{Review} Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that only things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Jimmy Carter, 1979

Words: Aleksandra Medina

The year was 1979, when Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the U.S., identified in his Crisis of Confidence speech the key issue that the addictive consumerism lifestyle has lead us to – 'human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns'.

Almost 40 years later, two childhood friends and ex-corporate world successes, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus quit their jobs, got rid of most of their belongings, started their website The Minimalists, wrote their book Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists, went on a U.S.-wide book promoting tour and made a film inspired by their journey.

Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things is on Netflix and is built around their U.S. book promoting tour, enriched with interviews by different field specialists, entrepreneurs, and people whose lives changed, when they chose to switch to a minimalist lifestyle.

This documentary is centred around the idea that we are constantly being brainwashed by technology, social media, advertisements and the entertainment industry telling us that we need more, bigger and better. Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston University, points out that, while the American Dream used to mean that people had the opportunity to start from the bottom and climb up the social class ladder, today “a $100,000 a year plus kind of income [has become] more and more an aspirational norm across the society, because that’s what’s portrayed as normal on TV, a six-figure income.”

Image: TheMinimalists.com

Image: TheMinimalists.com

It’s not just that people are generally earning more. Nor is it just that the portion of the world’s population that lives in more economically developed countries, is living in the best conditions ever recorded in human history. It’s also that all this unnecessary stuff we have accumulated, is cheaper and more accessible than ever, with 24/7 online shopping and huge box stores readily accessible.   

The key thought of this documentary and their book is that even though people have more, live better lives, have more opportunities, they are unhappier. Why? Some research suggests that (speaking in U.S. terms), while a person’s income is steadily growing up to $70,000 a year, their happiness increases proportionally. But once that figure passes 70k a year, it hits people that money can’t buy happiness. Ryan Nicodemus quit his corporate job because he realized that “there was this gaping void in [his] life. So [he] tried to fill that void the same way many people do, with stuff, lot of stuff”. Jesse Jacobs and Rock Hanson touch on the biological explanation of this phenomena. Historically, Mother Nature and evolution nurtured us and made sure we would survive in the hard conditions we were living, by wiring humans to eventually always become dissatisfied. But now, this same characteristic that helped us survive, is making us disconnect from reality. “You’re like a puppet, whose strings are being pulled by Mother Nature and evolution” (and media, and technology). And now people are realising that this huge fast fashion industry, this throw-away culture, has been a tremendous, decades long masterplan lead by the world’s 0.1% to persuade us to buy more and more of unnecessary material goods to reach a fake ideal.

Image: TheMinimalists.com

Image: TheMinimalists.com

And it’s not only about learning to live more meaningful lives, being more at peace and stopping to chase an unattainable ideal, it’s also about the unsustainability surrounding this industry. Colin Beauvian points out that “This mindless consumption, this same thing that’s not making us happy, is also causing the degradation of our habitat. We can afford to have 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re closing in on 400 parts per million.” We’re destroying our planet by chasing something we do not need, we cannot achieve and will not make us happier.

This documentary will definitely make you reconsider, whether you need that new top from H&M, whether you really need 24 different bowls from IKEA. And whether that 42nd pair of Chelsea boots will really make you happier. For a documentary covering such a serious topic, it’s pretty lightweight and packs a lot of information and some great quotes in just 1h 18mins.

If there’s anything you get from this movie, it should be Joshua’s last words “Love people and use things. The other way around just doesn’t work”.