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Minimalism Has An Image Problem

July 3, 2018
Minimalism Has An Image Problem | Tiny Ambitions

Dan Harris of the 10% Happier podcast/book/app/meditation empire, is constantly saying that meditation has a branding problem and, he’s right. People think it’s supposed to look and feel a certain way and it often puts them off even giving meditation a try (despite the proven benefits of doing so). Even though the reality is very different, it almost doesn’t matter.

Thanks to some reading I’ve done recently, I’ve come to think the same thing about lifestyle movements. It doesn’t matter what movement you’re talking about (minimalism, simple/slow living, hygge etc) – they all have an image problem. People think they are one thing when the reality is often very different. Sometimes (aka a lot of the time), the perception of a movement is heavily influenced by those at the forefront of it. This perception can put people off from giving minimalism, simple living or hygge a try even though it may end up being very beneficial for them.

Minimalism and simple living are two movements that I’m familiar with (exhibit a: this blog), but hygge (pronounced hue-guh) was relatively new to me until I did a deep dive last week.

Minimalism Has An Image Problem {Pin} _ Tiny Ambitions

I know I am a couple of years(!) late to the hygge train, but, I just finished reading The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking. If you haven’t read it yet but are a fan of other minimalism and simple living books – I highly recommend it. It’s a quick read and it’s straightforward in its delivery. No messing about for the Danes! If you have the option, try listening to the audiobook version. That’s what I did and getting to hear the author read his work added a lovely layer to the experience (his accent also helped).

For the uninitiated (aka the two people out there who haven’t heard of it before), hygge is a Danish word/lifestyle taking the world by storm. According to Meik, hygge can be translated as creating coziness. In fact, his personal favourite way to describe hygge is ‘cocoa by candlelight’. Meik equated hygge to the English word ‘homey’ which helped clarify it quite a bit for me. Hominess is a calming, soothing presence when everything feels just right.

That description of hygge is something I can get on board with. That version makes it sound much more ephemeral than tangible.

Like hygge is a feeling you create, rather than a thing that you have.

Hygge is about cherishing the ordinary, simple things in life, like a simple meal with friends or a slow walk around your neighbourhood on a lazy Sunday. In that way, hygge seems to be very much in line with minimalism and the slow living movement.

However, when I read the book, it seemed like in order for things to be really hygge you have to have the right ‘stuff’. Hygge isn’t just found in any old space. Hygge isn’t found in cold spaces decorated with metal or modern textures. The design aesthetic of hygge is one that I would describe as comfy, cosy, vintage and maybe even a little bit hippie? (I say hippie from a place of love – I consider myself a hippie, after all).

What I’m trying to say is that based on what Meik wrote, hygge requires the right lighting, the right cosy blanket, the right amount of lit, unscented candles and a book in order for it to be truly hygge. This is where the hygge movement loses me a little bit. I love the idea of savouring the ordinary. I’m on board with that, I think that’s great.

But, I do struggle with the idea that for us to live well (aka live hygge), it has to look a certain way with the right/appropriate ‘stuff’.

That’s where things get a little confusing for me.

Before you come for me in the comments – I want to make clear that this is the exact issue I’m trying to get at here. My perception of hygge (based on what I’ve read) would almost put me off trying to incorporate it into my daily life. When I’m sure it’s just my perception that is warping what hygge is in reality.

Minimalism is just as guilty of this as any trending lifestyle movement. Minimalism has been branded as the clean, white, sparse, interior decorating movement (with the $3000 West Elm sofa to match, of course). In that way, hygge appears to be it’s opposite, with comfy chairs, warm colours and textures being the order of the day.

If I’d let the popular version of minimalism become my perception of what minimalism actually is, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now. The mainstream perception of minimalism is enough to make me want to scream from the rooftops – ‘but it doesn’t have to be this way!’

I don’t live my minimalism that way. My minimalism is vintage, hand-me-down armchairs that have been scratched within an inch of their lives by my cat and hand-painted canvases from that time I thought I was an artist (spoiler alert: I’m not). In fact, my minimalism focuses less on what the ‘stuff’ in my life looks like and more on what I can do with my life because I’m not obsessed with owning the perfect, right, ‘stuff’. Does that make me any less of a minimalist? I don’t think so. Does my design aesthetic make my life more hygge? Again, I don’t think it does.

I would consider my life hygge because of what I do with it, rather than what I have in it.

Regardless of whatever movement I identify with, I don’t think owning the perfect cosy chair or the perfect piece of minimalist, modern art makes any difference to my ability to enjoy the simple things in life.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of curling up with a good book on my couch. That is my idea of a perfect (and apparently very hygge) afternoon. But, is that experience diminished if I’m reading under harsh lighting or on an old broken couch (which, for the record, I am)?

I certainly hope not.

My problem with hygge, minimalism and the slow living movement as a whole, is when they are held up as lifestyle ideals as something that has levels that can be ‘achieved’, they often appear exclusionary to those people who cannot afford the trappings of it. Can’t afford that West Elm couch? Well, I guess that means you can’t be a minimalist. Don’t have 6 hours to lovingly watch over a stew on the stove? There go your hopes of being part of the slow living movement.

In a lot of ways, I think lifestyle movements are trying to give us a different vocabulary to use to describe how we want to live our lives, or what our most ideal life looks like. However, in reality, they are just giving us different ways of saying very nearly the same thing. These movements are just being packaged differently and sold (with varying degrees of success and transmutation of intent).

How do we solve this problem?

The most clear-cut way I can think of is just to live your life, true to yourself and not to any one movement. You don’t need to pigeonhole yourself into a particular lifestyle box in order for your life to be enough. Spend all of your money on high-end furniture. Shop at the vintage store. Don’t shop at all. Get takeout. Make dinner from scratch. Eat straight from the cereal box. Whatever works for you, it’s good enough. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

How would you define your version of minimalism, simple living or hygge? Let me know in the comments!

Listen to the season finale of Tiny Bites – Tiny Bites 32: Your Life, in Boxes.

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  • Erin Wright July 29, 2018 at 2:08 pm

    Hi Britt! I totally agree with you. As I am downsizing, to live in a camper, I am going through my things and making my goal to minimize. I’ve been researching minimalism for years now, and something I noticed was all the nice things one has to buy to be a minimalist! LOL I thought the goal was to not have to buy anything! Anyway, I think I define minimalism, slow living, Hygee (which I’ve never heard of, until I read your post) as kind of a hippie lifestyle with some wabi sabi thrown in. It is embracing the imperfect, slowing down to notice the beauty in the small stuff, moments with family and friends, space to breathe and enjoy the moment, and acceptance – cracks and all. I guess that’s how I describe it. I’m not trying to achieve it by purchasing the perfect white couch, or getting rid of everything I own. I’m just going with the flow. Doing what makes me happy and keeps my life stress free, or relatively stress free! LOL.
    Thanks for your post!

    • Britt August 3, 2018 at 8:40 am

      Hi Erin, thanks so much for your comment! I’m sorry it’s taken this long to reply – going on vacation last week threw off my whole schedule. I absolutely love your definition of minimalism. It’s exactly what I think of when I think of minimalism.

      You’re right about noticing all the ‘stuff’ you have to buy to be a minimalist. It’s almost hilarious because it is so ridiculous.

      I’m with you – going with the flow is exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t think the perfect white couch exists (and even if it did, I’d never buy it. I have an orange cat after all).

      Thanks for reading!

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  • Athena July 12, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    I loved this post!

    For so long I struggled with minimalism but you’re right, it’s sincerely what you make it in your own life. For me, minimalism is constantly doing audits in my house just to make sure I don’t have any extra stuff I don’t need or use. And hygge is being able to curl up at home with a blanket, a candle and a good book in my house with a Himalayan salt lamp. It is what you make it.

    • Britt July 12, 2018 at 1:01 pm

      Thanks so much, Athena! (Totally a sidenote, but a friend of mine recently had a baby girl and decided to name her Athena and I’d never met anyone with that name before. Now I know two!).

      Minimalism is absolutely what you make it. But, I think people get wrapped up in what it’s ‘supposed’ to look like because they think it’s easier than really carving out the time and putting in the effort to make it look right for their own lives. I love your definition of hygge. My salt lamp doesn’t work anymore, but I still have it on my coffee table as a pretty decoration. I might as well make the most of it!

  • Linda Sand July 6, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    When we decided to move into an apartment after years of living and touring in a motorhome the only furniture we owned was 1 folding barstool, 1 folding foot stool, and 1 wood TV-tray type table. So we went to IKEA and bought all our furniture in one trip and had it delivered. The we added Grandma’s very long settee. The settee has a velour lap rug and two toss pillows for napping. My Poang chair has a neck pillow and a chenille lap rug to keep away drafts. And my bed has a comforter and two pillows–one for my head and one to hug. It’s all very clean lines with comforting touches. I love it!

    For decor we have a painting made by my mother, photos from husband’s college photography class final, a blue print of the railroad tracks where he grew up, a Lego model of the type of motorhome we lived in, a clock that tells me the day as well as the time since it’s easy to lose track when retired, another clock that is also our bathroom scale (yes we have a clock on our bathroom floor), and a vase we got as a thank you for being there for family in an emergency.

    Housekeeping here loves to clean our apartment because it is so easy it leaves them time for an extra break.

    • Britt July 6, 2018 at 7:04 pm

      You’re apartment sounds cozy and perfect for you and your husband! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  • Birgitte July 6, 2018 at 2:17 am

    For me ‘hygge’ is very closly linked to my (Danish!) grandmother, who does indeed live very comfy, cosy and old-fashioned:) ‘hygge’ is my ‘why’. ‘Why dont I buy this weird thing I dont really need?’ -> because I would rather save the money for a plane ticket to go visit my Danish family.
    Hygge is like happiness, a hygge-day is a day where I felt happy with friends and family.

    • Britt July 6, 2018 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for sharing, Birgitte. I love your perspective on this. I think minimalism, slow living, hygge, etc, all have the Why in common. Why have this thing, when you can do this thing that is more in line with your goals and values? It’s an important shift in perspective from the consume, consume, consume mentality.

  • Pam Walker July 5, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Right on Britt! Thank you once again for showing us we don’t have to be a certain way or create something that may not be authentic for us, instead, defining “it” for ourselves. But that being said, lets get our Hygge on – what is real for us without buying our way into anything that’s not authentic.

    Appreciate your ability to so beautifully write and sharing your authenticity. I am better for it!

    • Britt July 5, 2018 at 6:50 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Pam! I agree – let’s get out hygge on (whatever that looks like for each one of us).

  • experimentingaswegrow July 4, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Yup! The most interesting and admiral minimalists/slow-living/hygge people I’ve met don’t have time or interest in branding themselves a certain way.

    • Britt July 4, 2018 at 10:37 am

      Agreed! It doesn’t have to be a label you advertise to other people. There’s nothing worse than showing off your own lifestyle.

  • Lisa July 4, 2018 at 1:07 am

    This was a really thought-provoking post, Britt! I think I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with being pigeonholed. In a way it’s nice to feel I fit into a predetermined category because it gives me the feeling of being just like other people. I love that sense of community and belonging. But, on the other hand, it can be limiting, for the very reasons you discuss in this post! I think it’s nice to take inspiration from popular sources that appeal to us, be it very little furniture and plain white walls or rugs and cosy unscented candles, but we should adapt things to our own unique circumstances and always remember that an aesthetic is just an aesthetic, something external. If we start to believe belonging is about ownership, well, we’re falling down the same slippery slope of conspicuous consumption all over again.

    As a side note, I listened to the audiobook version of the hygge book too, sometime last year I think it was, and I appreciated the author’s own rendition of the text just like you did, Britt! (I love author-narrators, the most recent standout for me being Brooke McAlary’s reading of Slow). I’m rather taken with the idea of hygge, even though I would definitely not describe my own living space as fitting the hygge mould since it’s far too stark. My mum did a gap year in Denmark back in the early 80s, so when I was a kid she used to always say things like ‘this is so hyggelig’ and I guess after a while I started to understand what she meant!

    • Britt July 4, 2018 at 7:51 am

      “If we start believing belonging is about ownership” – yes!!! That’s exactly it. I agree with you about labels being helpful as a sense of community. It helps us to hopefully identity people who value the same things that we do.

      At the same time, labels make it easy to fall into a consumption trap because we think we need to have the right stuff to fit in.

      To your sidenote, I also love when authors narrate their own work – especially if that person has an podcast presence because then I’m used to their voice.

      What a cool experience that must have been for your mom!

      Thanks for reading, Lisa!!

  • Amanda of My Life, I Guess July 3, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    I’ve been hearing a ton about hygge online lately too, and to be honest, I still don’t think I quite “get it”. But I think that’s your point. What I perceived about it isn’t exactly what it is. But that was enough to turn me away from learning more about it.
    As for minimalism, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means to me and to my life. We recently had to stay in an AirBnB owned by the same property management company as our rental. The unit was a mirror image of our place, but only had the basics in it. And I LOVED it. I loved how open and clutter-free the space was. So, I’ve been striving to get that same feeling at our place. So far, it’s mostly consisted of just moving all the stuff upstairs, instead of getting rid of it or finding a better storage solution for the things I want to keep. But I no longer have that overwhelmed feeling when I walk in front door 🙂

    • Britt July 3, 2018 at 5:33 pm

      Moving stuff around can make such a difference in the feeling of your space. It’s awesome that you enjoyed the minimal version of your own apartment. It was probably a good testing ground for what would be possible in your own space.

      Thanks for reading, Amanda!

  • Brittany July 3, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for keeping it real, as always! I’ve been seeing “hygge” everywhere online, but it wasn’t until your post that I got a sense of what it meant. It sounds like a movement I could really get behind, but, as you said, one could fall prey to thinking they need to “have the right stuff.” I know for me personally, I’m such a sucker for these things. I enjoy some aspects of the minimalist aesthetic (which, when you think about it, it’s weird that it’s even an aesthetic, isn’t it??) and I could picture myself wanting hygge-everything too, which is really directly against my goal of being a more conscious consumer. I think we can also trick ourselves into buying things because they’re marketed to ‘fit’ our lifestyle. “Oh, I’m trying to be a better minimalist so I have to get this ridiculously expensive table” — what?? When you say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous, but we can tell ourselves anything as a way to justify the things we do. Great post!

    • Britt July 3, 2018 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks, Brittany! I’m the same as you. If I see any kind of trend or movement that appeals to me, I often feel the need to go all-in immediately with all the ‘stuff’ that goes along with the trend.

      In a lot of ways I think minimalism as a lifestyle has been co-opted by brands who just want to sell stuff. I’ve seen less of that so far with the hygge movement, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we start seeing hygge branded furniture and clothes coming down the pipeline soon.

      Thanks for reading and for such an insightful comment!

  • Erin | Reaching for FI July 3, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Yep, the minimalism perception problem is why I’ve said for years I’ll never be a minimalist, but reading your blog has definitely helped me realized there are other ways! I know for sure it’s why I love the Slow Home podcast so much—Brooke never makes you feel like there’s only one way to be living the ideal Slow Life (and who has time to watch a pot of stew boil for five hours anyway?!). In the end as long as you’re living a life you’re happy with, that’s really what matters!

    • Britt July 3, 2018 at 12:53 pm

      Yah! Brooke is really good about that. I’m glad TA has helped redefine minimalism for you – there’s a lot of garbage versions out there.

    Hey! I'm Britt. I write about living a tiny, simple, intentional life. Because life doesn't need to be lived big.