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We live in an age of affluence and relative wealth. Compared to our ancestors from 100 or 200 years ago, most of us enjoy much better lives than they did then. One of the effects of our affluence is that we accumulate many things to satisfy our desires.

Need a new table? Ikea. Need a new gadget? Apple store. Need some tool for the yard? Home Depot. Want something to add to your room’s design? Kijiji (or Craigslist). It’s easy to get stuff. And often this stuff only costs a few dollars. We live in an era where stuff is cheap and everywhere.

So how did we get to this point and how does this accumulation effect us? And if accumulation harms us, does minimalism (a lifestyle of living on little) provide a way to safety or to happiness? Here is my answer.

Accumulation

We accumulate. In the twenty-first century, gaining new stuff is what it means to be human. The fashion industry entices consumers to purchase clothing based on the season. And clothing from a prior year may not match the fashion or preferred colour of the current year. We accumulate the newest gadget to fix a daily problem. Can’t access your phone from your watch? Buy an iWatch. The new thing is supposed to make life easier, more enjoyable.

And accumulation brings joy. Or at least the feeling of joy. Emotions are constructed, based on predictions and experience. Americans, for example, tend to be more positive than their European counterparts not because Americans have more cause for joy per se but because Americans have learned the emotional behaviour of positivity, of joy.

So also does accumulation bring a sort of happiness, not one that is objectively true but a happiness that we’ve constructed. When put like this, the joy we attain through buying the new gadget or item of clothing seems cheap, false. It’s a constructed happiness.

When money runs dry or the weight of too much stuff oppresses, such a constructed joy based on accumulating loses its glitter. It becomes dross. And if we have built our psychological well-being around purchasing stuff, then we lose our happiness when we can no longer get stuff or the stuff loses its joy-making function because it becomes mundane. We have no other input for happiness.

Like the mannequins that wore the clothes that we once valued, we have become shells. Empty inside and with only a constructed happiness outside. Put simply, if you put your hope in things to make you happy, then you will be disappointed.

Minimalism

Does minimalism then open the door to true happiness? If joy in things has no future, what about joy in no things? Minimalism describes a movement that advocates living on less to overcome the weight of things and their various pressures. Here is how the minimalists describe it:

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm [sic]. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.

Minimalism promises freedom. It says that if you give up everything and follow its tenets, you will be free indeed. No more guilt or depression. It’s a way of living the good life. It’s a way of life that takes no joy in having things but joy in not having things—or more accurately, joy in not taking joy in having things.

Certainly if one has to choose between accumulating goods and living minimally, then the latter is better. But even the way of minimalism is a temporary fix. In death, where will our joy be? And if the economy crumbles and you cannot afford to live on a few items but need to accumulate to survive, then what?

In any case, should our well being, freedom, and happiness rely on whether we have or have not clothing or gadgets?

God

The two previous options to happiness are modern. But there is an older way of life that promises freedom like minimalism does and joy like accumulation does. Central to this way of life is the posture of hope in something beyond the material world, namely, God. And if you put your hope in God, then your well-being is not determined by whether you have stuff or don’t have stuff.

Jesus told his disciples not to worry about how much stuff they have or didn’t have because God provides:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-20)

According to Jesus, if your treasure is stuff or the lack of stuff, then your heart will be there also. Whether in accumulation or in minimalism, your heart treasures merely temporary things.

But treasuring God above all material things means that your hope or your joy is unshakeable. It is based on something that cannot rust or be destroyed. Your joy centres on something eternal.

It also means that your freedom from the fears and the pressures of the world is genuine. If your hope is in God alone, then you don’t need to fear what another man can do for you. If God is for you, who can be against you? The oppression of things will not oppress you because you will never accumulate to the point of oppression; God is enough.

When we pursue God, then we are freed up to enjoy things and to deny ourselves so that we do not accumulate too many things. We can use clothing without finding our happiness in clothing. We can deny ourselves and live minimally not because having less is better than more; but because treasuring God above all else allows us to discipline ourselves to live on less and to enjoy such a lifestyle in view of eternity. We can enjoy our salvation and the good things God provides without falling into hedonism.

In the end, accumulation and minimalism are short-term solutions to the problem of happiness. But they don’t last. Only eternal happiness lasts, and only God can provide eternal joy through faith in Jesus Christ. Cast your burdens on him and give up putting your hope in the temporary; put your hope in what lasts forever, and that forever thing is God.

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