Why Minimalism Makes You Happy

It’s all the rage. You chuck most of your belongings, downsize from the McMansion to a studio apartment, donate your car and live in minimalistic bliss forever after.

Which makes approximately zero sense from the perspective of conventional economics. More is better. Less is worse. Which means minimalism is bad; maximalism is good; four legs good; two legs bad.

Even Orwell’s animals got that much right!

And yet there are about a zillion anecdotes of smart, reasoned – and even human – people dispatching their “goods” for a better, less-encumbered life. And loving it more than a double-bacon chee with a side of chicken nuggets.

What gives? Are these people deluded, or have they identified a valuable practice in want of a descriptive (and maybe even prescriptive) economic theory?

As a pseudo-minimalist, or maybe near-minimalist, or at least not a full-blown maximalist, I think these people are onto something. But naysayers of minimalism remain, not to mention those old guards of economics for whom more is always better than less, and for whom four legs beat two.

So I went looking for some theory describing why minimalists are so darn happy, that can maybe give us additional ways to apply the minimalist’s intuition in other parts of our lives, and that can maybe bring around those old guards of economics to the side of just two legs.

And so I found some, and I’ve even got a bit of empiricism to back it up.

Why Minimalism Makes You Happy
Why Minimalism Makes You Happy

Old Major

Now, the established line of reasoning in support of minimalism is intuitively appealing. One main argument in its favor is simplicity. Everything’s streamlined, there’s no waste, no clutter, no drag.

I am highly sympathetic to these ideas. And it’s pretty hard to conjure a good objection to them. Simplicity is a beautiful thing.

But naysayers point out that minimalism isn’t the only way to achieve simplicity; indeed, lots of maximalist-leaning stuff offers simplicity – say, a chauffeur who simplifies your driving life. And, really, some minimalistic stuff requires enduring complexity in implementing it – you don’t wedge your life into a “tiny house” without effort and creativity.

So you can argue minimalism’s inherent simplicity is sometimes overstated relative to maximalism’s. And, in deference to the naysayers of minimalism, I’ll concede that’s fair. But I’ll maintain that simplicity is easier with minimalism than with maximalism.

Anyway, proponents of minimalism have other chops in the skillet.

The other big one is cost savings. That’s a pretty good defense of why minimalism might make people better off. And, again, I like this reasoning. Less stuff costs less than more stuff. Which saves dough. Which makes you richer.

Yet once more we’re left to tangle with the fact that there are other ways to get rich. And maybe minimalism isn’t the most efficient route. And so naysayers at least have a relevant (weak) counterpunch to the cost-savings argument.

Couple the simplicity and richness arguments together and the naysayers are clearly fighting an uphill battle against those crafty minimalists…but the victory of two legs against four is hardly assured.

So it’d be nice if we could find something like a compelling economic argument for why minimalism seems to make its adherents happy, and why its adherents are happier than minimalism’s simplicity and cost savings alone might imply they’d be.

Snowball

What follows is a basic economic explanation for why minimalism makes people happy. But be forewarned: Although I’ll contend that the argument is economic, some of you will fear I’ve gone over to the dark side. The psycho(logical) side. ‘Cuz lots of this stuff sounds like flim-flam psychology hokum. But I promise it’s not. And just in case you’re still wary, I’ll throw in some numbers to make us all feel better.

First, let’s get some terminology out of the way. Two words we’ll rely on here are “norms” and “exceptions.” Norms can be thought of as what’s typical, usual or, in a mathematical sense, modal. Consider a series of numbers 5, 6, 7, 5, 5, 3, 5, 1, 5, 5, 2, 5, 9, 5. The “norm” here would be 5.

Exceptions are breaks from what’s typical, usual or modal. Exceptions are atypical. They’re numbers that, in the example above, aren’t 5.

Second, let’s make an assumption. We love those around here because they make our world so much cleaner. But this is a very special kind of assumption. Like how a pig that walks on two legs is a very special kind of pig. This assumption is one we’ll unwind later and that’ll actually strengthen our case. But for now, because it simplifies our life, let’s trot it out and admire its cleanliness.

This assumption is one that economist types will like. We’ll assume that, in keeping with conventional economic theory, the daily utility obtained in a life of minimalism is worse than that of maximalism. That is, in the day-to-day existence of a person practicing minimalism, that person’s modal or norm life “utility” or “happiness” or “hedonic set point” is lower than that of an equivalent person practicing maximalism. That’s because the minimalist has less immediate access to utility-yielding stuff and things and space than the maximalist.

Two legs good, four legs better, in other words.

(Note: You may not like this assumption, but listen. If we don’t make this assumption, we’ll be at risk of violating some basic tenets of traditional economic theory. And, if we contrarily assume that minimalism provides, on its own, more utility than maximalism, we won’t be left with anything to analyze because we’ll have pretty much assumed our answer. Moreover, as we’ll soon see, we get the same results from the analysis if we assume the daily modal utility of the minimalist and maximalist are the same. But framing stuff through the “four legs better” assumption here makes the point stronger. So this assumption’s not so bad. Think of it as a pig wearing lots of lipstick.)

And now we’ll go ahead and apply some numbers to the whole shebang. These numbers apply to the daily “utility” of our minimalism and maximalism practitioners. And, to keep things kosher and reflective of an equal budget condition, we’ll let the minimalist and maximalist sustain identical overall utility averages (which we’ll call the “Standard”) – but the daily observed values will be distributed much differently. Here’s how.

The minimalist experiences daily utility that is relatively “low” because the minimalist life is a no-frills kind of experience. However, on occasion, the minimalist indulges or does something that deviates from this no-frills monotony. And these “splurges” are “utility-compensatory,” meaning they are sufficient to bring the average daily utility value for the minimalist up to the Standard. This “utility-compensatory” thing is just an artifact of an equal budgeting constraint for the minimalist and maximalist.

The minimalist’s daily numbers accordingly look something like this set:

5, 5, 5, 8, 5, 5, 8, 5, 10, 5, 5

In mathematical terms, the minimalist has a Standard daily utility of 6, and the distribution of daily utility is skewed positively.

The maximalist, on the other hand, experiences daily utility that is relatively “high” because the maximalist life is filled with frills. However, on occasion, the maximalist just can’t swing the best and has to settle for ho-hum okayness. And these dips into non-maximalism are utility-compensatory, so they bring the average daily utility value down to the Standard. The maximalist’s numbers are as follows:

7, 7, 7, 4, 7, 7, 4, 7, 2, 7, 7

The maximalist has a Standard daily utility of 6, and the distribution is skewed negatively.

Now, traditional economics would suggest two immediate conclusions about our minimalist and maximalist. Up first is the conclusion that, based on the equal Standard average value, the overall life utility of the two are equal.

Up second is the (somewhat weaker) conclusion that, because the maximalist has a higher modal value, the maximalist would likely be expected to report an overall superior life experience if we had to go to a tie-breaker round in determining who’s better off.

However, contrary to these conclusions, research examining analogous circumstances provides empirical evidence that the minimalist ends up happier than the maximalist – despite equal average daily utility values and a lower modal value.

And researchers doing the analysis are economists-types who use numbers and math and even walk on two legs most of the time.

Napoleon

The researchers basically found that people get very accustomed to their “norms.” And they don’t ever really get accustomed to their “exceptions.” So when a minimalist with a modal utility of 5 experiences a great day valued at 8, that minimalist feels the positive skewness in a very big way.

The maximalist, however, encounters the mirror image of this experience. The maximalist really feels the downgrade from a 7 to a 4.

In other words, the important variable in modulating happiness is whether exceptions to a norm are positive or negative. If an exception skews positively from the norm, then additional happiness is experienced. But if an exception skews negatively, sadness reigns.

This sort of finding is particularly important in light of one other feature of how people’s happiness responds to external stimuli. That is, we (often) get really used to our norms really fast, and we especially acclimatize quickly to things such as size of living space that are directly addressed by most notions of minimalism. And so, whether we’re regularly exposed to a daily value of 5 or 7 in our everyday lives, we quickly get used to that norm. And so, contrary to our “four legs good” assumption, the true modal day-to-day happiness difference between the minimalist and maximalist is very low, and maybe even zero.

Which means modulating our happiness is all about whether we can engineer our lives to encompass more positive skewness rather than negative skewness.

Which minimalism seems neatly designed to do.

But wait! There’s more…

When we unwind our earlier assumption that the day-to-day minimalism utility value is lower than that of the maximalism value, our conclusions favoring minimalism’s happiness-inducing credentials get stronger. If nothing else, we can justify this by observing that the simplicity and cost-saving arguments for minimalism would be expected help raise minimalism’s modal value and its average daily value.

The magnitude of the effect isn’t so important really. But the direction is. And the direction is unambiguously positive.

Finally, just because the minimalist’s norm goes to something higher than 5 doesn’t mean that raises the odds of the minimalist falling into a negatively skewed distribution. That’s because it’s all relative. The no-frills minimalistic existence becomes the norm and provides a baseline for the minimalist that is “hedonically equal” to the baseline obtained by the maximalist living the full-frills life.

But the minimalist can continue to easily splurge on experiences that provide the full-frills treatment to enjoy positive skewness, while the maximalist – already accustomed to that level of frilliness – has fewer options for supra-normal experiences.

Slop

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is hardly a rigorous analysis or proof or whatever. But this also ain’t some arcane psycho-nomics journal, either. And nobody wants me to go on for 20 pages about this. We all get the idea, and the idea is that minimalism seems to have some real meat on its ribs.

And now we actually have some real economic theory to explain why. Which is super nice not just because it means we don’t have to worry about whether four legs are really better than two. It’s nice because it opens the door to applying this theory in some other ways to our lives that might benefit from a little positive skewness.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go throw out some crap.

Luchadores, what do you think? Does this theoretic construct apply to minimalism, and are there other ways it can be used in your life to extract more happiness or life satisfaction from the day-to-day? Holla!

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