My friend is sparking joy all over the place. Another compulsively checks the #vanlife Instagram movement— a nauseating cycle of near-identical photos featuring sand, sun, water, yoga, and, of course, self-contained vans. A wealthier friend goes right for it, pontificating on minimalism as he smugly tours people around a exquisitely decorated, streamlined apartment.

Though they have very different personalities, these habits are all just different manifestations of the same thing— the cult of less. Many of us have become obsessed with minimizing, with downsizing. If you’re willing to admit it, you’ve probably lusted after the perfect apartment layout, day planner, or sparse wardrobe since you first heard about Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I’ve certainly done it. And there’s doubtless much to be gained by simplifying and rethinking our relationship with possessions. But with the search for minimalism in its current form, there’s much more to it than that— and it’s not as achievable as it presents itself to be. 

Because now it’s not just about having less, it’s about the purge— that obsessive journey toward purity. We see it in our food, drink, and workout trends, this need to cleanse. Now, with the minimalism trend this need can touch nearly ever facet of our lives. And there’s something punishing about that search.

Could many of us do with a decluttering? Of course. And a massive step away from the consumerism is even more crucial. We have too much, we buy too much, we give too little. No arguments there. But minimalism, in the way that comes alive on social media and, ironically, in lifestyle and furniture catalogues, isn’t a step away from that. It’s a focus on a fewer belongs, yes— but perfect, beautiful, and efficient belongings.

The Real Cost Of Downsizing

And the thing about perfection and beauty and efficiency? They cost. Because minimalism looks a lot better with an artistically distressed leather couch and a few exquisitely tailored pieces of clothing than it does with actually worn-out belongings that you have because that’s all you can afford. Plus, have you seen the cost of an artfully distressed leather couch and a few vintage suitcases to use for Instagram-ready storage? You’ll choke on your coffee. The coffee from your efficient, trendy Aeropress. This version of minimalism is only available to the privileged, leading the rest of us to feel guilty for our messy lives.

As for hashtagvanlife, the idea of jacking it all in to travel around, that requires some expensive prerequisites too. A job— often internet-based— that will allow you to work from anywhere. And of course, the equipment to make it work. The nomadic ‘citizens of the world’ who tell you, “You don’t need the latest iPhone” are absolutely right. But they also normally have the second-latest iPhone and a beautiful Macbook. Just call them men of the earth.

The Dangers Of Competition

And there’s a worrying side effect of all of this— the strive to be stylish, the need for expensive and beautiful things, the purging and purification. It creates a decidedly competitive edge, a push. Who can be the most minimal, the most pure, the most ‘happy’ with the least. And it’s impossible to win. Well that’s not completely true. You could be a monk. Monks win minimalism forever.

But for the rest of us, it means a competition between each other and competition with ourselves. One that we can’t win, even if we have the funds and privilege to really compete. It engages the rhetoric of cleanliness, simplicity, and of course, purity— versus clutter, chaos, and excess— powerfully judgmental language. And it doesn’t need to.  If you want to live in a van, that’s great— live in a van. But don’t pretend that’s the only— and ultimate— escape. If you hate your job, try to find a new job. If you have too much stuff, give it away and stop buying iPhones. As a choice and as a movement, it doesn’t need to be given more power than that. I realized I had far too many clothes, so I gave a bunch away and decided I wouldn’t buy any new ones for the next year. It wasn’t some purge and pursuit of minimalism, it was just trying to get some perspective and control on my consumerist habits. I didn’t even have to put it on Instagram.

So let’s do more with less, but let’s stop deifying the process and the result. Instead, move the focus onto what really matters— sustainability, distribution of resources, and charity. And leave the rhetoric behind.