Throwing ballast overboard


Less is often more: Recently, more and more people are renouncing consumerism and exchanging possessions for freedom.

With the amount of 1.57 trillion euros worth of private expenditure in 2014, the Germans set a new record. The shopping spree is one of Germany’s most popular leisure activities and consumption is generally looked upon as a path to fulfilment and satisfaction. Yet more and more German are seeking a recipe for a happier life beyond the amassing of possessions. Material affluence has long been a thorn in the side of idealists; now pragmatic young people are discovering their preference for fewer possessions.

Take, for example, Alex Rubenbauer. The young student from the Nuremberg area wanted to give his life more order and structure, and therefore resolved to take the step into simplification: “Relinquishing as many things, activities and relationships as possible helped me; my life now feels as simple and manageable as I would like it to be”. A whole minimalist movement is seeking to simplify their lives by consistent omission. Minimalists break out of the circuit of consumption and hoarding, freeing themselves from the everyday constraints that consuming brings with it.

To own a lot of things can become a burden, because buying, maintaining, finding room and finally disposal cost time, money and energy. And last but not least, owning countless things means distraction, says Rubenbauer: he felt the clearing out of superfluous possessions as a “relief”. Minimalists live according to the principle that “Less is more”. But the letting go of things is not an end in itself. The thereby achieved gain in space and time should exercise a positive effect on life: less stress and obligations, lower costs, less tidying up, cleaning and maintenance – and more room for good relationships, ideas and experiences.

Focussing on the essential

For Rubenbauer and others minimalism is about focussing on the essential. “Not still more multi-tasking, but rather more and more single-tasking. More concentration instead of distraction. Minimalism is freedom and independence”, says Rubenbauer, putting it in a nutshell. “Basically, it’s about identifying what’s important to you in life and getting rid of everything else.”

But the motives for adopting the minimalist lifestyle are as various as its adherents: some want to trade unnecessary ballast for a clear head; others want to spare the environment or their purse; and for yet others it is about a critique of consumerism and an alternative to the consumerist society of excess. But minimalism invariably begins with mucking out superfluous or little-used things. How far this goes is left to each individual and is highly variable: some define a maximum number of possessions for themselves, while for others it suffices to set their face against consumer constraints. Many minimalists seek visibility and blog about their new-found lifestyle.

Alex Rubenbauer too would like his blog to “give people food for thought” and “make a contribution to a more sustainable world”. The constant media coverage of minimalism has made it a trend topic. And yet materially reduced ways of life are by no means a manifestation peculiar modern life, but have existed for millennia, as for example in the form of asceticism or the life in many religious communities and monasteries.

Voluntary renunciation of options

Bernd Vonhoff, National Chairman of the Professional Association of German Sociologists, sees in minimalism an “antipole to social developments that find their expression in ‘always higher, faster, further’”. For a growing number of people there is “a discrepancy between the increasing number of options and the actual restrictions on their own possibilities of action”. Minimalism, he says, is therefore a response to the increasing complexity of our world. Deliberate relinquishment can help cope with stress: “Voluntary renunciation of options simplifies choice and allows for self-determination.”

In general, he continues, “self-determination is an important aspect of minimalism”, and therefore only a rich country such as Germany can provide the ideal conditions for the minimalist form of life. Because this way of life always presupposes the conscious decision to live with less than you could actually afford. “Minimalism without a conscious decision would be poverty”, Vorhoff notes, and “experience shows that a life lived in what is felt as lack doesn’t lead to lasting satisfaction”.

Digital have-nots

Minimalists are not necessarily consumption refuseniks. Alex Rubenbauer attaches importance to a “good material standard of living” and though he buys “less”, what he buys is “of good quality”. When they consume, minimalists see to it that the things purchased do in fact fulfil their purpose – ideally, that they make life simpler.

For most of them therefore laptops and smartphones are indispensable. These devices constitute access to the digital world, where to possess little need not always mean doing without. Books, magazines, photos and CD collections today are all non-material and stored on so-called “clouds”. Through digitalization, thousands of things merge more or less into one: the smartphone.

Dave Bruno’s The 100 Thing Challenge started a real race amongst minimalists to be able to call fewer than 100 things their own. Meticulously, many minimalists list their belongings on their blogs. The self-imposed rules sometimes bear strange fruits, as when, for example, the question is raised how many things are constituted by a pair of socks.

Largely undisputed, however, is that only material things should be counted. Digital wealth, which is only further enhanced by the fact that it enables you to have personal data, information and files constantly and everywhere at your disposal, is ignored. In digitalization Bernd Vonhoff sees a “very decisive influence on the possibilities of living minimalistically”. But he also poses the question whether, with the aid of technology, possessions have only been transferred into the virtual realm.

Nora S. Stampfl is on the track of social change as an author, futurologist and organizational consultant.

Translated from the German by Jonathan Uhlaner for the Goethe-Institut.



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