The value of having less

Minimalism does not mean renunciation. It means appreciating what you have / photo: Johannes Eber, 2016

From an economic point of view, Minimalism seems to be weird. The movement claims that having less makes you happier. 

This is at odds with economic thinking.

Roughly speaking, economic thinking assumes that people are better off the more they can afford. So are economy and Minimalism opposites that exclude each other?

I don’t think so, and here is why. 

A first approximation comes from not defining Minimalism as having less and less but avoiding the unnecessary. Already in this first broad consideration, Minimalism fits in with economic thinking. It simply makes no sense to have something you don’t need.

Second, in economics, there is the theory of diminishing marginal utility. Diminishing marginal utility refers to the phenomenon that each additional unit of gain leads to an ever-smaller increase in subjective value. 

This theory is at the heart of economic thinking. Minimalism uses different words for this but means the same thing: the more we can afford, the less additional benefit we get from it.

In this second aspect, too, Minimalism fits in with economic thinking.

But Minimalism goes one step further. It claims that additional things not only do us little good but can even harm us. I’ve never read about that in economic literature (perhaps a field of research that needs to be explored in the future).

The train of thought behind that conclusion convinces me. 

It goes like that. 

We do not only need money to buy things (which we must have earned before), but – after we have bought them – these things want our attention, we have to take care of them, they need space and demand time. A cluttered apartment takes longer to clean. Of the many pairs of pants in the closet, one must be chosen to wear. The second home in the Swiss Alps must be paid and kept in good condition. – The more we own, the greater the effort to maintain all these things.

And these efforts maintain even if our needs change. Perhaps we no longer enjoy the second car, maybe a convertible, parked in the garage. But it is still there ­- constantly reminding us to take a trip.

And as our possessions grow, one thing doesn’t grow with them: our time. The more we own, the less time we can spend on each possession.

So it makes a lot of sense from an economic point of view to regularly question our possessions. We should give away what we no longer need (probably, other people can do more with them).  

But giving away, however, is only the prerequisite for experiencing the real benefit of Minimalism: namely, recognising what is really important to us. The one book that moved us deeply when we were young. The one pot among the many in the kitchen cabinet that heats water the fastest. The jacket that has always been our favourite one.

At its core, Minimalism is not about having less but about recognising what helps, makes us feel good, and lets us strive. Minimalism is about increasing the value of things we own. Not in an objective but in a subjective sense. And it’s this subjective sense that really matters in our life.

My Opinion: In a world where, for many people, there is always more to have for less to pay, where the number of possessions is constantly growing and where space and time, on the other hand, are not, it’s high time to learn how to deal with that development. We need tools so that the number of things we own does not make us unhappy. We have to get used to getting rid of stuff regularly. We must learn to find out what we really need amidst all the many things and offers around us. We need to familiarise ourselves with the idea that less can be more. 

Not only economic thinking has to keep pace with this development. We’re not used to thinking that way. We haven’t lived in a world of abundance for that long. 

But change may be easier than we think. Because digitalization helps us to live with fewer things. We no longer need a CD collection to listen to music or a bookshelf to find a good read. And we don’t need to possess a car. It can be borrowed when needed. 

I am pretty sure: Minimalism is here to stay. Not as a counter-movement. But as a consistent further development of what we humans strive for, namely to make the best of our lives.

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