Minimalism may not be the ticket to happiness we think it is

Maybe we need to start loving our possessions even more?

Alita Ong | Stocksy United

About five years ago, my parents-in-law decided they’d had too much. Too much stuff, that is. They hatched a plan to retire to a sailboat. Any possession that didn’t fit on that boat had to go. So away went the television, the cars, the fine china, and the extra clothing. Deb, my mother-in-law, describes spending days in their garage hauling stuff to the dumpster, packing it up for Goodwill, even putting some at the curb with a “free” sign. As I watched her organize and sort, I remember thinking that it seemed like a lot of work. But it was worth the effort, because now Tim and Deb are sailing the Caribbean, delighted at being free of so much stuff. They say it’s like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

At this time of year, the prospect of downsizing seems particularly inviting as we look at all the stuff that exploded from its wrapping under our trees at Christmas, wondering why we bought so much. We find ourselves regretfully making space for new toys by shoving old ones into boxes in the basement or garage. Consumerism is convenient, but the effects of shopping and clutter can create a sense of guilt. Wastefulness not only effects our credit card balances, but too many possessions eventually become a burden. We don’t know what to do with it or how to get rid of it.

In order to become less consumerist, we need to love material objects more, not less.

There’s a documentary trending on Netflix about this problem called Minimalism. It tells the story of people who’ve had enough, so they’ve minimized the stuff in their lives and are looking to find freedom in the process. Minimalism asks, “How might your life be better with less?” It’s a good question. No doubt, many of us would be happier if we simplified. But the answer is more complicated than an easy formula because sometimes less is not more and less stuff may not equal more happiness. After all, material possessions themselves aren’t evil, it’s how we relate to them that matters.

Before we vow to never shop again and drag our possessions into the backyard for a bonfire, we might pause and ask ourselves a couple of questions: Is getting rid of everything the quick answer? Will having nothing, or very little, automatically make me happy?

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the truth is that in order to become less consumerist we need to love material objects more, not less. The problem with consumerism is that it doesn’t actually value things very much. Instead, it promotes constant spending on items of low quality and that aren’t loved for what they are. In a consumerist society, an item is desired in large part because it provides a non-material benefit. For instance, why do we rush to get the latest smartphone when the current one works perfectly fine? Because the new one is a status symbol, a sign of good taste, or provides the heady rush of shopping therapy. None of these supposed benefits has anything to do with the physical object, which isn’t all that important. This is why advertising is so effective. It shapes our tastes, convinces us of what’s trendy, and creates anxiety to have what’s “new,” and “the best,” so we don’t get left behind.

True freedom is to love everything in this world just the way it is meant to be loved.

If we’re using “stuff” to fill a spiritual gap, then no matter how much we simplify it won’t help. If we aren’t finding an authentic spiritual connection, there’s nowhere to go, even if our houses are empty and clutter-free. On the other hand, what if we loved things more, in an appropriate way, and not as substitutes for a deeper need? Then we could relax about our possessions and wouldn’t be in such a hurry to acquire more, because we already love what we have. Think about it kind of like the teddy bear you have from when you were a child—it’s old, maybe a bit shabby and outdated, but you love it and would never try to replace it. True freedom is to love everything in this world just the way it is meant to be loved, no more and no less, knowing that objects can never provide true spiritual fulfillment.

When the time comes to simplify, if we maintain a healthy perspective we’ll know we’re cleaning house not because grandma’s teapot collection is evil and we need to be set free, but because sometimes things can crowd out the more important parts of our lives. My mother-in-law reminds herself, “Never, ever should I let things or the acquiring of them become more important than people.”

The human heart is too precious to fill with just anything. Don’t toss the things you love out of guilt. But if clutter is crowding out the place in your heart that should be filled with more lasting things, go ahead and leave that stuff behind. That is the path to true freedom.

Each week, Fr. Michael Rennier reflects on the Sunday Mass readings and pulls out a theme applicable to our daily lives. Today’s reflection is based on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time.

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Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier

Fr. Michael Rennier graduated from Yale Divinity School and lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and 5 children. He is an ordained Catholic priest through the Pastoral Provision for former Episcopal clergymen that was created by Pope St. John Paul II. He’s also a contributing editor at Dappled Things, a journal dedicated to the written and visual arts.

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