By Robin Schroffel
It seems like everyone is searching for the key to happiness, but with so many places to look, how can you find it? According to Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known online as The Minimalists, one solution is to get rid of all the hiding places.
The pair embraced a minimalist philosophy two years ago, purging the vast majority of their possessions in an effort to lead simpler lives. The idea is to get rid of unnecessary junk and free yourself, clearing a path to happiness and your ultimate “mission.”
In December 2010, Millburn and Nicodemus elected to start sharing their experiences with the world through their blog, which now boasts more than 20,000 readers. Nicodemus says he’s down to about 95 per cent of the stuff he used to own, and both agree that adopting minimalism has been the catalyst to fundamental changes in their mindsets and priorities.
In the past, Millburn and Nicodemus, both 29, held six-figure jobs and owned nice cars and houses, but still found themselves feeling unhappy. “We had all this stuff that made us look successful but we were only ostensibly successful. We were successful by these weird standards that are set forth by our culture and we didn’t feel happy. In fact, we felt depressed because of it,” says Millburn.
It’s when the two discovered minimalism through blogger Ev Bogue that things began to change. In getting rid of items they didn’t need, keeping only the essentials, the fog of depression that had surrounded them began to lift as well.
“[Minimalism] gives us a tool to get rid of everything that is not that important to us to focus on the things we find more important,” explains Millburn, who says the adopting a minimalist lifestyle helped him and Nicodemus figure out what really mattered in life. “It didn’t become clear at all until we stopped focusing on all of the crap in our lives and started really asking ourselves some tough questions about what is important to us.”
Case in point: when Millburn’s mother died in 2009, a thousand miles away from his home in Ohio, he was left to deal with a lifetime’s worth of accumulated possessions. It wasn’t easy, but he wound up simply getting rid everything. “It was incredibly emotional and difficult at the time but I’m really thankful that I did. It opened my eyes up to realize that the memories aren’t really in the stuff, the memories are within us,” Millburn says.
Through minimalism, Millburn and Nicodemus identified some key factors of importance to them. These include their health (once the chubby kids in high school, they now go to the gym together five times a week), their relationships with friends and family, and their ability to contribute to others in a meaningful way.
Millburn and Nicodemus began writing essays about their steps to self-discovery in December 2010. “Our Journey” is a 21-part chronicle that describes their experiences with minimalism in detail, and guides readers through becoming minimalists themselves, one day at a time.
Despite the debt they owe to minimalism, Millburn and Nicodemus agree that you can still be happy even if you own a lot of stuff. Even Millburn, who once rounded up all 288 things he owns online, can arguably be seen as materialistic when compared to self-described “radical minimalists” like Nina Yau. The two don’t view getting rid of stuff as a miracle solution that brings instant happiness. “For us, minimalism is more or less just a tool that is going to allow us to get there quicker,” Millburn says. “The wrench that you have is not going to fix your car. However, you’re probably going to use that wrench in order to fix the car.”
Luckily, unlike in many other isms, there are no hard rules to being a minimalist, says Millburn. “The good news is that minimalism is not one-size fits all. It can apply to anyone’s life. We have some minimalist friends that we’ve met online and in person and they really run the full gamut. You have families that have several kids that are minimalist; you have guys that are significantly younger than us that travel all over the world that are minimalists. We’re probably somewhere in between that.”
So what’s changed since Millburn and Nicodemus gave away, sold or threw out almost everything they respectively owned? For one, they’ve got a lot more time on their hands. They’ve taken to spending much of that time giving back to the community, volunteering with organizations like Habitat for Humanity and local soup kitchens. “Before I started getting in this whole minimalist mindset, I didn’t really donate a lot of time to community outreach events. I didn’t really donate anything to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. I certainly didn’t take phone calls from people in different states to help them and talk them through the clutter in their life. This has really enabled me to put the important things in front,” Nicodemus says.
Yes, phone calls. Millburn and Nicodemus receive a lot of emails, often from distraught people needing some direction or help in minimizing their lives. They respond to all of them, but sometimes people are clearly lost and don’t know where to start, says Nicodemus. In such cases, he acts as a kind of “pseudo-counselor,” offering help and guidance over the phone. “We’ve had quite a few people take us up on that and at least move their lives in the right direction. It always feels good to get follow-up messages from them a month or two later and let us know what their progress is,” Nicodemus says.
In most cases, that progress is positive. But exercise caution: tossing your stuff is not the end of the road, says Millburn. “Getting rid of your possessions is sort of like the first step. If you were to just run and grab all your stuff and throw it in a dumpster and think it’s gonna make you happy, it’s not. It’s more about growing as an individual and contributing to other people.”