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Over the past year, I’ve become more and more interested in minimalism as a means of reducing consumption. I’ve intentionally tried phasing my closet into something that looks more like a capsule wardrobe, not only to learn to appreciate and use the items I own, but to become a smarter (read: less wasteful) consumer. Most of this project has been successful—I have given away over three garbage bags worth of clothes, including any items that I hadn’t worn within the last year. Left behind in my closet were pieces I both frequented and enjoyed, leaving me feeling excited and ambitious. Maybe it was possible to have the perfect versatile, vogue wardrobe (sans excess clothing) as long as I only bought pieces I simultaneously loved and needed.

But I was surprised to find how quickly I fell back into materialistic tendencies. As I shopped, I began over-thinking every purchase: I became preoccupied with building the ideal wardrobe, shopping more intentionally, but shopping nonetheless. I felt compelled to find the items I “had to have” to make my capsule wardrobe possible. But even if I loved an item and deemed it necessary, it felt difficult to make the purchase. I was always questioning whether I would ever be really content with my wardrobe—depending on if and how trends, my taste, or immediate needs would continue to change after I “completed” my capsule wardrobe.

While going through this inner turmoil, I came across a phrase that made me rethink the whole process: “Enough is a decision, not an amount.” Although there are certainly exceptions to this rule, it helped me to identify something both materialism and minimalism were propelling me toward: satisfaction.

This novel concept—that achieving enough of something is attained via choice, rather than by a perceived amount—led me to realize I was letting my consumption be dictated by the needs our culture was projecting onto me, even as I was trying to become less erratic with purchases. As I ruminated over this thought, I began to explore why we become susceptible to these perceived needs and how to find satisfaction without necessarily satisfying them.

Confusing needs with wants

Despite its good fruit, my capsule wardrobe was a symptom of a familiar problem: minimalism is another popular trend that promises personal satisfaction through items bought. I began to believe that when I acquired a certain quantity of clothes (or curated a coordinating color palette) I would finally be satisfied with my closet. In other words, I still felt myself being pulled towards materialism, even if it was through the means of intentionally consuming less.

Although a capsule wardrobe and minimalism both can work against materialism, it is important to note that consuming intentionally is still consumption. While it is true that humans genuinely need certain material items, it is crucial to differentiate the needs that are projected onto us from true needs. This means not just being intentional about which item we choose, but asking why we desire it in the first place.

In his article, “Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?” Harvard professor and writer Arthur Brooks identifies the tension I experienced, noting that as modern comforts rise, general happiness decreases:

We are promised happiness with the next pay raise, the next new gadget—even the next sip of soda. The Swedish business professor Carl Cederström argues persuasively in his book The Happiness Fantasy that corporations and advertisers have promised satisfaction, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. Though the material comforts of life in the U.S. have increased for many of its citizens, those things don’t give life meaning. . . .

We don’t get happier as our society gets richer, because we chase the wrong things.

As long as we are seeking lasting satisfaction through our purchases, we will be disappointed. Unfortunately, between the bombardment of marketing through every medium, ever-evolving trends, and our tendency to want to keep up with our peers, we often continue to fall into the trap of confusing needs and wants. We “need” the new iPhone because we “need” the newest camera (although the one we have works perfectly and fulfills our basic need for a phone); we “need” a new coat because we like the newest style better than the one we already own; we “need” an iPad because we’re the only one of our friends who doesn’t have one. And so forth.

In addition to this, materialism has a proven tendency to give us more of what we don’t want: unhappiness and discontentment. A review of the literature surrounding consumerism and well-being identified the insatiable habits of consumer-minded individuals:

Due to their insatiable desire and unrealistic expectations, materialistic individuals find it more difficult to be satisfied with their (quality of life) compared to unmaterialistic others. Therefore, even with increased consumption, one may feel unhappy because one’s aspirations are heightened as well.

Despite indulging in their want for goods, consumers felt disappointed due to the impossible hopes they placed in those items, leaving them unsatisfied with their own life because of it. In the never-ending cycle of materialism, retailers win, but buyers lose.

Minimalism the lifestyle vs. minimalism the trend

Luckily, the heart of true minimalism fights against the disappointments of materialism. But it’s important to note the aesthetic trend of minimalism doesn’t fully reflect the values of a genuine minimalist way of life.

In an essay he wrote for The New York Times, Kyle Chayka, author of The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, identifies the pivotal difference between minimalism as a trend and a way of life:

Minimalism as a static style will inevitably end, as all trends do, and we’ll turn against the empty walls, skeletal furniture and soft textures. We’ll embrace bright colors and loud patterns and call them the next new thing. But minimalism’s fundamental ideas will remain as long as human civilization, because we never quite learn its lesson: What already exists immediately around us is more important than all of our anxieties about what’s not there yet. The imperfection of reality is perfect.

It’s not that decluttering isn’t important—or even life-altering for some of us. But the present minimalist style of wooden toys and stripped-down decor, like any other trend, demands that we replace everything that’s already there; it demands we acquire more stuff. Quite simply, the trend of minimalism is just another form of optimizing our life toward perfection. Even as we try to consolidate our things, they must be replaced with a better version—one that’s promised to be timeless but, ultimately, will go out of style because most trends fail to outlast change.

As Chayka points out, the purpose of true minimalism is accepting whatever is right in front of us—something more commonly known as gratitude. When we seek out the idyllic life, through consumption or otherwise, we fail to appreciate what is already there. There are always areas in life that may need improvement, but the way to achieve satisfaction comes by choosing to appreciate life’s goodness, and the goods in it, whether or not they are perfect.

Choosing what will satisfy us

Under the premise that achieving enough is a conscious decision rather than an amount achieved, I realized that satisfaction with my closet didn’t lie in the perfect pieces for my wardrobe but in my choice to be happy with them. In making that decision, I found that part of the reason I was hyper-critical about every purchase was because my goal—to be content with my clothes for years to come—failed to acknowledge that my own needs and desires can (and will) change. In other words, there will never be an enduringly perfect wardrobe (or piece of furniture, or gadget). Either we can accept this reality with gratitude toward what we do have, or we can keep running on the hedonic treadmill as we try to keep up with the notion of perfection. 

Achieving contentment with our own consumption means having a healthy relationship with objects, including a certain sense of detachment and self-awareness. As objects break or tear, fashion moves on, and desires change, we can decide what of our possessions we’d like to replace without putting our entire identity into them. Whether that’s a small or large amount of goods, it’s possible to consume without our quality of life becoming dependent upon how perfect they are. Cultivating contentment will almost certainly require us to take our eyes off of what our friends are purchasing and those pesky ads on Instagram. 

Perhaps the most important part of finding satisfaction, though, is remembering that it is best achieved outside of consumption. As the review of literature on consumerism and well-being put it, “Materialism inherently shifts a person’s focus onto extrinsic rather than intrinsic goals. Materialistic individuals rely on factors outside of the individual, such as financial success and acquisition of possessions, to achieve satisfaction and happiness. Such preoccupation with material possession may lead to neglect in other life domains, such as social and interpersonal relationships.” 

When we spend our energy and time on consuming, we decrease our involvement in avenues that are proven to increase quality of life, like community, spirituality, or creativity. Letting go of our desire for more stuff can empower us to address and respond to real needs, like appreciating and connecting through the relationships and activities that can provide lasting satisfaction. 

Once we accept that material goods won’t perfect our lives, we will be able to engage in a fulfilling life that fosters connection with our environment and other people (rather than things). Whether it’s done in order to embrace minimalism or tackle materialism, making the conscious choice to be grateful for the imperfect objects in life and the ways they do fulfill our unique needs will free us from the grip of dissatisfaction.