Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things

2016; length 79 minutes
Directed by Matt D ‘Avella

Joshua Fields Millburn’s world pretty much crashed in 2009 when his mother died and his marriage ended – in the same month.

At that point he seemed to be living the American dream as a successful young professional, with a six figure income, a beautiful home in the suburbs, an expensive car and all the latest gadgets. But, as he describes it, buying all the status symbol “stuff” was only feeding his anxiety, financial stress, guilt and depression. His life was “spiraling downward in ever-diminishing circles towards empty oblivion”, he writes. In 2009 he hit rock bottom.

That’s when Millburn stumbled across some websites describing the ‘Minimalist’ movement. At first he had no idea what the term even meant, but became more and more attracted to the idea of living with less and simplifying his life. He started with little experiments like paring down his possessions and getting rid of his TV, and couldn’t help but notice the growing feelings of internal freedom that came with less external clutter in his life. He also found it gave him clarity about his life choices. Millburn continued getting rid of his possessions, keeping only the things that, as he puts it, “serve a purpose or bring me joy.”

One day his best friend of 20 years, Ryan Nicodemus, asked him an interesting question: “Why the hell are you so happy?”

Plenty of deep discussions ensued and it wasn’t long until the Minimalist movement had another follower. Nicodemus joined his friend in ridding himself of many of his possessions, and started a journal about the adventure. All this eventually led to the two friends, who first met in the fifth grade, starting a website in December 2010 so they could share ideas and help others simplify their lives.

Joshua Fields Millburn (left) and Ryan Nicodemus

Since then Milburn and Nicodemus have written a number of books (Minimalism; Essentials; As a Decade Fades; and their latest: Everything That Remains) and host the very popular Minimalists Podcast. As well, they have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and Time Magazine, and have spoken at Harvard, Apple, and TEDx.

Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things follows Milburn and Nicodemus on a year-long book tour, travelling in their car to many towns and cities across the U.S. Their first gatherings are small – basically intimate conversations with the few folks who show up. But as the tour picks up, they attract larger and larger audiences, and at the end of the tour receive an invitation to appear on NBC’s “Today” show. The documentary is part road movie, as they hit the highway and visit city after city, and part getting to know Milburn and Nicodemus. It’s revealing and fun, quite fast-paced and lively, as they get more confident doing their presentation in front of larger audiences, and meet some charming characters along the way.

Josh Milburn interviewing Sam Harris

The film also showcases many other voices in the Minimalism movement, and touches on some very interesting issues. For example, Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist, and Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, consider what causes us as humans to “feel satisfied”. They explore the ways in which we are manipulated by advertising to think that we must aim for perfection…which is always just out of our reach. And that leads to addiction, or what might be called “compulsory consumerism”. They bring up the very good point that so much of the things we and our children are encouraged to buy is really just “junk” – little plastic toys, trendy but cheaply made clothing, gadgets that we don’t really need…until we end up requiring more space and bigger houses to store it all. The result? We have to work longer and harder to pay for our consumer addiction and our bigger house. We have more financial stress, more anxiety about the future, and less time to spend on important things like our mental, physical and spiritual health, our relationships, and our true passions in life.

Other voices in the documentary are minimalist architects and designers, working on helping people live in small spaces. There are business owners, writer, musicians, and a former Wall Street broker, who talk about their own journeys living with less. Dan Harris, a correspondent for ABC News, speaks movingly about the aggressive competitiveness required for success as a TV-news journalist, and how discovering meditation practices and mindfulness restored his peace and equanimity. Leo Babauta, author of Essential Zen Habits, talks about the challenges of being a minimalist while being a husband and father of six kids. The documentary also looks at “ownership” versus “access” – meaning I don’t need to own a thing if I can access it when I need it. “Access” might include using Uber, borrowing books from the library, or sharing sports equipment and tools with other families.

Writer and photographer Courtney Carver is also interviewed. She talks about being stressed, tired and sick most of her adult life, until she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2006. Carver knew she had to de-stress and simplify her lifestyle, and part of that was giving herself a minimalist fashion challenge. She called it “Project 333” – to dress with 33 items or less for three months (and that includes clothing, accessories, jewelry, outerwear and shoes). When Carver wrote an article about it, the idea spread like wildfire and thousands of others took up the challenge with her.

One woman who tried Project 333 ended up cutting down her closet to a bare minimum, and happily reports in the film, “I don’t fret anymore about what I’m going to wear, because all the stuff in my closet is awesome…or at least I think so!”

On a very practical level, that remark inspired me to have a good, hard look at my own closet a few days after watching the documentary. I was ruthless as I asked myself over and over again, “Do you actually enjoy wearing this?” Needless to say, a large bag of my clothes went to a women’s shelter the next day, and now I too can say that I love everything in my closet!

It comes down to asking yourself two questions about the things you own or are considering buying: “Is this useful? Does it bring me joy?” If the answer is yes to either of those questions, then perhaps you should keep it. If the answer is no, think seriously about whether it deserves to take up space in your home.

Milburn sums up what he and Nicodemus have discovered: “Happiness, as far as we’re concerned, is achieved through living a meaningful life: a life filled with passion and freedom in which we grow as individuals and contribute beyond ourselves. Growth and contribution: those are the bedrocks of happiness. Not stuff.”

It seems that this whole idea of simplifying our lives, living with less, minimizing our footprint, and having less clutter in our houses and our heads is striking a chord with many. What’s surprising is that it cuts across age categories. I have quite a few Baby Boomer friends who are sincerely looking at moving in this direction with their lives and their living arrangements. And I also see the same desires in the lives of many of the young adults in my circle of family and friends.

As Third Order Franciscans, my husband and I have already wholeheartedly bought into the idea that we need to lead simpler, more intentional and more compassionate lives. What we appreciated about this documentary is that it gives a practical, thoughtful and very modern perspective on how to make that happen.

Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things is now available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo, or on DVD.

Laura Locke

About Laura Locke

Laura Locke is an educator, award-winning journalist, and editor of Kolbe Times. She is happily married to Bill, and they have three grown children. Laura loves biking, cooking, reading and playing her accordion in the Acclectica Accordion Ensemble.
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