“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” — 1 BCE. Seneca
If you won the lottery tomorrow, how would you spend the winnings? Perhaps, you would spend it on an expensive yacht and sail the 7 seas or purchase a 3-story mansion and fill every empty space with some new technology or designer clothes. I have a better suggestion: put it all away and don’t spend a dime.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher with years of wisdom. It was he whom asserted that the person without many liabilities was the happiest. Exchange “liabilities” for any number of terms: clothes, bills, technology, etc. It’s not always the person with the least amount of money that suffers the harshest effects of being poor; sometimes, it’s those who have the stress of maintaining those funds and using them that is the poorest.
How can someone live with less and be happier than someone who has more? One famous study conducted in the 70s by P. Brickman revealed that those who won millions of dollars through the lottery weren’t actually any happier than someone who lives within their means. In essence, financial gain and “things” don’t ensure happiness.
Expanding on this idea, a link has been drawn between low self-esteem and materialism where a person tries to fulfill their lives with materials. Lee Hughes in “Minimalism & Happiness Through Scientific Eyes” points out that if you have less, you can appreciate these things more. On top of that, you can learn to feel satisfied and not envious of others’ belongings, which improve self-esteem.
Studies performed over the years by Van Boven & Gilovich, Chaplin and John, and Dunn further demonstrate that by lowering dependence on materials, one can focus more on social relationships which have been proven to directly correlate with happiness. R. Dunbar’s research focused on the evolution of social groups in which it was responsible for evolving language, which partially makes humans superior as a species. Furthermore, when we have more time to focus on people opposed to materials, we gain the opportunity to share experiences as it prevents isolation. Equating this with excitement, these emotions stimulate the release of endorphins from the brain that act like neurotransmitters. This basically creates the feeling of happiness in humans. Opposed to arguing that minimalism leads directly to happiness, minimalism removes distractions that allow you to focus more on people around you, which improves well-being.
Clutter is nothing new to the average household in which people come to acquire rooms full of objects whether they are sentimental or simply there to fill an empty space in the room. Then, maybe at first, they are meant to be sentimental but just end up taking up space. Eventually, those items all become important as they take up space for months and even years upon years. This strong attachment to materials develops into hoarding for many people. This is possibly the most extreme form of materialism and major cry for de-cluttering. Researchers have discovered scientific reasoning behind these behaviors.
In 2012 a research group at Yale School of Medicine studied non-hoarders and hoarders and asked them to sort through old paper items. Some of the items belonged to them and some belonged to the experimenter. The participants were forced to choose what to keep and what to throw away. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored brain activity. Hoarders were found to have increased activity in their brains in two specific regions when they came across with their own items: anterior cingulate cortex and insula. These parts of the brain are also activated in response to physical pain. Essentially, loss of an item is processed like physical pain. The activity strengthened in the event that a hoarder didn’t feel ok about throwing something out.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD can provide some insight into the reinforcement of this behavior as this disorder occurs in response to an uncomfortable brain signal where the brain immediately starts trying to explain that feeling, so they settle these feelings with irrational beliefs and behaviors. For example, a person might feel like they have something on their hands when they really don’t, so they feel that they need to wash their hands 30 times just to get it off when it really doesn’t help anything. However, to them, it reinforces the OCD. This is similar to hoarding in which a person will hoard to compensate for any unsafe or uneasy feelings. Consequently, this relief becomes addictive.
How exactly does all this clutter impact your brain? All the clutter negatively impacts your ability to focus and process information. In 2011, Princeton University Neuroscience Institute researchers published a study involving organized living. The simple way to put is that the clutter essentially competes for a person’s attention and limits their brain from being able to process that information. In other words, clutter is a distraction that overloads the brain and causes frustrations. fMRI was used among other physiological measurement techniques to find that if you want to focus, you need to clear the clutter from the home and work environment. This is essentially mindfulness.
Before delving into the world of mindfulness, an important study was conducted by Stephanie McMains and Sabine Kastner in which they found that there is a limited amount of time for the visual system to process visual scenes at any moment in time. MRI studies and other physiological studies demonstrated that neural pathways behind this limited processing capacity are essentially competing interactions when multiple stimuli are in the same visual field at the same time. Essentially, multiple stimuli compete for one’s visual attention by suppressing their neural activity through the visual cortex. These competitive interactions from stimuli can be influenced or biased through stimulus-drive properties or top-down processes (individual’s goals).
An example of this is some type of stimuli that sticks out in comparison to other stimuli, which overcomes competitive interactions in the extrastriate cortex. Different techniques of perceptual organization have been found to lower competitive interactions. McMains and Kastner manipulated the degree of bottom-up perceptual grouping and found that grouped stimuli induced less competition. Furthermore, selective attention counteracts competitive interactions that aren’t fixed through bottom-up grouping processes.
In regards to the topic of mindfulness, this has been adopted as a form of meditation. Mindfulness is about being aware and powerful of your own mind while being non-judgmental. This is about guiding your mind into a state of order.
MRI scans demonstrate that after an eight-week course in mindfulness, the amygdala shrinks. This is the part of the brain associated with your fight or flight response which leads to stress. Meanwhile, the pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker which is associated with awareness, concentration, and decision-making.
Mindfulness even helps ease pain which is counter intuitive to the results which suggested that the brains of mindfulness meditators are more active in the areas associated with pain than those who don’t. Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany says, “It doesn’t fit any of the classic models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas.” He added that they found “massive” reductions in activity in parts of the brain associated with appraising stimuli like emotion and memory.
Apparently, two parts of the brain that are typically connected, anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex, have stopped communicating in these people. Grant explained, “It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation — and thus the stressing nature of it — by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another. They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”
Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh, points out that mindfulness is moving out of the spiritual realm towards being justified by science and clinical evidence. She adds, “Stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”
With legitimate scientific evidence justifying the overwhelmingly negative effects of a cluttered lifestyle on the average person, it’s become critical to self-evaluate and look to declutter.
The thought of living an uncluttered life is both attractive and terrifying as it is common to feel these material attachments. However, one must consider the trade-offs. On one hand, someone living a cluttered life is likely spending more money than necessary, dealing with stress associated with money, and missing out on social experiences. On the other hand, someone who lives a less cluttered life likely suffers from less stress, saves money, and has more time to experience social relationships.
As scientifically demonstrated through studies like the Yale School of Medicine study in 2012, it’s not easy to get from the first situation to the second: the thought of having to get rid of belongings is associated with pain and anxiety. However, there are ways to declutter your home and be a minimalist at the lowest level of stress possible. Meanwhile, keep mindfulness in sight as it assists in every method of assuming minimalism.
Although not vetted through a scientific experiment under controlled conditions, many have first handedly found the benefits of decluttering and living a minimalist lifestyle. Consider Dana Byers who has found the enjoyment in living a more self-aware lifestyle. She suggests to first plan out how to minimize. Basically, create a list of rooms in the house that need cleaning on the basis of difficulty. Start with the easiest rooms then move on to the harder rooms.
Leo Babauta from Zen Habits suggests starting small at just five minutes a day. This minimizes the anxiety and makes progress more realistic. He goes on to suggest organizing through making spots for papers, clearing off counters, shelves, etc. Based on the collected scientific data, it would make sense to infer that by taking these steps slowly, one would be able to adjust with the slight bit of symptomatic anxiety and stress so that he/she may be able to relax and appreciate the minimalist life which produces less stress and anxiety. Thus inventing its own system of creating the desire to live the minimalist lifestyle which is really more enjoyable anyway.
According to Glamour Fashion’s Leah Melby Clinton, in an Alliance Data survey, a quarter of respondents questioned about how much money is in their closets said they had between $1,000 and $2,499 worth of clothes in their closets. 23 percent responded with $2,500 to $4,999. The top 9 percent reported over $10,000. Curious about the specifics? 37 percent of women responded to own between 25 and 49 blouses while 32 percent owned over 25 pairs of pairs. More than 60 percent of women reported that they own less than ten pairs.
Do you really need that much clothes? A unique idea invented by Courtney Carver uses numbers to solve this problem. Called Project 333, there are specific rules to follow. It’s basically a challenge to get people to wear only 33 articles of clothing for 3 months. If that isn’t enough, the rules could be adjusted to pick a new number. Basically, the participant learns to live with less.
Once participants have surpassed this stage of the challenge, Project 333 goes on to challenge participants to rebuild and move forward. Carver suggests donating items, building a new wardrobe, making a list and changing it, and staying in touch with others in the Project 333 community.
Minimalism, mindfulness, and decluttering are the people’s solution to the anxiety produced by living a cluttered life. Scientific evidence and first-hand experiences justify the negative effects of a cluttered lifestyle on the average person. Essentially, having so many objects in your sight to compete for your attention overloads certain parts of the brain which leads to stress. At the same time, the feeling of getting rid of these objects stimulates the same part of the brain associated with pain. In a way, it’s a double-edged blade. However, there is a calm behind the storm of decluttering and minimalism, which can be achieved upon using any of the techniques associated with decluttering and minimizing while being mindful.
Mindfulness helps to regain control of your mind so that you may control your surroundings. Combining this with the techniques outlined by Carver, Clinton, and Babauta, you will be empowered to take action and make the first steps to a happy and clean lifestyle.
Re-visiting the scenario of winning the lottery, how would you spend that money now? That expensive yacht may lead to a few weeks of fun, but the stress associated with the bill that comes with it surely won’t be extinguished by the amount of “fun” achieved through owning it. Neither will that three-story mansion and all those clothes fill the empty spaces left by lack of social interaction due to having to work to maintain that expensive house and clothes. By the philosophy of minimalism, the best decision would be to put away the money and use it sparingly as to not take away from life and to limit stress.