'Distraction from happiness': Writer Joshua Becker encourages people to live with less
PEORIA, Ariz. — You could call Joshua Becker an early pioneer of the minimalist movement.
If you haven't read his books on minimalism, you might recognize him from Netflix's documentary "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things."
The Wall Street Journal bestselling author was born in Aberdeen, S.D., and attended junior high and high school in Wahpeton, N.D., from 1987 to 1992.
Having written about minimalism for 10 years, Becker first saw America take hold of the idea when the recession hit in 2008.
"I think that moment is when I saw it starting to grow, because people were losing jobs and had less money and they were losing their houses," he says. "That economic downturn that turned a lot of people into thinking a little more simple whether by force or by design."
Technology has made minimalism both possible and attractive: smart phones hold books, movies, music, photos, maps and credit cards, digitizing objects that were once physical.
"When (the Minimalists) Joshua (Fields Millburn) and Ryan (Nicodemus) got into minimalism six or seven years ago, I was one of the more prominent writers writing about it back then, so they found me pretty early," Becker says. "The online community is very friendly and cooperative. We're very encouraging of one another. This is much more of an 'us against the world' mentality than personal finance blogging or recipe blogging. It's much more of a David vs. Goliath where we're all a bunch of 'Davids' out here."
Colliding with minimalism
The moment Becker first learned about minimalism is one he'll never forget; he shares the story at each speaking engagement he hosts.
Now a Peoria, Ariz., resident, the 42-year-old was living in Vermont at the time, doing housework on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in 2008.
"I was cleaning the garage; my son was 5 years old at the time and he was asking me to come play with him in the backyard as any 5-year-old would," he says. "However I just kept saying, 'As soon as I'm done. Let me finish this and then we can play.'"
One thing led to another and hours later Becker was still working, as was his 80-year-old neighbor who was tending her yard.
"At one time, we passed each other on the property line and she said, sarcastically, 'Isn't it great owning a home?'" Becker recalls. "I said, 'You know what they say — the more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you.' That's when she said, 'That's why my daughter is a minimalist. She keeps telling me I don't need to own all this stuff."
In that moment, Becker glanced back at the pile of the dusty, dirty belongings he'd spent all morning and afternoon tending to, acknowledging those things meant nothing to him.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my son, Salem, swinging alone in the backyard where he'd been all morning," Becker says. "I just had this realization that everything I owned wasn't making me happy but — even worse — everything I owned was actually taking me away from the very thing that brings me happiness, purpose and fulfillment."
Embracing challenges of unique lifestyle
In giving away possessions, one would think challenges would follow. Becker has a different mindset.
"Maybe I'm too optimistic of a person, but most of the challenges associated with (minimalism) I really do see as opportunities," he says.
Step one of the process is inevitably sorting and getting rid of possessions.
"When we first started, the process of going through the house and getting rid of things was tiresome and burdensome and required a lot of physical effort and energy," he says. "But I found the emotional energy was almost more significant. There's a lot of soul-searching questions that come up as you're going through the process."
The act of owning less can also be a little scary for some, knowing they might not have what they need when they need it.
"I'm never hesitant to borrow something from a neighbor," Becker says. "If we were going to have a lot of people come over for something and we don't have enough dishware or outdoor furniture, I'm not opposed to saying, 'Hey, could we borrow some stuff for tonight?' I suppose that's a challenge when you think about it, but I think it tends to bring neighbors closer together."
Becker admits downsizing from a 2,200-square-foot home to 1,600 was a change.
"I guess there are some days where you wish you could just go off to your wing of the house and not have to deal with other members of the family," he says. "But even there, I think it's kind of good. You're forced to learn how to co-exist."
Benefits far outweigh the hiccups
While certainly any lifestyle change comes with challenges, Becker's list of benefits is neverending.
"As I began owning less, I found I had more time, more money and more focus, less stress, less distraction. I had more freedom in life," he says. "I began living as a better example for my kids."
Becker says the biggest benefit of minimalism is forcing individuals to look closely at how they spend their time, money and energy, thus freeing them up to pursue their real passions. For many Americans, possessions define who they are or measure their success, but Becker challenges people to think differently.
"Our possessions are actually a big distraction from happiness, not an avenue towards it," he says. "We all know that possessions don't make us happy. It's just that we live in this culture where we are constantly told that we'll be happier if we have whatever they're selling."
Living with less has proven invaluable for Becker and his family.
"I think that our lives are too valuable to waste chasing and accumulating material possessions," Becker says. "I want to remind people that their life is worth far more than that."
Minimalism with kids
In his book, "Clutterfree with Kids," Becker touches on minimalism as a family mission.
"Once we have kids, it's more difficult, but it's that much more important," he says. "No. 1 so we can invest in our kids what they need us to invest in them and No. 2, they're learning from and watching us."
Becker provides these four tips when pursuing minimalism as a family.
- Parents should start first. "I always tell parents it's so unfair to start minimizing your children's things before yourself," he says. "You have to go through your own closet, your own kitchen and do your own stuff before you make your kids get rid of some of theirs."
- Set boundaries. Boundaries can empower children. "When we went through our kids' toy room, we said, 'You can keep as many toys as you want that fit against that wall, but anything beyond that wall we're going to get rid of,'" Becker recalls. "In life there's always boundaries, and they're always going to have to decide what's most important."
- Have patience and grace. Above all, give your children time to adapt. "It took me 30-some years to figure this out — can I really expect my 8-year-old daughter to understand everything that took me three decades to figure out? Maybe that's not fair," Becker says."
Where is he now?
When he’s not busy writing his latest book or blogging on his website BecomingMinimalist.com, you can find Becker at speaking engagements across the world. In fact, he just booked a gig in Warsaw, Poland, this month and Iceland in February.
But that’s not all he does. On the side, Becker builds orphanages through the nonprofit organization he founded in 2015 called The Hope Effect, using his advance from the book, “The More of Less.”
"We built a home in Honduras, and we'll start building some homes in a city on the U.S.-Mexico border on the Mexico side later this fall,” he says.
Becker explains decades worth of research has shown the typical orphanage with 30-plus children and few adults is harmful for the kids.
"When they don't get attention and affection like they would in a family, that they fall behind in every stage of human development,” he says. “Seventy to 80 percent of kids who age out of a traditional orphanage end up homeless, incarcerated or in prostitution."
The Hope Effect aims to change those statistics.
"We have this new model where we build small homes on a campus and then each home houses six orphans and two parents,” he says. “That way it functions like a family would."