Updated: Apr 20, 2022
“Minimalism is built around the idea that there’s nothing that you’re lacking.”
― Fumio Sasaki
I'm Not A Hoarder
In Los Angeles, California, just off Santa Monica Boulevard, I'm standing in front of Madeline Timbrook's 1947 bungalow. She is an attractive woman in her fifties, with bright red hair that seems to burst from her head. She has her hands on her hips and is swaying from foot to foot. "Rumor has it Jim Morrison used to crash here." She smiles. "Don't know if it's true."
We're standing in front of her closed two-car garage, but I'm not certain two cars would fit as the frames on each side are so narrow (it turns out it doesn't matter). She steps forward and reaches down to lift one side door up, then the other. The entire garage is full of boxes, furniture, books, freezers; in fact, it's so packed you can't walk through the garage. She brushes her hands off and sighs. "There it is. Crap. My boyfriend thinks I should be on that show about hoarders." She looks at me. "I'm not a hoarder. This is just decades of junk I never got rid of and never had room for." She turns and points to her car in the street. "That's where I park."
Swimming In Stuff
Madeline is not alone. The U.S. Department of Energy statistics shows that one-quarter of people with two-car garages have so much stuff they can’t park a car in them. When space runs out in the garage, one in eleven households rent a self-storage space and spends over $1000 a year in rent. And all the stuff they have in their homes? It costs an average of $10 a square-foot to store items in your home, so the simple math? An average 2,000-square-foot house would be $20,000 a year. The average American household has 300,000 items (Los Angeles Times), and we dispose of more than 68 pounds of clothing every year (US National Library of Medicine cites the EPA Office of Solid Waste). That's a lot of stuff.
As the nation swims in stuff, it's no surprise that the popularity of tidying shows like Maria Kondo is growing, and waves of people are adopting a minimal lifestyle. Yet I think there's much more to the motive, especially during a pandemic. For one thing, people have a desire to simplify and calm, and over the last seven months, the nation has done some deep thinking on what's important for living. Minimal lifestyles are trending, and it's being led by millennials.
Less Is More
Minimalism is a lifestyle that embraces owning less stuff and buying less stuff. The latter, of course, completely eliminates keeping up with the Joneses, because minimalists condemn crazy consumerism. The minimal lifestyle is a stark contrast to anything that advocates that buying and spending more will lead to a more joyful existence. There is even minimal running, with shoes that fit like a glove and offer no cushion or support. Wearing them, you feel the ground with every foot strike (as a minimal runner, I've run barefoot for more than 10 years now).
Millennials Aren’t Lazy
The millennials, ironically, are a driving force in the minimal movement. And the notion that millennials are lazy and privileged is a misnomer, because the minimalist lifestyle requires a lot of self-restraint and discipline. After all, they grew up watching an older generation buy things. With millennials, much of the discipline of owning less came from watching their parents spend. Observing that generation seek to acquire more in reckless and excessive lifestyles eventually created enormous economic downfalls for mom and dad. And they did not unsee that.
Millennials learned that spending money on things they don’t really need is fruitless. When they do buy things, they do a lot of research and make careful decisions on price, quality, and even brand. They don’t want to make the same financial blunders their parents did, so they’re shopping carefully, if at all, and they are avoiding an accumulation of stuff. Since most millennials are paying off college debt, the need to conserve and save is important. Yet millennials are also environmentally conscious, and a minimal lifestyle offers them support for both.
Hoarding As A Drug
Why is it so difficult to de-clutter, or "space clear," one of the first steps in becoming a minimalist? It turns out much of it is in the brain. This study at the Yale School of Medicine took two groups, non-hoarders and hoarders, and then instructed them to look through pictures of items such as old newspapers and junk mail as they lay in an MRI machine. Some of the items belonged to others, and some to the participants. They were asked to decide what items to throw out and what to keep. Researchers monitored their brain activity using MRI scans as they made their decisions.
The hoarder group showed increased activity in two regions of the brain when scanning their own items. The anterior cingulate cortex and the insula parts of the brain lit up like fireworks, as though they were viewing pictures of their own children or loved ones (both are these regions of the brain are also connected with conflict and pain, and the same pattern of brain flux in other substrates of psychological pain). When the hoarder acknowledged perplexing feelings concerning tossing his stuff out, the pattern of activation was even stronger.
In simple terms, the changes in the cingulate and insula cortex create the message in the brain that something's not right. This creates an internal alarm that forces the participant to find a solution to relieve the anxiety of seeing his stuff. The researchers found it's the same dynamic as any addiction to drugs or alcohol. Holding on to your stuff feeds the reward center of the brain when you are a hoarder.
And hoarding, like drugs, is self-sustaining. Every time a hoarder holds on to something, she feels calmer and more nurtured. That relief can become addictive. Research shows that hoarders have greater activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) when debating whether to throw something out. The vmPFC is associated with a myriad of neurological experiences, but the two regions are relevant to hoarding.
For the non-hoarders, there is the sentimentality conflict. We often hold on to stuff and refuse to organize it due to memories that evoke powerful feelings. While we could sort and throw some things away, instead we stall and decide to do it another day. Yet that day never arrives.
How To Space Clear
Even if you're not a hoarder, space clearing in minimalism can be a daunting task. For most Americans, time is the most difficult thing to manage, and allowing a day or two to organize and throw away is simply not in the cards for most (perhaps the more perplexing is sorting through collected junk). Converting to a minimal lifestyle takes prudence, discipline, and hard work. Yet living it has tons of benefits. Because you spend less and cease wanting more, minimalists save money and build money-saving habits. With the minimal lifestyle, you really begin to understand what's important and what you really value in life. And minimalists learn to organize time because they prioritize and place value on daily work and activities. They assign value to what's worth keeping, and what's worth doing. Ridding yourself of the unnecessary helps define who you really are. And that's pretty cool. Minimalism could be the new love of your life.
That's A Lot Of Stuff
Madeline Timbrook invited me around the back of her house to her courtyard. The small square of cement pavers is surrounded by an even smaller speckling of grass and dirt. I smelled the ocean and fragrant Yerba Santa shrubs. There are three birdbaths scattered across the yard, some in pieces, and I count six bird feeders. As we sit, I count eight pieces of patio furniture, scarred by the salt air. There are also three hammocks, a lawnmower, and a pile of lawn tools next to the brick wall that borders the yard.
Madeline stares into the yard. "I just ordered one of those solar LED glow-in-the-dark yard lights. It'll brighten this place up."