You are an antelope: Why ancient history causes us to be stressed by clutter

theoretical minimalist minimalism theory-beach (3)

You’re an antelope. You’re scanning the horizon. You’re on the look out for lions. You can’t quite see what’s beyond the trees. Did that bush just rustle? Your breath quickens. You’re ready to run at any moment. Your system is flooded with adrenaline. It’s fight or flight time.

That’s what it’s like to live in a cluttered home.

Okay, okay, maybe comparing people with messy homes to anetlopes in mortal danger of being hunted by lions is too abstract. But it’s essentially the same kind of effect; if you’re stressed out by clutter, it’s because you are programmed by nature to be stressed out by clutter.

Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012)

Our ancestors actually DID have the same kind of experience as an antelope. They WERE in danger from predators and they WOULD have to scan the horizon to keep themselves safe.

And it’s this tendancy to scan for danger that causes us stress in the modern era. Not being able to see the horizon beyond the clutter feels dangerous to our cave-person minds. Instinctively, this causes us to feel stressed when we’re confronted with too much stuff at once.

Some people aren’t affected by clutter in this way. Maybe they’re better adapted to modern living. Yes, maybe they’re more evolved than I am. But there’s no doubt in my mind about the stress levels I personally feel rising when I’m surrounded by clutter.

The unpleasantness of clutter is as much, if not more, a psychological issue as it is a topic of home design. Clutter can be a matter of the mind. It can immobilize us. It can get in the way of clear thinking, even clear functioning. It can derail us when it becomes excessive.

Davis. H. (2012)

In Notes on a Nervous Planet Matt Haig discusses just how quickly the human race has developed; from wearing animal skins 50,000 years ago to developing civilisation in Mesopotamia. It’s just a 4,0000-year hop, skip and jump from the first money and alphabet to email and space travel.

Did social evolution really give ourselves enough time to adapt to the modern way of life? Or are we all really just experiencing our natural pre-civilisation urges to feel anxious when we scan the horizon?

Historically we had a natural need to belong to a social group or tribe, as this was crucial for our survival. Our brains therefore have a strong ability to spot things that don’t belong which, in this instance, could be all the things your eyes have spotted ‘on the horizon’.

Our limbic brain is powerful, powerful enough to drive behaviour that sometimes contradicts our rational and analytical understanding of a situation.

Sinek, S. (2009) p.57

If you’ve ever had a ‘gut feeling’ that something was wrong but you couldn’t tell what, that’s your limbic brain sparking into action. It’s irrational, but instinctual. That’s why you can sometimes feel ‘off’ when nothing seems to be wrong on the surface of it. And we tend to trust our gut instincts in a lot of situations don’t we? Especially in over-stimulating environments.

Introverts in particular can easily feel overstimulated. Psychologist Hans Eysenck (Chung, M. 2016) proposed that extroverts can cope with higher levels of stimulation and that intoroverts are more sensitive, therefore requiring low-key environments.

When we feel overloaded in a situation or environment, we can become anxious or even panic. Haig discusses the how overstimulating the modern world can be and the effect this can have on our mental health.

Panic is the product of overload. In an overloaded world we need to have a filter. We need to simplfy things. We need to disconnect sometimes… A kind of mental feng shui.

Haig, M. (2019) p.37

So, if you don’t want to feel stressed in your own home, panicked by an overload of belongings and under attack from your posessions, maybe now’s the time to streamline your stuff?

Chung, M. (2016) The Irresistable Introvert. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

Bourg Carter, S. (2012) Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201203/why-mess-causes-stress-8-reasons-8-remedies

Davis, H. (2012) The Perils of Clutter. [Online]. [Accessed 25th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/caveman-logic/201206/the-perils-clutter

Haig, M. (2019) Notes On A Nervous Planet. 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books.

Sinek, S. (2009) Start With Why. London: Penguin.

How practicing gratitude can support a minimalist life

theoretical minimalist book research happy gratitude more of less minimalism theory

Stress and anxiety can lead us to hoard. To take comfort in the things that surround us. We may come to rely on things to distract us and bring us happiness.

So when I began reading on the subject of gratitude, I realised the link this practice may have in supporting a person on their journey into minimalism – and into a happier life, for that matter.

Countless studies show that gratitude can boost happiness and reduce levels of stress and depression. When I read Janice Kaplan’s book ‘The Gratitude Diaries’, one of the first pieces of information I bookmarked was this:

An article in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology evaluating all the literature in the field concluded that gratitude may have the highest connection to mental health and happiness of any of the personality traits studied. The conclusion: ‘Around 18.5 per cent of individual differences in people’s happiness could be predicted by the amount of gratitude they feel.’ Now, that made me stop. Being 18.5 per cent happier is a lot of happier.

Janice Kaplan, 2016, p.15

Janice Kaplan goes on to keep a gratitude diary throughout the year, applying gratitude to a variety of situations; relationships, work, health and, most interestingly for me, the stuff we own. Can gratitude really help us to want and need less?

In Joshua Becker’s book ‘The More of Less’ the author tackles the topic of consumerism and how we are manipulated into filling our home with stuff and spending money we don’t have. Yet, even when we get the thing we want, we still aren’t satisfied.

Consumption never fully delivers on its promise of fulfillment or happiness. Instead, it steals our freedom and results only in an unquenchable desire for more. It brings burden and regret. It distracts us from the very things that do bring us joy.

Joshua Becker, 2016, p.47

The research of behavioural economist Tom Gilovich from Cornell University, supports Becker’s words. The findings discussed in Kaplan’s book showed, time and again, that material possessions are not as satisfying as we think they will be.

This is the very essence of what psychologists call the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. You want it. You acquire it. You’re not as happy as you thought you would be. You look for the next big thing.

You can avoid getting trapped in this materialistic cycle by practicing gratitude. This keeps your focus on the things you DO have rather than the things you don’t have. It can help you feel satisfied and that you already have abundance in your life, without the need to acquire more.

Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little

Epicurus – Greek philosopher

Psychology and neuroscience researchers from Baylor University concluded that “materialism has been consistently related to lower levels of life satisfaction”. As a result of Kaplan’s year-long experiment to maintain a grateful outlook, her life satisfaction increased and she realised that she didn’t need stuff in order to be happy:

Instead of trying to psychological holes of the soul with jewellery and clothes and cars, it’s better to use gratitude to make the emptiness disappear altogether. As an extra bonus, people who are grateful are less likely to yearn for the stuff that ultimately won’t add to overall well-being, anyway.

Janice Kaplan, 2016, p.110

HOW TO HARNESS GRATITUDE TO SUPPORT YOUR MINIMALIST JOURNEY

There are many things you can do bring gratitude into your life and boost your life satisfaction levels – here are just a few ideas:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write the details of events you were grateful for as and when they occur so that you can look back over them during less-than-grateful times.
  • Record three things you’re grateful for. Do this in your daily diary every night to record good things that happened. It might be a phone call with a friend, a lovely meal, working in a job you enjoy etc.
  • Make a list. Brain-dump all the things – and I mean ALL the things – you could be grateful for, from your ability to breathe to your favourite blend of tea.
  • Go for a walk and notice all the things you can be grateful for; the weather, your surroundings, those smiling faces, the convenient location of the local post office, the sunset.
  • Enjoy a bit of manifesting by feeling grateful for the things you will have over the years to come; your dream career, future family, the home you’ll build, strong mental health etc.
  • Actually say ‘thank you’ out loud when thinking about something you’re grateful for.

In Fearne Cotton’s uplifting book ‘Happy’, the author believes ‘the wheels of our economy are spun by the feeling that we don’t quite have enough’ (Cotton, 2017 p. 216). She suggests that gratitude is a great habit to learn in order to feel lucky rather than lacking.

Feeling gratitude – real, whole gratitude – comes in spontaneous waves when you’re on the edge of sheer bliss, where it feels only right to smile and beam a big THANK YOU or the simple things that lie in front of you. Saying it and really meaning it can massively awaken your senses and perspective to what there is in life to feel thanks for.

Fearne Cotton, 2017, p. 215

The author suggests exercises to harness gratitude including writing a gratitude list or diary, seeking out little things to appreciate each day, noting down small things you are grateful for to build up a bank of gratitude and eve thanking bad experiences for lessons learnt.

Have you experienced higher levels of life satisfaction after practicing gratitude. Do you keep a gratitude diary? Have you become less materialistic as a result? What other techniques can you suggest? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

Becker. J. (2016) The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own. Colorado: Waterbrook Press

Cotton, F. (2017) Happy: Finding joy in every day and letting go of perfect. London: Orion Spring.

Kaplan, J. (2016) The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on The Bright Side Transformed My Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

The decluttering journey – Deciding what to keep

theoretical minimalist minimalism theory- interiors plants (2)

Despite my desire to follow a minimalist lifestyle and the many years of downsizing and decluttering I’ve already put into my life, I still have a lot of stuff.

I just don’t know how it accumulates.

One month, I can feel perfectly satisfied that I have decluttered successfully and only own the things I need and love. I have the bare minimum.

The next month, I can feel overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I still have in my home.

It’s not that I’m going shopping or bringing new items into our home. I’m simply looking at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps more critical eyes.

I could do more.

Maybe I exhausted myself before I had truly finished decluttering last month? Perhaps I was ‘soft’ and allowed myself to keep things that I didn’t really need?

Whatever the reason, the process of decluttering sometimes seems never-ending. (When will it end? Will I be in an empty room, thinking about taking down the blinds?)

So, exasperated with myself, I started looking for motivation to do more. To declutter further. To minimise more.

I uncovered a quote that I hadn’t heard of before and it made a massive difference to how I look at my belongings:

“Decluttering is infinitely easier when you think of it as deciding what to keep, rather than deciding what to throw away.”

Francine Jay

MIND. BLOWN.

Unbelievable though it seems, I hadn’t heard of Francine Jay until now. I know, right? Where I have I been for the last decade?

Don’t worry, I’ve put that right – and I now have her ‘Miss Minimalist’ book on my Kindle.

This quite came into my life at exactly the right time. Just when I was getting despondent about my minimising efforts. It has given me a new perspective on decluttering and I am diving back into the task with renewed vigour.

I’m going into every room and thinking in reverse: ‘If this room were empty, what would I put into it? What would I keep?’ Then it’s simply a case of removing the rest.

So I thought I would share this quote with you today, in the hope that it might make all the difference to you too.

Have you discovered an inspiring quote that helped you on your minimalism journey? Has someone said something to you that made you stop and think? Let me know, I’d love to hear about it.

The non-monochrome minimalist

joyful book minimalist maximalist monochrome theory-1-2

I am not a monochrome minimalist.

And you don’t have to be either.

It’s been said hundreds of times that minimalism looks different for everyone.

Just because many Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube accounts are dedicated to the monochrome aesthetic of minimalist interiors, fashion and art, it doesn’t mean you have to adopt the same style in order to be a minimalist yourself.

The aim of minimalism needn’t be living in a perfect, empty, white-walled apartment, wearing a go-with-everything wardrobe of black, white and grey clothing.

(Although I think I could be quite happy living like that too.)

In her book Joyful Ingrid Fetell Lee discusses how design and architecture can bring joy and happiness into our lives. She discusses how “uptight” minimalist decor can be repressive and drain a space of joy.

In contrast, she claims that maximalist interiors can create pleasure, and that abundance makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; citing peacocks feathers as evidence of maximalism being a signifier of vitality.

Both of these theories seem extreme to me. But I suppose it depends on just how minimalist or how maximalist a space is.

Clutter would cause stress for me but, on the other hand, I don’t plan to live in an entirely empty, soulless space either.

Fetell Lee provides an example of famous interior designer Dorothy Draper’s design of the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. The lobby is painted in green, aqua and pink and when the author visited this space she was filled with pure delight.

This just goes to show how colour can be important in bringing happiness into our lives, in the same way that a simple, clutter-free home can also be.

HOW TO BE A NON-MONOCHROME MINIMALIST

What’s your favourite colour? Would you feel happier with more of this colour in your life?

If you like a rainbow of colours, go for it! Wear them, decorate with them and bring vibrant pieces into your home.

As long as it doesn’t affect you negatively to be in a space with rich or bright tones, feel free to decorate your home in any way you wish.

Do you enjoy pattern? Then bring it into your home and wardrobe.

If you like white spaces but want to stay away from the clinical, add just a splash of colour with a vibrant feature piece, such as an armchair or headboard.

If a colourful interior feels ‘too much’ try adding natural textures such as wooden furniture and plants instead to add personality to a white room.

MY EXPERIENCE

You may have noticed that there are a few splashes of colour in the photos on my website. That’s my way of putting a little personality into my website. While I DO want it to look clean, simple and (mostly) monochrome, I also want to inject some excitement too.

Likewise, my home is both minimalist and colourful in difference spaces.

My all-white bedroom is exactly what I need when I want to feel calm and relaxed. I can read, write and do yoga in peace.

While the walls of my living room are white, I chose the brightest blue sofas, and hung artwork in orange and yellow tones. It’s a happy entertaining space that I enjoy spending time in during the evenings.

My kitchen is a full-on homage to the 1950s with colourful cabinets, patterned melamine table and retro prints on the walls. It’s an uplifting room that provides an energetic start to the day.

Each room in my home feels different and suits the activities I do in the space.

Similarly my wardrobe has a neutral base of black, grey and navy, with colourful additions.

I like things simple and fuss-free, yet I need colour in my life. It makes me happy.

…Yes, I’m definitely a non-monochrome minimalist.

Fetell Lee, I. (2018) Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, United Kingdom: Ebury Publishing.

We’ve all got boxes we haven’t unpacked

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Which is the perfect excuse for decluttering when you’re becoming minimalist but don’t want people to think you’ve gone to the extreme.

I found myself saying this when my husband mentioned a recent minimising session to some friends of ours. I immediately jumped in with “Yes, well, we’ve got boxes in the garage that we haven’t unpacked since we moved three years ago, so we probably don’t need them.”

Our friends nodded knowingly and agreed that they too probably had the same in their loft. We moved swiftly on with the conversation without any mention of minimalism. Phew.

Now, I don’t know why I didn’t want want to make a big ‘thing’ about our journey into minimalism. In fact, I’m usually rather happy to share my opinions on how less in more and that we don’t need to buy so much stuff.

I mean, I’m writing a book about it now, for goodness sake.

But at that moment, I felt a bit weird about it. Probably because I wasn’t where I wanted to be with minimising our belongings at that moment and I didn’t want people to come into our home and be surprised by the amount of stuff we still have.

On the other hand, I already felt a bit extreme with the amount of minimising we had already done and didn’t want to admit to the vast volume of donating, shredding and clearing we’d already done.

I felt like my innate minimalist urges might not be understood and I didn’t really want to get into a discussion about the mental wellbeing I was uncovering as a result.

My conversation swerve worked. I got away with it. I’d downplayed it enough and made it relatable enough that it appeared wholly sensible to clear out those boxes.

Because we ALL have those boxes in the garage, the loft, under the stairs, under the bed. The boxes we haven’t looked at in years.

Those boxes make it easy to understand why someone would be getting rid of their stuff, and the mere mention of those boxes usually elicits agreement in anyone you discuss them with.

So if you find yourself being questioned about your minimalism journey and want to help someone understand why, just casually slip those boxes into the conversation.

Because we’ve all got them.

And none of us need them.