I’m currently doing a free online course in happiness. It’s really good (not nearly as ‘out there’ as it sounds), and I’ll probably write a post on it soon. But today I’m going to focus on one thing it taught, which really stayed with me. It’s the folly of something called ‘medium maximisation’.
A medium, in this context, is essentially a tool we use to get something we want or need. Money is the classic example. It’s of no use on its own, but you trade it to get stuff or services you would like. The trouble is, people get fixated on the money, and forget why they wanted it in the first place – to work less, to live in a nicer area, to be happier. They work more, accrue more just for its own sake, and end up miserable. Medium maximisation is this tendency to focus on the medium instead of the outcome you’re after.
There are other examples. Take status. Why do people want it? They want to be respected, admired. They want what they say and do to matter to other people, they want to have an impact on the world. But some end up tailoring what they say and do, simply to gain people’s approval. Others pursue positions of power and start abusing them. Or they work so hard, they lose touch with the very people they wanted to impress. They may build up status, but respect and admiration? Maybe not.
So when you have a goal, it’s important to remind yourself occasionally why you’re working towards it. I think it’s the same with minimalism. Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists once said you could easily get rid of all your stuff tomorrow, but still be miserable. Minimalism is only a tool you can use to improve your life. It isn’t the improvement in itself.
When I think about why minimalism first appealed to me, a few things come to mind.
I liked the idea of not having to tidy, clean, maintain and organise my stuff as often as I was doing. I liked the idea of spending less time looking for lost belongings. I liked the idea of needing less space for my stuff, giving me the freedom to up sticks and move, or go travelling, more easily. I liked the idea of freeing up my time and money so I could try interesting experiences and socialise more with family and friends. I particularly liked the idea of buying fewer things so I could pay off my debts instead.
Essentially, I wanted to be happier, to see and do interesting things, and to spend more time with those I care about.
The trouble is, if you start trying to dramatically cut down the number of things you own, you can get carried away with pursuing minimalism for its own sake. Yes, there’s plenty of junk you find it easy to ditch at first. Then you find yourself wondering if you can bin old letters from friends, because the drawer would look so much emptier without them.
But what would the point of this be? If I’m trying to spend more time building strong relationships with the people I care about, what purpose would it serve to throw away the nice handwritten letters from grandma? They’re not exactly taking up space, or weighing me down emotionally.
That’s why I think I’ll only take the minimalism so far. I’m not sure an empty drawer will make me happier than a drawer full of memories. And happiness is the goal. Minimalism is only one way of getting there.