We’re hard-wired to hoard resources. That way, when the famine comes, we won’t starve — or so our inner caveman tells us. But in modern-day America, when so many people have so much stuff, how beneficial is a deeply ingrained urge to accumulate?
Hence the Great Unloading, a recent era ushered in by millennials, who refuse to take their parents’ knickknacks and keepsakes, and Japanese super-organizer Marie Kondo, who taught the world to mercilessly interrogate their socks and CD collections by asking them: Do you spark joy in my life? Her bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” turned the author into a verb. Have you Kondo-ed your closet yet?
Then there are the popular online personalities the Minimalists, two guys in their mid-30s who got rid of everything society told them they were supposed to want. (Well, except for the hair dryer and the snowboarding equipment.)
In 2010, childhood friends Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus started a blog devoted to unburdening. It now gets about 5 million readers a year, and the guys have diversified, launching a podcast and filming the recently released movie “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” The movie, directed by Matt D’Avella, features neuroscientists and people living in microhomes, psychologists and a slew of authors, whose books have titles like “You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap)” and “Living in the Land of Enough.”
Millburn discovered minimalism during a personal low, in 2009, when his mother died of lung cancer around the same time he was getting divorced. Faced with the daunting task of finding a place for his mom’s belongings, he ordered a U-Haul and rented a storage unit. His mother hadn’t been a hoarder — “not in the sense of the TV show,” he said recently while visiting Washington — but she had 65 years worth of accumulation.
“She had 14 winter coats in her closet,” Millburn said, then paused for effect to deliver the punch line: “She lived in St. Pete Beach, Florida.”
Somewhere between the discovery of boxes upon boxes of his elementary school paperwork and answering questions about whether he wanted a climate-controlled storage unit, Millburn had a change of heart.
He realized his mother was keeping a lot of worthless items in order to hang on to a piece of him. Yet, “those boxes had been sealed for more than two decades,” he said. “That made me realize something really important for the first time: Our memories aren’t in our things.”
So he canceled the U-Haul and tossed, donated or sold his mother’s personal effects. Then he turned his attention to his own things. At the time, Millburn had a big job, which facilitated a big house, which was filled to the brim.
“I had boxes and bins from the Container Store to make me look organized,” he admitted. But if he had fewer belongings, he realized he wouldn’t need things to organize his things, so over the course of eight months, he got rid of roughly 90 percent of his possessions.
Then he started letting go of other things: the stressful, high-paying job as a director of operations for 150 retail stores, which he hated, plus his big American Dream-caliber house and 80 pounds of excess weight.
Nicodemus hopped on board after noticing the positive changes in his friend. Both insist that it wasn’t getting rid of objects that transformed their lives. If Marie Kondo specializes in the “how-to” of decluttering (along with extensive instructions on T-shirt folding), Nicodemus and Millburn are more focused on the “why-to.”
Getting rid of things made Millburn ask himself questions he’d never thought to pose before. Namely: What’s important to me?
Echoes Nicodemus: “I was able to find out what my values and beliefs were. If you were to ask me at the time ‘What are your priorities?’ I would have said my health is really important, yet I’m eating fast food on a regular basis, because it’s easy.”
Or he would have said his relationships, yet he only saw his mother on holidays, even though she lived 30 minutes away.
“Our priorities aren’t what we say we do, they’re what we actually do,” he said.
And while both men were in the red at the time, they kept buying things, partly for self-soothing purposes. Hating their jobs led to buying things, so that they could feel better in the short term. Then the cycle began of needing to make money in order to buy more unnecessary junk.
“And on top of that I was pacifying myself with bad habits, whether it was indulging in a ton of TV or going out to the bar and racking up a $300 bar tab,” Nicodemus said. “And those pacifiers stopped working.”
“You have this thing that you were obsessed about, but then the new version comes out, which is new and improved in a dozen ways … and now you no longer care about the one you have,” neuroscientist Sam Harris says during the movie. “In fact the one you have is a source of dissatisfaction.”
Cut to images of new iPhone owners peeling back the layer of protective plastic.
“I think we’re confused about what’s going to make us happy,” he adds.
The Minimalists try not to be dogmatic. On a recent evening, when they were visiting from Missoula, Mont., to host a movie screening at Landmark’s Bethesda Row theater, they were engaged but easygoing, drinking herbal tea, dressed in plain black T-shirts. They greet everyone they meet with an embrace. “We’re huggers,” they explain almost in unison.
They say they’ve been touring the country, doing book readings and sold-out movie screenings, to “share a recipe.” Not the recipe, but the one that works for them.
The reason they wanted to make a movie was to gather other voices. Leo Babauta, for example, has six kids but still manages to live without clutter, and Colin Wright is a young guy who owns 51 items that he keeps in two carry-ons while traveling the world. He describes himself either as homeless or “home-full.”
“We don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with stuff,” Millburn said, although he admitted that there was something appropriate about a San Diego shopping mall he visited recently that occupies an old prison. He used to feel shackled, always one purchase or pay raise away from happiness. That was before he realized “you’re never truly happy if you’re constantly chasing happiness.”
And, in case you’re wondering, the answer is no, neither Nicodemus nor Millburn regrets giving away any possession.
“I have one big regret in my adult life, which is that I didn’t spend more time with my mom when she was dying,” Millburn said. “Because you can’t get that back.”
“Minimalism” screens May 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Regal Gallery Place. If there’s enough interest, it will also screen on June 29 at Angelika Film Center and July 5 at Mazza Gallerie. More information at minimalismfilm.com.