Just like people who are interested in collecting inkwells, it makes sense that people interested in simplifying are a self-selected group.
For one, “minimalism is a luxury,” begins a quote I found somewhere, “much sought after by those who have everything.” I’d be willing to bet the people “who have everything” are strongly positioned in the middle class by their education, professional achievements, and social network, and are therefore able to willingly forego some material possessions in the name of a Life Philosophy without losing social status. That’s me, for now.
As long as I’m playing behavioral scientist without a lick of training or validated evidence, I’ll also posit that simplifying may be more attractive to people with certain temperaments and personality types.
Thinking versus feeling
Some people would have difficulty parting with high school yearbooks or things received as gifts, for example, because those things represent (however remotely) important experiences or past or current relationships. When I think about how easy it is for me to get rid of stuff (and let me be clear, I have kept many things with sentimental and family historical value), I think it’s because I tend to approach decisions from an analytical rather than an emotional perspective. (If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I come out stronger on “thinking” than on “feeling.”)
Need for novel stimuli
A friend of mine admits that she spends too much—and has too much stuff—but finds it hard to stop buying. Her enviable creativity is visible in the way she furnishes her home and plants and decorates her garden, in her clothing, and in her jewelry, much of which she makes herself. She also loves to try new restaurants, see movies in the theater, try new gadgets, and sample exercise trends. She’s a smart woman who works as an accountant, so why is she spending more than she wants while filling up her house?
In “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain writes about sensitivity to stimuli as a temperamental trait. She cites the results of a longitudinal clinical study that found infants who were less sensitive to novel stimuli (low-reactives) not only carried this trait into adolescence, they also tended to be seekers of novel experiences. They were able to handle, and likely required, more stimulation than high-reactives who risked feeling overwhelmed from too much novel stimuli. (Reactivity is germane to the book’s topic because more low-reactives are also extroverts and more high-reactives are also introverts).
I would not be surprised to learn that my friend is a low-reactive who buys new things in order to reach her optimal balance of stimulation. I don’t think I qualify as a high-reactive, but I can definitely be satisfied with less stimulation than my friend—how convenient!
Extroverts and introverts
Citing a variety of other research, Cain writes that “extroverts seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of [the emotional and instinctive part of the brain called the amygdala]” because the dopamine pathways in extroverts appear to be larger and more active than in introverts. “Like anyone,” writes a psychologist named Daniel Nettle quoted in the book, “[introverts will] be drawn from time to time to sex, and parties, and status, but the kick they get will be relatively small, so they are not going to break a leg to get there.” Perhaps introverts, with their internal focus, have an advantage when it comes to simplifying and seeking rewards that don’t come from stuff.
To conclude my armchair theorizing, a simple life with less stuff is probably pursued by people who didn’t care as much about stuff in the first place. If someone like my low-reactive friend really wanted to pare down possessions and spend less, she would likely need to find a way to replace the stimulation that previously came from buying things. And as an analytical type, I have to be on guard to not get rid of something I’ll later regret—and to consider the feelings of friends and family members who hear that I am not opposed to giving away their gifts.