Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving


Part of the enjoyment of being an expat is the inevitable “minimalism” that ensues. Having disposed of a significant portion of our possessions, with another large chunk mostly-forgotten in storage on the other side of the world, we’re enjoying living a much lighter lifestyle here in Norway. And living in a centrally-located but small apartment helps keep a lid on any eventual material creep that might occur.

But the appeal of material minimalism was with us even before we took on a more portable lifestyle as expats. It was something we strived for through strategic consumption choices – borrowing and not buying, making do or going without, reusing and re-purposing. Even back then, though, we recognised that minimalism was a means, not an end.

The idea of minimalism, in the context of materialism and consumption, has a lot of allure. It conjures up notions of a streamlined, considered life supported by carefully chosen possessions and pursuits. But despite its Zen-like aura the idea of minimalism can be complicated and potentially flawed.

7 reasons why minimalism might not make you happy:

  1. It’s just a different kind of obsession with possessions. Consumerism says possessions and acquisition will make you happy, minimalism insists that it is the stuff that clutters your life that keeps you from being happy. Both views are extreme and mired in a consumption mind-set. A healthier view is to recognize that, by being mindful and considered about consumption, you have a better chance of maximising your welfare and that of others (but there’s no guarantees…!).
  2. It can be a form of deprivation. A tendency towards a simpler life with less possessions should develop organically. It should be conditioned on a gratitude, resourcefulness and authenticity – all traits that need to be purposefully cultivated, as does the social and human capital required to support a simpler, more independent lifestyle. Simply abandoning the bulk of your possessions will leave you in a horrible vacuum unless you have functioning, meaningful alternatives (for example, a sense of meaning, relationships to develop and enjoy, interests or aspirations to pursue, resources to live off and the physical and mental capacity to enjoy your leisure).
  3. It can lead to missed opportunities. Why pass up a potential burgeoning interest or what might be a fantastic experience because you have an aversion to items. Sure, you might have too many books already but this next one could be the one that triggers the next big growth phase in your life. Possessions can be empowering and, if carefully selected, tools that enrich and facilitate engagement with the world. As Daniel Miller, author of The Comfort of Things states:

    In my research it becomes clear that the people who develop strong and multiple relationships with things are the same people who develop strong and multiple relationships with people.

    The reason many people benefit from minimalism is because they have a critical mass of possessions and lack the time and capacity to enjoy any more – the marginal utility of more consumption is minimal. This is not true minimalism, which is instead a cultivated ability to thrive with less (that is, an ability to recognise which acts of consumption will provide the biggest benefits and least harm).

  4. Minimalism is relative. Having a fixed idea about how many possessions is appropriate, either for yourself or others, fails to recognise how different individuals are. For example, the notion that 100 items is ideal does not take into account that some people require more supports (what Fromm calls existential needs) than others because of their unique social and personal situation. It also doesn’t recognise that the balance of possessions that works for your current lifestyle might not apply in the future, when your interests or circumstances change. Limiting your possessions to an arbitrary number can create unnecessary limits on your growth and enjoyment.
  5. It is easy to cheat. It is still possible to suffer the same suffocating effects of overconsumption without actually hoarding endless possessions. Whether it’s too many travel photos, an excess of eBooks or an over-indulgence in online media such as movies, the digital age makes it possible to over consume without the clutter. Or, for example, by constantly churning from one object or pursuit to another one can simply replace items, maintaining the outward appearance of a minimalist regime but in reality acting like a serial hoarder.
  6. Minimalism fails to address the problem of mental clutter. There’s a scene in the movie Kundun in which a western woman explains to Tibetan monks who are visiting her home that her husband’s study is relatively bare because he dislikes clutter, to which one of the monks replies that a sparse office is of little value if one’s mind is still cluttered. Similarly, shedding possessions is of little value if you still fail to appreciate leisure time and end up time-poor anyway.
  7. Minimalism is a symptom, not a condition. It is erroneous to think that simply having less possessions will equal more happiness. It’s the attitude of being happy with less, and finding meaning and purpose outside of objects, that results in minimalism, not the reverse. The challenge is to address craving and attachment to objects – the objects themselves aren’t necessarily the problem.

Despite these caveats, it is probably the case that most people in the developed world would benefit from having less ‘stuff’ – at the very least it means less time spent dealing with objects and working to acquire objects. But minimalism isn’t necessarily a quick fix for instant happiness.

Simplicity is great but it doesn’t need to be dressed up in minimalism, and making do with less is fantastic but it need not become an aversion to objects. The Stoics philosophers recognized that money is neither inherently good nor evil, but that it should be judged based on how it is used. Similarly, having more or less possessions does not need to be placed on a moral spectrum; it’s the attitude towards consumption that matters most.



  1. Coleen
    October 4, 2015

    What are the things that you see as most important, even to a minimalist household? I’m an expat and have moved a lot, and what I miss the most is a full closet of clothes I haven’t worn a million times. What about you?

    • The Trailing Man
      October 4, 2015

      Ooh, good question. The unread books? Or maybe the odd, exotic foods bulking out the pantry?

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This entry was posted on October 3, 2015 by in Travel and tagged .
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