Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Minimalism: When Living With Less Means More Mental Health

Paring down to focus on what's important.

Ben White/
Source: Ben White/

The voices in your head reminding you of the Friday deadline. Your spouse saying there’s a last-minute get-together with friends. Your kid crying because the book report is due, and he needs help.

Most of us live with some form of mental chatter or another. But how do you mentally declutter? In short, clear your mind of the obsessive thoughts which can overwhelm you and keep you mired in avoidance, indecision and procrastination. The extreme example is OCD, although more commonly, we struggle with mindless, automatic, negative thoughts, which cause brain drain. Either way, too many of us are living our fears and not our dreams.

The problem is exacerbated by mental hoarding. Or when every third negative thought, bad memory, and personal slight fills the memory bank, collecting interest.

Accumulating unhealthy thoughts takes a toll. Your mind is a mental battlefield, your days wasted with one psychological arm wrestle after another. Compounding the problem is physical exhaustion.

Regardless of your situation, or DNA, your mind will not become calm, confident, and clear if you do not pay attention to paying attention:

  • You can’t stop boredom from creeping in if you don’t realize you’re checking out in the first place.
  • You can’t overcome avoidance if you don’t recognize you’re dreading reality this very moment.
  • You can’t practice steps to feel calm if you don’t listen to your body’s stress signals.

Awareness is everything to anxiety. Too often, energy is squandered between two mental states: rehearsing the future or rehashing the past.

While no shortcuts exist to get rid of unwanted thoughts, the following minimalist mindsets can help set the tone for a cleaner psychological slate.

’Tis Better to Donate Than Accumulate

When stuck in rumination, it's helpful to get out of your head and emphasize helping others. Focus on creating meaningful experiences, and remember that whatever you're struggling with, there is always someone fighting a greater battle.

During my 20s, I volunteered for various HIV and AIDS organizations. I spent Sunday mornings delivering meals to homebound people too ill to cook for themselves. Months later, I switched course and visited the terminally ill, who chose to live out their remaining days at home. Sometimes I was asked to read aloud, other times it was a gentle foot massage. The most memorable experience was the sweet man with a simple request: “Please don’t talk. Just hold my hand. That is all.” Sitting at his bedside, gently clasping his frail hand while pictures of his vibrant, healthier days stared back at me, stopped me in my self-absorbed tracks.

Like the saying goes, "One smile can start a friendship. One word can end a fight. One look can save a relationship. One person can change your life."

Love People, Not Things

We know money can’t buy happiness, yet we still buy into the hype. Every generation of holidays, family events, and Black Fridays in-between hasn’t convinced us that consumption doesn’t work.

What does work is defining the following:

  1. What do you care about?
  2. What makes your life meaningful?
  3. Who are you connected to?

If it all ends tomorrow, what will your last memory hold? The beautiful Craftsman bungalow which was the envy of the block? Or the time you drove 75 minutes in traffic to catch the last quarter of your son’s basketball game, and saw the spring in his 12-year-old step when he spotted you rushing in, two bleachers at a time?

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Physical clutter begets mental clutter. The minimalists who pare their wardrobe down to 33 items are onto something smart.

Energy spent doing laundry, folding laundry, and picking up laundry adds up. Just as buying a new kitchen appliance, unwrapping it, breaking down the packing materials, storing the instructions, and finding space on the kitchen counter comes with a price.

Every day you see that shiny new purchase, your mind is distracted, because it has to register another thing. What would your life look like if your mind had less things to process?

Minimalist Mental Health

Most people come to therapy to get rid of unhealthy habits—negative thinking, indecisiveness, dysfunctional relationships, over-drinking, over-spending, and over-doing in general.

Slowing down is everything to creating mental peace. “Brain breaks” are supported by deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness. With a calmer mind and body, negative thoughts are stripped of their power one sentence at a time:

Be more with less.

Stress less.

Drive less.

Text less.

Talk less.

Eat less.

We have a finite amount of mental energy every day. Unused minutes do not roll over to the next month. Choose your thoughts, actions, and relationships wisely.

Working in a profession with too many card-carrying members of the mental hoarding club, I say let’s end our obsession with mindless distractions and embrace simplicity, instead. Incorporating a minimalist mindset means the difference between “I’m busy” and “I’m free.”

Follow Linda on Facebook.

Copyright 2016 Linda Esposito, LCSW

Facebook/LinkedIn Image Credit: Shift Drive/Shutterstock

More from Linda Esposito LCSW
More from Psychology Today