Unraveling the minimalist's dilemma: finding peace between simplicity and the quest for social standing.
March 21, 2023
Here I am; 27 years old, highly educated, sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a 6m2 room. A part of me looks at this environment and thinks: “perfect. I’ve got everything I need at my disposal, and I’m barely spending any money on it”.
Another part of me is thinking: “what the hell are you doing? You could be working five days a week like a regular person, and get yourself a nice private apartment, with a proper bed, and all the tools and technologies that you might need to live a comfortable life. Yet here you are, sleeping on the floor in a tiny closet.”
Minimalism vs status
I struggle with this. On the one hand, I’m a proponent of living a minimalistic lifestyle. It allows me the freedom to live life on my own terms, and it helps me to keep a decluttered mind. On the other hand, I value having a high status. I want other people to think that I’ve got my shit together and that I’m somehow ‘special’.
Intellectually, I understand that I shouldn’t be playing this status game, as it’s a zero-sum one, and it gives other people control over how I feel. However, I would be dishonest with myself if I said that I don’t care about this status game; because I do.
I care what you think about me
I do care what other people think about me, and saying that I don’t care, or convincing myself that not caring is better, is not going to make me stop caring. Even worse: I’ll use the idea that “I don’t care about status” as a status symbol, because it makes me better than “all of you people who care about status so much”, and I’m above that.
A tension inside of me
This duality is causing tension inside of me: part of me wants to live this simple life and be free, and another part of me wants to get the recognition that comes with living a materially successful life. So how should I navigate this path?
The benefits of minimalism
Let me first explain why I am a proponent of living a minimalistic lifestyle. In my view, a minimalistic lifestyle provides us with a lot of benefits. The main one is freedom; freedom from distraction, stress, and financial concerns. Additionally, it helps us to create healthier and more sustainable ecosystems, making the means for living a good life accessible to many more people.
Freedom from distraction
By simplifying our lives we get rid of distractions. We declutter our physical space, reducing the number of objects that can distract us. Simultaneously, we also reduce the anxiety and worries that we might have around our possessions, reducing our mental distractions.
Simply put: we don’t worry about possessions we don’t have.
Freedom from financial concerns
Another benefit is that it helps us in attaining financial freedom. By cutting down our expenses, we need less money to sustain ourselves. And the less money that we need, the more freedom we have. In a similar vein, by requiring less, we also reduce a lot of the pressure on global ecosystems; including the ecological and economic systems.
We can then use our newfound freedom and capacity to focus on what matters. Solving problems that make a much more significant contribution to human well-being, strengthening our local communities and our global economy.
The quality of what we desire
And I think that’s an important point to keep in mind: living a minimalistic life does not mean living a life of less desire. Instead, it means desiring better things. We will always want something, but it is what we wish for that determines the qualities of our lives.
The cons of minimalism
I think that the main (implicit) argument against minimalism is that it isn’t sexy. In the west, we are brought up in a culture that values growth. We always want better, faster, and more efficient things. We want the new smartphone, the faster train, and the bigger business. We have been deeply conditioned to always seek growth and improvement in everything that we do.
It’s no surprise that a call for living more ‘minimalistically’ is perceived as unattractive by many. But this is really a problem of branding. Because as the old adage goes: less is more.
And less really is more. Because less distraction means more focus on that which truly matters. In this sense, living a minimalistic lifestyle is not anti-growth; rather, it’s pro-growth: namely, all the growth that is truly moving human well-being and flourishing forward.
Powering the economic engine
Another argument would be that the economic engine requires people to spend money; ie. buying products and services. but this is putting the cart before the horse. What we need is people to produce products and experiences.
Money has only been created as a means of improving the barter process. However, somewhere along the line money has become so removed from what it resembles (namely value, which is created through productive capability), that we started treating it as the end, rather than the means. So, instead of saying that we need people to produce to keep the economy going, we’re saying that we need people to spend.
The fundamental problem here is that someone can produce much more than they spend, but someone can never spend more than they produce (or are gifted by another producer). A spending-first approach is therefore fundamentally one of scarcity, whereas a production-first approach is one of abundance.
So yes, we need people to spend money, but only to the degree that it helps us increase our production and production capability. The moment we stop producing our money will become worthless in the blink of an eye.
Status seeking monkeys
Another argument that weighs heavily, but that we might try to deny more, is that part of our core being is that of status-seeking monkeys. For all sorts of evolutionary reasons, we’ve evolved to value having a high status within our communities; the main one being access to a high-value partner, in the hopes of producing successful offspring.
In the Netherlands, which is my country of origin, we greatly value equality and have an incredibly low power distance. This means that we dislike others expressing control over us and that we use hierarchies for practical needs, and not for the sake of status. In a Dutch company, the lowest-ranking person will call the CEO by her first name, and it isn’t uncommon for the boss to be the one who brings coffee to the whole team.
However, even in a culture that seems equal on the surface level, we are still playing status-seeking games; we’ve just hidden them better. Everyone in a Dutch organization is keenly aware of the power structures, we just navigate them differently.
It’s this fundamental desire for status that leads many of us to a materialistic lifestyle. We want to own a house, a car, and other things that make us seem successful. Of course, these things have their utility, but just as often we use them to signal our status in the social hierarchy to others.
Security and stability
Lastly, we have our need for security and stability. Possessing abundant material goods provides us with a sense of security and stability. It’s nice to have that house, that car, and all the technological tools that help us live a comfortable life.
However, material goods can disappear from our lives in an instant, potentially making them a great source of suffering. Not desiring to own these things in the first place can prevent this from happening. In this sense, owning things can provide us with more insecurity than not owning things.
Insecurity in simplicity
This brings us to the issue that I’m experiencing. I enjoy living a minimalistic lifestyle, and I’d like to believe that this would be true even if I had €10M in the bank. But I’m wondering if this is really the case, or if I’m simply using my minimalistic lifestyle as an excuse to work less. Perhaps I’m not willing or capable of living a ‘productive’ life, and hence, I claim to live a simple lifestyle as a way out.
Where this train of thought really goes off the rails, is when I realize that this is exactly the point of living a minimalistic lifestyle. I should want to work less so that I can focus my time and energy on things I find more valuable.
So what I want is what I do, but I don’t truly believe that that’s what I want. What a tangle…
Because a part of me wants that status and recognition that comes with material abundance. And when I enter that 6m2 room with a mattress on the ground, that same part of me loathes myself: “You’re being a lazy piece of shit, and you’re rationalizing it to yourself by claiming a minimalistic lifestyle.”
The moral dilemma
That’s the core dilemma. Morally and intellectually, I’m a firm proponent of living a minimalistic, or essentialist, lifestyle. But socially, I value having a high status, and the ability to show that I’m materially abundant. This is causing a great amount of dissonance inside of me.
To overcome this, I will need to find some way to bring these two beliefs into accordance. I will need to find a way to channel my desire for status in a healthy way, or else change my stance on living a minimalistic lifestyle.
Because it’s only when we can transcend these status-seeking games, that we can fully embrace a minimalistic, or essentialist life, and focus our time and energy on true growth and development.