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Is minimalism killing you?


Minimalism is killing us and robbing us of joy, according to designer Ingrid Fetell Lee.

In this video on Big Think, she says (if I understand her correctly, and there's a very good chance I don't) that minimalism has grown out of "a culture in which joy is judged often as frivolous, as childish, as superficial."

She continues by saying that "minimalist interiors actually can be very stressful. That when you look at our sort of natural love of abundance and lushness and textures and sensation, when you actually deprive us of sensations we go a little bit crazy", then goes a little further:

"[A] study I love that sort of explores this had a bunch of people sitting in a room, and all they had to entertain themselves was a machine that gave electric shocks. And after only a few minutes of sitting alone in a bare, unadorned room they started giving themselves quite painful electric shocks rather than sit without any stimulation. So the brain seeks and craves stimulation."

A few things struck me here. First, I'm not exactly sure which cultures judge joy as frivolous or superficial. I'm not saying they don't exist, I'm just wondering which ones the speaker is referring to. I grew up in the UK and have lived in Japan for nearly two decades, and neither country would be the first to pop into your head if you mention 'carnival cultures'. But beyond the stereotypes, I've witnessed nothing in either culture that looks down on joy. Perhaps the way in which some people express their joy could raise eyebrows, but I don't know of a culture that encourages being miserable as a central tenet.

Then there's the "minimalist interiors actually can be very stressful...when you look at our sort of natural love of abundance and lushness and textures and sensation" quote. That's painting with  pretty broad brush. Although I love textures and sensation, I don't like abundance. In fact, having too much stuff around stresses me out. Minimalist interiors help me relax. Rooms full of stuff, with tons of bright things, have the opposite effect.

The longer quote above is extreme. I'm a minimalist and I like simple design, but that doesn't mean I encourage deprivation or want people (including myself) to live in bare, unadorned rooms. If you put people in a room with way too much stimulation, they'll also probably go a bit loopy.

It's not all or nothing

It's this binary view that gets me, and it seems to be becoming more prevalent. If you're a minimalist, you must only use white, black and grey for everything in your life. Your food should be equally drab, with salt being the only acceptable 'spice'. You shouldn't own more than 30 or so items, and you should be miserable.

If you're a maximalist, you should utilize every colour under the sun, preferably at the same time, and cram as much stuff into your life as possible. Your food must be colourful and as spicy as your personality. You must radiate joy everywhere you go, preferably whistling or singing while dancing with strangers and incessantly smiling.

Where's the room for personal taste? Where's the possibility of being minimalist in some areas, but not others? (I would own about 20 bikes if could, for example, plus I have hundreds of books.) Where's the discussion of possible limiting factors like health concerns, finances, or space?

I tend to wear white shirts for work, and I favour having fewer possessions (except bikes and books). Why? Because I like it. Why should there be any more justification needed?

There are times when I want to eat something spicy and times when I want rice, miso soup and tofu. I like things to be in place in my home, but I don't like routine.

We're all different. We don't need to be one thing or the other, whether it's minimalist or maximalist, joyful or miserable, conservative or liberal, or whatever.

Instead of seeing differences as something that should be corrected, let's see them as something to be celebrated, and something we can learn from.

That's why I'm NOT saying that Ingrid Fetell Lee is wrong. Whereas she might think my taste in clothing and interior design is stifling and depressing, these things actually help me fight depression. They make me feel calm and stress-free.

Simplicity makes me happy. Simplicity sometimes brings me joy.

Which brings me on to a related point. Ingrid Fetell Lee also runs a website called The Aesthetics of Joy. Before I go on, let me say I like the website. There's some great stuff on there, plus I'm all for encouraging people to seek joy in their loves.

I just question some of the ways the blog suggest we find it. For one, there's quite an emphasis on bright colours. I've got nothing against bright colours - in fact I love them - but surrounding myself with them day in day out would stress me out.

The designer explains that there is colour she dislikes more than grey, describing it as "gloomy, murky, heavy, wishy-washy, and depressing, all at the same time." I happen to love grey. Does that make me gloomy, wishy-washy and depressing?

And this is where I'm going to leave it, because I'm ranting a bit. I've suffered with depression and it's an ongoing battle. On the about page of The Aesthetics of Joy it says that there is an "emerging body of research shows that there is a clear link between our surroundings and our mental health, [y]et nearly all the advice on how to find happiness ignores this fact." I have to disagree with the last part. When I did my own research into depression (and happiness) there was a lot of data on the impact your environment can have on your mental health. It's one of the reasons getting out into nature is encouraged (and is effective).

But having bright colours and lots of stuff around you doesn't mean you're going to be joyful. I'm not a miserable person in real life (despite how I sound here sometimes). I've found what makes me happy - what brings me joy - and quite a lot of it is simple. A lot of it is grey.

And that's fine.


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