have to keep them in every case. Many clients are women, some hope their husbands will learn something too. Others have the impression that the closet needs tidiness. I then find that it is stuffed full of pieces that are no longer needed. In clothes that have become one size too small, you usually don’t starve yourself into them after all.
Are there items that are better not to part with?
From the love letters of the current partner – and children’s photos.
How do you learn to tidy up and clear out??
You have to want it – and then also practice it. After a few weeks, it becomes routine. But you should take small steps. There’s a good rule: I take a laundry basket and fill it with everything that’s out of place in a room or can’t be put away. After ten minutes everything has to be sorted away or disposed of. That already brings a lot.
Isn’t a creative chaos much more useful?
I don’t believe in the power of creative chaos. Even in creative professions, it’s important for people to keep track of everything – if only to meet deadlines and pay bills on time.
And what do you do about the chaos that pours out of the children’s room into the apartment??
We sing our tidying song every night and tidy up together. Children and adults do this task together. In this way, children learn that order is part of life. And we can enjoy our living space in the evening without stepping on Lego bricks.
What do you do with small toys from surprise eggs that are usually just lying around?
I throw them away.
Yes. Children find it hard to part with these things. But when they are gone, they do not miss them. We sort out a lot. Nevertheless we hardly throw anything into the garbage. Much goes to social department stores or to the recycling center for reuse.