So Why Isn’t Everyone a Minimalist: The Four Monkeys of Materialism

July 16, 2018 Updated: July 16, 2018

Imagine there was a pill. It lessened your debt, made you more fulfilled, saved the planet, and tidied up your house for you. Side effects might include smiling more.

Everyone would be taking that pill if it existed, right? People would pay big bucks for that pill. All you would see on TV would be ads for this pill. All the big pharma companies would try to patent it.

Now imagine the pill was free.

Minimalism isn’t a pill, but it is a magic medicine. And it is free. Minimalism may mean something slightly different to different people. I define it as only bringing objects into your life which you have mindfully chosen to help you live your unique purpose.

So why hasn’t the whole world swallowed the pill? Why has the minimalist movement, while passionate and growing, not been taken on instantly across the world?

Maybe because there is something fighting against us taking that magic medicine. In fact, according to what I can see, and recorded in my book A Life Less Throwaway, there are four jabbering, distracting, monkeys knocking that pill away.

Let me introduce you to the four monkeys of materialism and what we can do to overcome them.

Monkey One—The Advertising Monkey

The first monkey is insisting, hundreds of times a day, that buying this thing or that thing will make us happier, healthier, more beautiful, and likable. We try to ignore this monkey and keep what it’s saying from going into our heads, but it is surprisingly effective. Otherwise, advertisers wouldn’t spend the money to make ads.

While our conscious brain might be musing other things, this monkey is clever. It speaks directly to those bits of our brains we don’t control, the bits that create deeply hidden urges and impulse buying.

We must mute this monkey if we can, and teach our kids to mute it on the TV and the internet, too. Where ads are unavoidable, like on the street, we can break their power by becoming mindful of them. Look the monkey straight in the eye and say, “I’m good just the way I am, thanks.”

Engaging this monkey consciously and confidently is the only way to quiet it.

Monkey Two—The Trend Monkey

The second monkey makes fun of your shoes! It’s telling you, “You can’t possibly wear that again, everyone has seen you in it. Besides, it’s out of style.”

It’s the monkey that points out that your couch is “a bit 90’s” and hypnotizes you into thinking that things you used to love have somehow stopped being beautiful and interesting.

This monkey can be silenced by taking the time to dig deep into your unique sense of style.

Spend a few hours really considering which colors look great on your body, and calm and inspire you in a home environment. Put in a weekend to nail down the shapes and textures that make you happiest.

When you consciously build a sense of your own aesthetic, you can then dismiss the fads and tell the trend monkey you don’t give a hoot if “spots are in” and “stripes are out” because you’ve taken the time to find what makes you feel fabulous forever.

Monkey Three—The Status Monkey

The status monkey is the trend monkey’s evil twin. This monkey lives inside your head and is constantly pointing out to you what other people have and whether they are “above” or “below” you.

This monkey is obsessed with being on top because, in ancient times, a human with low status might get kicked out of the tribe and starve. This is one paranoid monkey!

So now it hisses in your ear, “We have the worst house on the street, the oldest car. Look how big that woman’s engagement ring is. Everyone else gets new backpacks for their kids each year.”

The status monkey is backed up by the advertising monkey. Models look haughty in advertising and on the catwalk because, whether they know it or not, they are trying to activate this monkey in your head.

The monkey sees the ad and says, “See how she’s looking at you? That means you’re below her! If you buy this designer bag, then we can go up a level and feel higher, too.”

Kids can suffer cruelly under the tyranny of the status monkey. “Everyone else has one!” is a familiar cry.

Working on getting self-worth from what you do and who you are, rather than what you have, is the only way to quiet this monkey.

Ask your kids why they are pals with their friends. It will never be because they have the latest toy, but because they are fun or kind—intrinsic qualities. Reassure your kids that it’s this stuff that other kids care about too. Reassure yourself of this too, while you’re at it.

It’s been shown that whether you’re rich or poor, how you feel about your status can affect your immune system and actually shorten or lengthen your life.

So please, don’t let the status monkey trick you into thinking that people with more stuff or more expensive stuff have higher status. You give yourself your status.

Calm this monkey by telling it that you appreciate it looking out for your survival, but it doesn’t need to worry because you’re king of the jungle where it counts.

Monkey Four—The Attachment Monkey

Many of us want to declutter and let go of excess items that aren’t adding to our happiness. However, the attachment monkey clings hold of all of your possessions, no matter what, and makes big monkey eyes at you.

“How could you possibly let this go? It’s yours! You spent money on it! It’s worth something! What if you need it? It reminds you of someone. Maybe you’ll use it someday!”

This monkey needs to understand that objects which aren’t being used or appreciated are non-objects. In fact, they are draining, negative objects. They’re just clutter and a waste of the materials and time that went into making them. The mere fact that you own them isn’t a reason in itself to keep them.

How can we beat this monkey?

Well, if the monkey says you might use an object one day, choose a specific time limit. Write the date on a sticker and put it on the object. Make a deal with the monkey. This is that object’s expiry date. If you haven’t used or appreciated it before the date arrives, it goes.

If it is the waste of money that bothers the monkey, try and sell it to make a return. But remember, even if it is some lost money, it is even worse if it’s wasted money that is sitting there making you feel guilty. Who wants to spend money on an object that makes them feel bad every time they see it?

When it comes to mementos, instead of clinging to all of them, satisfy the monkey by picking one or two special items that can do the job of all the items you don’t use or look at.

These four monkeys all claim to have our best interests at heart, but at the same time, they’re all trying their very best to stop us doing what will actually make us happier, less debt-ridden, and more connected to what really matters.

Treat them as you would treat any monkey: kindly but firmly.

Say, “Thanks so much for the advice, but at the end of the day, you do not know what’s best for me. You’re a monkey.”

Then take the pill.

Tara Button is the creator of the Buy Me Once website, “the holy grail for those looking to prioritize quality over quantity,” according to the Guardian.  She is also the author of A Life Less Throwaway: The Lost Art of Buying for Life, out now. This article was published on Becoming Minimalist.