How Little Can You Own and Still Be Really Happy?

Around the world, people are embracing minimalism as a lifestyle, focusing less on owning things.

How to live a happy life? This question has been pondered by the billions of people that came before us and very likely will be the root of human existential concern going forward. If you live in a Western society, like America, you might think that happiness is defined by the objects around you. It can be your house, your Xbox, your iPhone, your car, or the millions of products you can buy in a local supermarket for your eating pleasures. All around us are things we want or at least we are told we should want them, courtesy of the ubiquitous advertising that blankets our every waking step.


But what if you just stopped wanting things? You might find yourself living a life that's much richer in experiences and closer to happiness.

How to get there? Try minimalism.

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus found the minimalist lifestyle after giving up their six-figure jobs as corporate executives. They moved to Montana and lived for a while in a cabin in the woods like Henry David Thoreau.

It's not that they are completely against ownership of things - rather they feel the issue is the meaning we give to these things. Often in our society, things occupy too important a place. After giving up 90% of what he owned, Joshua felt like “Everything in my life became my favorite thing," as he stated in this interview to Boston Globe.

Eventually, Millburn and Nicodemus came back out to the world to advocate for minimalism. With 100,000 monthly readers for their blog, it's safe to assume there's an audience for what they have to say. Their elevator pitch for how they live is:

"Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution."

Joshua and Ryan are featured in new documentary about people living the minimalist lifestyle that is coming out this year:

The realization how to live their lives by "the minimalists" corresponds to a growing body of research that suggests having memorable experiences is what makes us happy, not what we own.

Minimalism is not just a reaction against American consumerism. People are increasingly living this way all around the world. There's a growing minimalist movement in Japan, where it's been linked to a Zen Buddhist mindset. Fumio Sasaki, a 36-year-old editor who owns three shirts, four pants, four pairs of socks and little else, explains the appeal this way:

"Spending less time on cleaning or shopping means I have more time to spend with friends, go out, or travel on my days off. I have become a lot more active."


Another way to live simply is to not to take up much space in where you live. This kind of thinking led to the "Tiny House Movement". It's reaction in particular to the long-standing trope of the "American dream", whereby every citizen was essentially made to have a house as a sort of prerequisite to being a real American. The Tiny House folks estimate that an average American home is around 2,600 square feet in size and people spend roughly 15 years of their life working to pay for such a house, while living paycheck to paycheck.

The Tiny House people tend to live in houses between 100 and 400 square feet and focus on living simpler lives, unencumbered by debt and objects, while leaving a much smaller ecological footprint.

Here are some more facts about the Tiny House owners:

If you think minimalism is some kind of hippy affliction, consider that some capitalist icons in the Western culture are minimalist Silicon Valley pioneers. You've probably noticed that one of the world's richest men (a founder of something calling "Facebook"), Mark Zuckerberg, wears the same grey t-shirt every day. Why? He says that:

"I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community."

Mark and his wife also pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook shares to charity.

Apple's founder Steve Jobs was also famously minimalist in his wardrobe, wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, while carrying over his Buddhism-inspired design philosophy of simplicity into the look of Apple products.

If you want to try embracing the minimalist life, there's now an online course you can take that will help you de-clutter and live a simpler life.

The organizers think it will help you "make space for what matters to you" and to "become light" while learning to let go of things that are not important. The course also aims to help you "embrace the long lost art of lingering". Would you want to re-learn how to linger?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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