Minimalism is on the rise— but unless we build our relationships as much as we pare down out possessions, it will fail.
Last week, two opinion pieces in the New York Times discussed materialism and the good life in American culture. In his article, “Living with Less. A lot Less,” Graham Hill explains how he overcame anxiety and found happiness by minimizing clutter in his life and concentrating on meaningful intangibles. Jessica Soffer’s article, “Staying Sane in Small Spaces,” wasn’t written in response to Hill, but it provides counter to Hill’s piece, emphasizing how the difficulties of living in community with others can cloud the benefits of living sparely. In a society where minimalism is increasingly emphasized as a route to happiness, Soffer makes the important point that our ability to bear with others will ultimately make or break the success of such an approach.
Hill’s personal experiences with materialism exemplify many of the larger cultural shifts that have occurred over the past two decades. As a young entrepreneur, Hill hit it big financially during the internet boom in the late 90’s. After one especially lucrative deal, Hill went on a spending spree, purchasing a house, car, electronics, and countless other items. His spending was a celebration of his accomplishments – representative of the prosperity of the 90’s and its cultural emphasis on wealth as a reflection of status. Over time, however, Hill found that the stresses of maintaining his homes and other possessions were “consuming him.”
After falling in love, and consequently moving between several cities across the world, Hill reports that his “relationship with stuff quickly came apart.” As he pared back the material goods in his life, he describes, “My life was full of love and adventure and work I cared about. I felt free and I didn’t miss the car and gadgets and house.” Hill’s shift away from materialism parallels a larger cultural shift, in the first decade of the 21st century, away from consumerism in the face of the recession. The economic downturn has made our society question the excess of the 90’s and its ability to bring us happiness. Today, minimalism is even becoming hip, and environmentalism and other popular movements emphasize low impact living and waste reduction.
While a movement away from consumerism towards minimalism may seem like a good thing, Soffer’s article quickly qualifies the point. Soffer recounts her experiences growing up in a cramped apartment building in New York City, where the density of residents was so high that personal privacy was minimal. She provides an especially outrageous anecdote, in which a mentally ill neighbor repeatedly disturbed, pranked, and sabotaged her family and their apartment. She notes how, rather than moving out, her family learned to cope with his actions, over months and months, for the sake of maintaining their apartment, which was relatively inexpensive and in a good location. In this case, living minimally had certain benefits, but it wasn’t without significant challenges.
While Hill found his greatest happiness in replacing material goods with the company of other people, Soffer notes how some of her family’s greatest angst arose from their neighbor’s antics. Soffer concludes her piece by noting, “We have to coexist, cohabitate in one small unforgiving space, inside another small unforgiving space. We travel together in small unforgiving spaces. And so we practice, above all else, compromise — in any situation, the sanest approach a person can take.” Soffer makes the key point that living minimally not only removes certain distractions and anxieties, but also removes the privacy and personal space that wealth affords. Relationships become paramount, both because of changing priorities and sheer proximity. While some relationships yield happiness and others angst, all will undoubtedly require compromise, forgiveness, and sanity.
In reading these two articles in tandem, we glimpse our culture’s shifting priorities. From emphasizing wealth in the 90’s, to paring back and focusing on intangible goods, like relationships, in the 2000’s, there’s a sense in which each decade emphasizes a different potential source of happiness. While we may have made some progress against sheer consumerism, the pursuit of happiness in relationships is bound to fail without communal compromise and grace. And grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, isn’t cheap.