This Book Made Me Stop Minimalism: The Meaning Of Things

This Book Made Me Stop Minimalism: The Meaning Of Things
Photo by Tom Crew / Unsplash

I used to be a staunch minimalist.

I had so few things, I could fit everything I owned in a backpack made for a kindergartener. I remember travelling in Sweden and London for a month to see family two years ago. Every time I arrived at a family members door they would open up and ask if I needed help carrying the rest of my stuff.

"This is all my stuff," I said, pointing to my backpack.

They laughed. "No seriously." I was being serious. All I had brought were three pairs of clothes, my laptop, some toiletries, and a bit of teenage existential dread.

There were a few times people would ask me why I had so little things. I'd answer by explaining how I didn't want to be tethered to the physical world. There were enough people addicted to their stuff, to drugs, or to something else outside of themselves. I wanted to derive all of my meaning and joy from myself and my relationships.

While I was quiet committed to minimalism, I remember there were a few times during college where I questioned it, if just slightly. One time was after entering my friend Rushika's room. The room looked like she had detonated an atomic bomb inside of it and then tried to organize the chaos alphabetically. I mean, there was so much, stuff...

A Star Wars Ashoka action figure, dozens of dozens of pairs of clothes, snacks of all varieties, Dungeons and Dragons dice, and so much more. It was insane. The first thought I had was, I wonder what moving day is like for her. But then I saw her jumping around, smiling, giving me a grand tour of museum Rushika. Every single thing had some significance--a friend gave it to her, she found it while travelling in Brazil, she pawned it, etc..

The thought started to creep into my mind: is my minimalism going too far?

This thought only grew when I read The Meaning Of Things by Csikszentmihalyi M. & Halton E. (2012)[1] after being recommended it by a friend in British Columbia.

Reading the book fueled the fire turning me against staunch minimalism and turned me into what I now call mindful minimalism.

Mindful minimalism sees the cultivation of things as essential means for discovering and furthering goals of the self, others, and world. In mindful minimalism there is a sense of growth, of directionality, that isn't present in staunch minimalism where you try and get rid of as many things as possible.

Mindful minimalism doesn't push for you to get rid of all your things. It pushes for you dig deeper into what you find meaningful about the things you have and the future things you acquire. This process of questioning naturally leads to having fewer things because you have a higher respect for how they enrich your life.

How did the book make me realize this?

In short, it gave me a deeper appreciation over how we give meaning to things and how this meaning shapes the quality of our lives.

How Things Have Meaning

[[Things make people as much as people make things]].

According to Csikzentmihalyi and Halton (2012) "Men and women make order in their selves (i.e., “retrieve their identity”) by first creating and then interacting with the material world. The nature of that transaction will determine, to a great extent, the kind of person that emerges. Thus the things that surround us are inseparable from who we are. The material objects we use are not just tools we can pick up and discard at our convenience; they constitute the framework of experience that gives order to our otherwise shapeless selves" (p. 16).

Once I read this, it made me reflect on how things impact my conception of self.

One thing I realized is how different I am between Hamilton (my hometown) and Cornell (where I got to University). At Cornell I feel I’m more driven, empathetic, and extroverted. While in Hamilton, I feel more laid back, and introverted. I think it's because in either location I relate to things differently. In Cornell, I have forged a new identity out of the things I surround myself with and the people I hang around. In Hamilton, I'm surrounded by things that remind me of my younger self.

Thankfully, this is beginning to change as I solidify my identity between Cornell and Hamilton more.

Things don't just have meaning in extending our conception of self. They also have meaning in:

  • Socializing us. For example, a girl being given "girly" toys like dolls and a boy being given "boy" toys like fake cars.
  • Social integration and differentiation. For example, a national flag can integrate those under that nationality while at the same time differentiating them from others.
  • Showing power or status. For example, a Rolex implies wealth because it's not a required item and very expensive.
  • Symbolizing something abstract like God, love, or curiosity. For example the cross for God.
  • Acting as practical tools. For example, a car getting us to places faster.
  • Making us feel a certain way. For example, feeling more beautiful after putting on jewelry or pleasure from listening to music.

Importantly, things can be and often are in multiple of these meanings at once.

Our relationships with things can be further defined on two dimensions: contemplative and action oriented, and self versus other oriented. Action oriented relationships tend to use things for doing stuff. Contemplation oriented relationships tend to use things for memories, abstractions of self, symbols of something, etc.

The tendencies for people to fit on these dimensions changes across age and gender. Men and younger generations tend to ascribe more action oriented meaning to things where as women and older generations tend to ascribe more contemplative meaning to things. Universally as we get older, people tend to define things more in terms of their relation to others rather than just themselves.

Some of the most common things which people ascribe meaning to are furniture, art pieces, photographs, cutlery, statues, stereos, televisions, and plants. The type of meaning people ascribe to these objects differs significantly. For example, photographs tend to be much much more about contemplative meanings and others then stereos or televisions which tend to have more action oriented meanings and a self orientation.

Three Things That Give Me The Most Meaning

Once I began seeing the myriad of ways things could have meaning, I started to ask what things had most meaning in my own life.

Because I owned so few things, I asked myself this question in my childhood home. Here are three of the things I came up with.

Dining Room Table

I ate family dinners at this table. I played board games for hundreds of hours at this table. I have written countless words at this table.

My dad crafted it himself in his workshop from cherry trees on our land. It connects me to him and to nature at large. It stands as a symbol against consumerism.

Plus, it’s massive. It must be a bodybuilder in table standards. This is the only table I have found big enough to play board games such as Fury Of Dracula, Gloomhaven, or Mansions Of Madness. That’s got to mean something.

My Computer Set Up

This computer set up might seem like a simple mix of a mouse, headphones. keyboard, monitor and computer. But to me, it symbolizes adventure, creativity, and curiosity.

This is the computer set up I used for escape in spellbinding video game worlds. I’ve logged thousands of hours across games such as Minecraft, Terraria, Civ 6, and more. It’s been my sanctuary while navigating real world struggles like school, relationships, and work.

It’s the computer set up I have used to create 100s of YouTube videos, 100s of newsletters, 10s of podcasts, and three courses.

And it’s the place I have dug into endless curiosities reading Kindle books and watching videos with a fervent hunger. Amidst growing up in the small rural town of Hamilton—a place with probably more tumbleweeds then buildings—this set up connected me to the tremendous store of human knowledge and the world at large through the internet. I was not alone but a part of something greater.

Living Room Fireplace

This fireplace holds the memories of hundreds of late night reading sessions, cup of chamomile tea in hand. Memories of nights sitting on the couch barely able to keep my eyes open but staying awake to learn just a bit more from a fascinating book I was diving into.

There’s something about a fire that creates coziness. Maybe it’s a remnant of our days hanging around fires as hunter gathers amidst the dark of night. There were so many evenings I’d spend playing Scrabble, Blokus, or just talking with my family and friends while the fire flickered softly beside us.

Some nights, I just stared at it. I’d submit my mind to its warm embrace and lose myself in its burning that seemed simultaneously random and as if it behaved by some grand design.

How Does The Meaning We Ascribe To Things Effect Our Wellbeing?

Figuring out three of the things I ascribed most meaning to up above filled me with a warmth and connectedness to the world I hadn't felt in a while. Was this meaning affecting my wellbeing in any way?

Csikszentmihalyi & Halton answering this question in the book. They took five of the "warmest" families they talked to in their overarching study for the book and five of the "coldest" families. Warmness was defined by number of family members giving positive descriptions of the home. They asked them a series of questions about their goals, personalities, and actions. The last question on the "Events" interview read as follows: If you had the time and money to do anything you wanted, what would you do?

The interesting thing is how the quality of those responses differed between the cold and warm families.

In the words of the authors, "If the only goal mentioned was travel, or some form of consumption or pleasure, we coded the answer escape. If the goals included any mention of improving the lot of the respondent or of someone else, the answer was called productive" (p. 149). They go on further to say "The total sample was almost evenly divided into halves in terms of escapist and productive goals; 36 people only mentioned the former, 39 also mentioned the latter. (In three interviews this question was not answered). But the two groups of families differed significantly: 35 percent of the members of the warm families held escape goals only, whereas in the cool families the proportion was 60 percent (chi square 3.84, = .05). This difference suggests that when the members of a family share positive emotions about their home, they develop aspirations that lead beyond immediate gratification to some productive outcome" (p. 150).

It's this last point we must hit on. What Csikszentmihalyi & Halton found is possible evidence that when we have positive meanings with our external world, we develop aspirations that transcend our individual selfish concerns. We are more empathetic and caring. We [[Transcend|transcend.]]

Our external relationship effects our internal relationship which effects our external relationship which effects our...

This reminds me of the self-improvement advice often ascribed to Jordan Peterson: if you're struggling in life, make your room. It's simple. It's easy. And yet the small act of cleaning up your external world is the start to cleaning your internal one as well.

How Can You Adopt Mindful Minimalism?

Clearly, the relationship we have with things plays a large role in our connection to ourselves, others, and the world at large. Reading this book made me adopt mindful minimalism over staunch minimalism.

And sure, giving more meaning to things tethers me more to the world instead which opens me up to being hurt if things I can't control happen to those things.

But I would rather care about things and hurt, then be a robot.

The question is, how can you adopt mindful minimalism?

I think the first part comes with asking questions like I did when I was uncovering the three things which meant most to me:

  • Why is this thing important to you?
  • How does this thing make you feel?
  • How does this thing help you express yourself?
  • How does this thing connect with others and the world?

The second step is in inquiring more about others relationship with things. This will help you not only understand them better but yourself and the world as well.

Finally, don't have an aversion to getting more things like I did. I'm not saying go Scrooge McDuck mode and start buying stuff left and right. But be okay with getting the occasional thing to enliven your life.

Who knows, maybe the thing is acquiring you rather than you it.


  1. Csikszentmihalyi M. & Halton E. (2012). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge University Press. ↩︎