Is Less Really More?

My friend Douglass and I get together for coffee occasionally and talk about everything from big ideas to the latest adorable things our dogs have done.

Like me, he believes in the power of words and the importance of using the right word at the right time. Words matter. Precision matters. And certain well-worn phrases have the ability to really annoy us both. Phrases like ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ or ‘Giving Back to the Community’.

“No, I’m fine with that one,” he said during one of our coffee dates. “The one I hate is ‘Less is More’. Less is NOT more. More is more. Less is not. It can be different. I can even be better, but less is not more.”

And I’ve been turning that over in my head ever since.

Here’s my take on that phrase, which might be completely different from Douglass’. We’ll need to have a coffee together soon to discuss.

I think we say that Less is More because we’re afraid of the concept of Less. We still want it all. We’re suffering from FOMO. But we’re also completely overwhelmed by our overloaded schedules and sick of tripping over things in our overloaded houses and so we agree to try out Minimalism because we have been sold on its benefits by those who tell us that Less? Is actually More! Way more than you can ever imagine!!

So we do the big clear out. Or we unsubscribe from the myriad emails. Or we resign from a few of our obligations.

And at first, maybe, it really does feel like we have more. More time! More space! More peace of mind! Yay!

And then a funny thing happens. We get bored. We get annoyed. We start to notice that our life isn’t perfect. That we really don’t know what to do with a free Wednesday night or an empty closet. That not getting a million annoying emails makes us feel, perhaps, a little less important than we once did. And those emails, annoying as they were, were a lot less annoying than the thoughts in our head that are now able to command our attention with questions like ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Is there actually a point to life?’ We start to think a little less of Less.

What is going on here? Where’s the magic that all the Minimalist gurus, all the Less is More types have been selling?

I think the magic happens for the people who understand that Less is Something Different, who have looked More in the eye and decided they don’t want it, who are content with Less, but More Appreciated, or simply, Less.

One of the phrases minimalists use to describe their homes is that Less Stuff = More Space. And in those first breezy moments after you’ve downsized your wardrobe and given away the extra dressers, it really does feel like you’ve gained more space in your home, when in fact, the space was there all along, it’s just more visible now. And most people, if they continue with the decluttering, get to the point where the home they’re in feels too big, so they sell up and move to something smaller. That’s the plan that Alan and I have. It’s as though we have a set point for how much open space we can truly enjoy in our homes and once we exceed that, we either fill it up with stuff or move someplace smaller so the stuff we have will fill it comfortably.

The same thing happens with our time commitments. This is why we get bored if the vacation is long enough. We need stuff to do. And while it’s wonderful to spend much of our time doing the things that are important to us rather than to the neighbours or our boss, having fewer commitments doesn’t actually give us more time. The time was there all along. We were just too busy and distracted to notice.

I think the pursuit of Less as a way of gaining More is an approach that will lead to failure. Because we’re still craving More and that’s not the point of Less. If we crave More, no matter how noble that More may be, we still don’t understand the subleties of Less.

It’s a lot like practising Mindfulness so that we can never lose a moment. It’s going to lead to a whole lot of stress and disappointment and wondering what you’re doing wrong.

A life of Minimalism or Mindfulness doesn’t actually guarantee you a life of serenity. In fact, at the start of these adventures serenity can be the first thing you lose. Because the Mindfulness and the Minimalism allow us to see the chaos and the wonder that we have been distracting ourselves from up until now. Take away the extraneous bits, polish up what’s left and smile at the perfection you have achieved. Then exhale, fix a meal and realize that the dishes will always get dirty, the laundry will always need doing and the tumbleweeds of dog hair will likely roll through your house long after the beloved doggie is gone.

Less is Less. But as you pare down the unnecessary, you find yourself living with what’s important to you. And you can then decide whether you want to try to answer the big scary questions your mind insists on posing or whether you would rather distract yourself with other things. Whether, in fact, you want a little bit More.

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5 Responses to Is Less Really More?

  1. douglass says:

    Ahh, Barb, you’ve given the old guy a whole world of smiles on this blustery noisy leaf befuddled afternoon.

    And you’ve captured something important, that the goal of less is enough, learning what is enough. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue — after all, is enoughness actually a word?

    It reminds me of the old joke about drug companies – what is the drug companies worse nightmare? That they invent a pill and all the patients die? Nope. It’s that they invent a pill and all the patients get better. Because what they really want, their dream come true, is that they invent a pill and the patients have to keep taking it — forever!

    The Mindfulness Industry and the Minimalism Manufacturers seem to want the same thing: to keep you craving the more of better mindfulness or of a more perfect minimalism. They want you to keep taking the pill.

    You know, we keep chasing after more. [ And that we includes you and I, since we are just as fumbling and stumbling as everyone else, aren’t we?

    More is, in Pema Chodron’s image, a hook, a place where we get stuck. Saying “enough” to that sticky place — we’ve taken enough pills, thank you — with equanimity and kindness is the lesson I think less actually has to offer us.

  2. Pam says:

    Thanks so much you two. I certainly have enough to think about now.

  3. Carmen says:

    What an entertaining conversation between the two of you. Thank you for that. I favor the word “enough.” I have enough and need no more. My enough meets my needs. My enough gives me just the right amount of everything – for me. What a beautiful thing it is to not need excess to be satisfied.

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