Minimalist Living: When a Lot Less Is More

7 minute read

The first thing you need to know about Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus is that they like to hug.

“Bring it in, man!” Nicodemus says as he pulls me in the first time I meet him. “We’re both huggers,” he says, pointing to Millburn.

These two early-30s, overly sunny dudes are The Minimalists, two of the better-known apologists for a lifestyle of less. Millburn and Nicodemus, both 33, have written two books chronicling how they grew up poor in Dayton, Ohio, achieved six-figure salaries by their late 20s, fell into existential ruts, realized they weren’t happy and eventually shed most everything they’d accumulated for a life in a Montana cabin as if they were modern-day Thoreaus.

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Millburn, Nicodemus and a growing number of similarly minded purgers around the U.S. have forgone non-necessities in exchange for a much simpler existence in the last few years. Minimalists like to say that they’re living more meaningfully, more deliberately, that getting rid of most material possessions in their lives allows them to focus on what’s important: friends, hobbies, travel, experiences.

It’s impossible to know how many people live this way, but the ones who have gone public have gained a following. Millburn and Nicodemus launched their website in December 2010 with just 52 visitors the first month. Last year, more than 2 million visited the site, and since then they’ve attracted almost 30,000 people on Twitter and 80,000 fans on Facebook.

Their road to minimalism began in October 2009 when Millburn’s mother unexpectedly died the same month his marriage ended. At the time, Millburn managed 150 wireless and telecom stores throughout south-central Ohio. He had a three-bedroom house. He owned 70 Brooks Brothers shirts. As a 28-year-old, he couldn’t ask for much more financially. But a month of tectonic life changes shifted his thinking about what mattered.

“I had everything I ever wanted,” Millburn says. “But it took getting everything I ever wanted to realize that I wasn’t happy.”

Millburn soon discovered Colin Wright, who was traveling around the world with a mere 51 things. (Most of us have thousands of things in our home, if not tens of thousands.) Soon, Millburn began connecting with others who described themselves as minimalists, and he eventually decided to give it a shot.

He started small, getting rid of one item a day for a month. He chucked his Brooks Brothers shirts. He got rid of his DVDs. He ditched his TV. He sold most of his shoes. Later, he sloughed off kitchenware, tools, electronics, artwork. Eventually, he moved into a smaller home and soon persuaded Nicodemus, his buddy since fifth grade, to do the same.

The two moved to Montana and began writing about their experiences, branding themselves The Minimalists and publishing a book about their collective purge.

They befriended guys like Joshua Becker, a father of two in Peoria, Ariz., who began minimizing in 2008 after realizing he was spending more time cleaning out his garage than playing with his son.

“Everything I owned wasn’t making me happy, and worse, it was distracting me from the very thing that did bring me happiness,” he says.

After discussing with his wife, he was soon filling his van with DVDs, CDs, clothes, Tupperware, spatulas, toys, old towels, sheets. The first couple of vanloads to Goodwill were easy, but by the third and fourth trips, he began an inward journey about why he’d accumulated so much. “Was I really that susceptible to advertising?” he asked himself. “Was I just trying to keep up with what the neighbors were buying? Was I trying to impress people? Was I trying to compensate for a lack of confidence?”

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It turned out, the answer was yes to all those questions.

Similarly, Graham Hill, the founder of eco-friendly design site, got rid of most of his non-necessities after years of living in a four-story, 3,600-square-foot Seattle home. Today, he lives in a 420-square-foot studio, owns just six dress shirts and has 10% of the books he once owned. His New York Times op-ed, “Living With Less, A Lot Less,” was one of the Times’ most read and e-mailed articles in 2013.

Hill’s idea is spreading. The so-called “tiny house” movement has taken off in the last few years among people who are looking to drastically downsize. The homes, which are now subject of several reality TV shows, are no bigger than 400 square feet and can often be built for $30,000 or less.

The overarching narrative for many minimalists is this: At one point they were rich, realized things weren’t bringing them happiness, and then they purged. Some of them have received criticism for getting rid of their things when many families are barely getting by, that their behavior is only for people of a certain income level. For the most part, however, it seems that they’re merely real-life examples of what study after study indicates: Possessions don’t bring us happiness.

“As much as we like our stuff, they really aren’t a part of us,” says Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor. “Arguably, we are the sum total of our experiences. It’s almost like building up a resume by virtue of the things that you did.”

Gilovich, who has been studying happiness as it relates to experiences and possessions for over a decade, says there are three main reasons why doing something brings about more pleasure than owning something: experiences become part of our identity; they promote social connections with others; and they don’t trigger the kind of jealousy or envy we often get when thinking about someone’s material things.

“Materially, that thing will always be there, so it’s very easy for people to say to themselves: ‘If I have the experience, it’ll be fun but it will come and go in a flash. At least I’ll always have the thing,’” Gilovich says. “That seems compelling, even if it turns out to be psychologically wrong. But you adapt to it and eventually you don’t really notice it anymore.”

He does, however, believe that there is a sort of experiential awakening happening, in which people truly are recognizing that there is greater value from experiences even though it will always be tempting to buy material things.

“We hold onto these things because we think they’re going to be useful in some hypothetical future that doesn’t actually exist,” Millburn says. “We hold onto almost everything just in case we might need it some day. I learned that the memories aren’t in things either. That’s why I was holding onto so many things because I thought the memories were in those things, but they weren’t.”

Toward the end of our interview, before one final hug, Millburn tells me he’s about to turn 33. And he’s never been happier.

“To me, that’s the most important part,” he says.

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