I’ve always been a restless person. Easily excited, curious about life and very eager to learn – in my good moments. Unsettled, chaotic and fidgety, a lot of other times. Always wondering, always looking, always dreaming of and striving for more. My friends used to tease me with this: “If you’re still searching your soul, Peanut (my nickname), you may want to try the last place you still had it.”
Still, a lot of great things came from my wandering mind. I attained degrees in different fields, travelled around the world, lived in different countries. I met a bunch of wonderful and strange people I would have never encountered otherwise. I worked at different companies, found out what makes me happy (and miserable) at work, and devoured books that opened my mind to new ideas. I did a LOT, took in a lot.
Under all the excitement and curiosity however, there was a slight but recurrent sense of discontent. With myself, with everything I was always not achieving or getting done. This undercurrent influenced a lot of my experiences and decisions, and probably more than any single activity caused the burn out I experienced in 2015.
It’s not just me, though, I can see that. Our whole economic model is based on continuous growth, and the obsession with constant progress, expansion and (self)improvement is driving us to the point of exhaustion. It’s in everything around us. It’s in pursuing that promotion in a job you don’t even like. It’s in filling our houses with stuff, in needing to achieve something new always (You just ran a marathon? Why not go for a triathlon!), in filling our heads with news and information. Even on my travels I meet so many people that speak of an inner push to keep moving on, to keep pursuing that ultimate place or experience. We get so scared to become bored or useless (a FOM0- fear of meaning 0), that we fill up every moment with goals, impulse, people, noise, with stuff. With that one more thing that will finally be it, and make us content.
Not to sound too paranoid, but I found out it’s a trap. Or at least it’s a loop we trap ourselves in, going something like this.
The irony is of course that the solution we use, to try and solve the discontent, only confirms and feeds back to it. As long as you think you always need something more to be content, it’s impossible to ever actually reach that state.
We’re probably designed as human beings to permanently be slightly dissatisfied: there’s a clear evolutionary benefit to it. One can imagine our worried and overactive ancestors, with a inconsumable focus on collecting more berries and hunting more game, had a better chance of survival and feeding their offspring than those happily living in the moment – chilling out under a tree, taking long siestas… and probably eaten by a lion before sunset.
Good thinking, ancestors. However, we’re using this constant pursuit not as a tool for survival, but for getting something else: happiness, and a fulfilled life. That’s not working, it’s not working at all. We now have more stuff than previous generations could even dream of, more freedom to purchase whatever ‘more’ we want, and still numbers of depression are rising –the WHO indicates that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally. The catch with evolutionary benefits is that they were designed to make us live, no to make us happy – they couldn’t care less about our wellbeing. That’s our job to settle here, in our own time, safely and comfortably at the top of Maslows pyramid.
So, how to get out of that loop of discontent? The simple answer is to revert the equation: we actually don’t need anything more to be happy. We need less.
It makes sense: a lot of moments we are supposedly happiest in life – like our holidays, or our college years – are defined by a certain simplicity and absence of excessive stuff. The promise of that simplicity is so alluring that Marie Kondo sold millions of copies last year of her book The life changing magic of tidying up in which she basically tells you to get rid of everything in your house that doesn’t spark joy. Instagram and magazines are filled with ‘lifestyle porn’ pictures of nearly empty lofts with white walls and floors and just a bed in it, and one stylish piece of decoration: a tree, maybe. We dream away at a fantasy life that’s clear, serene and uncluttered.
Of course it’s not the absence of stuff in itself that will make us happy – and trying to create a life that resembles Instagram perfection is a recipe for the exact opposite, I would say. It’s the space you can create by taking away (or simply not adding) the non-essential. The space for the essential to be prominently present in your life, instead of buried in stuff and business. What is essential, is up to you – I’d assume it’s those things that give you joy, that make you feel fulfilled and proud.
To me, that means time to be reflective and creative. To really be there with, and for, somebody else. And quietness at times – to recharge, get new ideas. That, to me, turns out to be essential. Ironically, these were exactly the things I was not giving myself before; with my constant rush forward, my quest for more and better.
It’s mental as well as physical space I’m talking about. My journey to becoming more minimalist is still in full swing, but I can share some of my experiences and goals with you. This is how I put minimalism into practice (and it’s still practice).
- An important step for me was to not bring a TV into my new house and to put away my phone as much as possible. To not fill the silence at night, after work, with a steady inflow of information and entertainment, but to embrace it. Stare into the fire for a while, read, drink a cup of tea. See what happens if I actually give myself the chance to maybe get bored. I do still have internet and watch Netflix occasionally, but all in all it feels more intentional.
- My new mantra is: I already have everything I need. Truly believing that, and feeling it in your bones, is an empowering and relaxing experience in itself. Practically it means I’ve gotten quite strict about things entering my house and life. This doesn’t just apply to big things like a car, fancy furniture or gadgets (not really interested in any of those). My focus is on clothes and books, because those are the most tempting to me.
> I got rid of all books that weren’t either favourites or still on my wish list to read. Then I stopped buying books. I go to the library now – very oldskool -, read a book, then bring it back. I don’t have to own it or keep it around.
> As I have enough clothes in my closet to last me the better part of a decade, I really don’t have to buy anything. I’m no saint though, and sometimes I really want to. So I have two rules: I pause before I buy (and then I often don’t): do I really want this? Is this worth more to me than (X amount of freedom)? And, I fixed the amount of clothing I can own: so when I do decide to get something new, another thing has to go.
- Last on the list is taking it slow: being as frugal with spending my time as with spending my money. It’s the most valuable thing I have. Unlike with money, you can never make any more, you can only choose to spend it differently. I used to say YES to anything that seemed fun, or with people I liked. Or things I felt I couldn’t say no to. Now I savour weekends with a blanco agenda, when I can just see what happens – if I want to go out or curl up on the couch. Doing nothing now and then, I think is highly underrated.
The amount of time and space (and money, to be honest) those simple measures freed up was substantial. On top of that, it made me appreciate the things I dó choose to have in my life much more. A cup of strong coffee in the morning, reading the entire newspaper on Saturday, going out for a walk. By tuning it down a bit, I allowed myself to feel the luxury of the present moment again – and realize it already holds everything I need.
I’m writing this on the shores of Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake in Nicaragua. I made time (well, I chose time) and am living out of a backpack once again. No stuff, just me, some old shorts and the laptop I’m writing this on. The decision I finally made to quit my job – to spend my time on things that feel more valuable to me- , is starting to sink in (more on that later). Looking out on the waves rolling onto the black sand, on the immensity of the nature around me, it’s hard to imagine that space was once something that needed to be made. It’s omnipresent here, and I am breathing it in: trying to store some in my cells for when I get home. I am still that same curious and chaotic person as I was before. But here I am, not making plans – a more peaceful and spacious version of myself. And that’s as happy as I can get.