Postmodern minimalism is the trend of conscious and attentive renunciation. For some, it is a kind of psychological self-help to cope with the oversupply of the present. For others, it is the claim to contribute to more sustainability in society through their own consumer behaviour. Great goals, which the term ‘minimalism’ alone falls short of expressing – time for a reframing!
Whether the “333 challenge”, whose aim is to get by with only 33 items of clothing for three months, including jackets, shoes, bags and accessories; the German movie “100 Things”, in which Florian David Fitz and Matthias Schweighöfer in their roles as hardcore materialists suddenly have to be content with a limited number of things; or the recently published book “Einfach Familie leben”, which is intended to serve the reader as a guide for a sustainable life with children. They all share a central theme: minimalism. The promise: Consumption or non-consumption does not only improve the planet as a whole, but also the individual well-being of us humans. Let’s have a look at one of the most prominent trends of the present.
Motives of minimalists
The trend towards postmodern minimalism is primarily a phenomenon of our prosperity culture and can therefore only be understood by those who live in too much. You have to have experienced a distinct consumer culture with new smartphones bought every year, fashion lines that are becoming shorter and shorter, and supermarket strawberries in January in order to consciously decide in favour of careful renunciation. The fundamental equation behind downsizing in today’s private life: The less a person owna, the more independent he or she is of consumer pressures, the better off he or she is eventually.
“The trend towards minimalism is primarily a phenomenon of our prosperity culture and can only be understood by those who live in too much.”
Although renunciation may be the common denominator of all minimalists, the motives behind are of a different nature. For some, the new minimalism is a kind of psychological self-help to cope with the oversupply and ever-availability of information and products of all kinds. One therefore wants to increase one’s own level of well-being. The US psychologist Barry Schwartz, in this context, speaks of the paradox of choice, according to which too many options do not give us a feeling of freedom, but – quite on the contrary – paralyze us and ultimately make us extremely unhappy. This feeling is familiar to anyone who has ever spent ten minutes in front of the supermarket shelf and could not decide on one of the twelve vanilla yoghurts.
For others, conscious renunciation is linked to the personal claim to make society more sustainable through their own (in this case reduced) consumer behavior. This means: while the motivation of some is rather self-focused nature, others have ethical and ecological motives. Thus the pendulum oscillates between individual and social motivation. The basic idea is based on the assumption that growth and profit maximization have had their days as ruling principles. The current growth society of the “ever faster, higher and more” and the resulting waste culture are increasingly questioned critically.
A society of abundance
And it is true: We live in abundance. Never before in human history have we had such an abundance and variety of food and consumer goods at our disposal – and this at extremely low prices. One example: Every year around 100 billion new items of clothing arrive in our shopping centers and boutiques. And so – hardly surprisingly – the average number of fashion items purchased in Germany almost doubled between 2000 and 2010; but not the money spent on it. The shopping frenzy is demonstrably like a drug frenzy: In the short term we experience feelings of happiness and exaltation (thanks to the reward centre of our forebrain), but already after a short time we wake up with great disillusionment and usually even remorse.
And so our wardrobes are bursting at the seams. In the morning we spend more time picking out the clothes for the day than the washing machine finally needs to clean them. Decluttering became a recipe for success and helped Japanese Marie Kondo to worldwide fame (e.g. being on the TIME Magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world) with her “magic cleaning” method. Her three bestselling books by now have sold seven million copies. Since then they have guided us step by step in 27 languages on how to put this chaos behind us. Spoiler: As much sense as I see in tidying up overcrowded wardrobes, I don’t think it makes much sense to simply dispose of what has been sorted out. To put it in Marie Kondo’s words: redistribute or up-cycling would really “spark my joy”!
The general simplification of fashion to a few essential items of clothing is a blow to the dominance of the fashion industry. And at the same time it appeals to growth critics and reduction disciples alike. Start-ups take advantage of this and offer timeless basic clothing without seasonal goods or any fashion trends. On the one hand, wearing the same clothes (or favorite pieces of clothing) lets us live like a figure in a comic book. On the other hand, it is something like a public defense against the dictates of fast fashion companies.
Renunciation that is actually wealth
The Japanese proverb “The disorder in the room corresponds to the disorder in the heart” does not come by chance. The clearing up and thus the (temporary) renunciation or reduction enables us to really value the things we have and to experience them with increased intensity. This is good for us, because we can perceive conscious pleasure or joy. This is based on a new longing for clarity, order and well-being. And it is clear that “less is more” does not only refer to the wardrobe, but to all areas of life – from living to media behavior to nutrition.
“The reduction enables us to value the things we still have more and to experience them with an increased intensity.”
In order to be able to live “less is more” effectively, we have to understand that this is not about painful asceticism, which restricts our life or even lets us live like in the Middle Ages. No, it is about the complete opposite: healthy satisfaction through conscious consumption. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the term “minimalism” is not really appropriate, since at first it only transports the “means of restriction”, but not the resulting “purpose of a better feeling” for the individual.
It is becoming clear that the attraction that increased consumption has had on us for a long time is dwindling. Old status thinking is breaking up, materialism is crumbling. In the future prosperity will not be defined by ownership, but by experience and time. Immaterial things such as “time for oneself” are already indispensable for nine out of ten Germans today.
We call this value attitude lowsumerism. And by this we mean that only as much is consumed as is really needed. After all, a large part of our consumption is based on artificially created needs. And so the freedom of renunciation leads to a very special wealth: wealth through a reduction of one’s own complexity, as well as that there is more for others. In this sense, minimalism is actually a maximalism! Because essentially it satisfies our longing for better quality of life. But it also offers us orientation and grounding in a world that is characterized by an oversupply of solutions and truths and therefore leads to the alienation of the ego from its actual needs.
I had the pleasure to be invited to “Planet Wissen” of the German TV channel WDR as an expert on exactly this topic. You can watch the whole show here (unfortunately only in German):
I would also like to recommend the following study, which examines the megatrend “mindfulness” not only with regard to minimalism, but also, for example, with regard to digitization, health and leadership.
Zukunftsinstitut (2017), Frankfurt: Die neue Achtsamkeit. Der Mindshift kommt.