Book Review: The Happy Minimalist


The Happy Minimalist: Financial independence, Good health, and a better planet for us all by Peter Lawrence.

Like frugality and simplicity, minimalism is both a means and an end. It's a way of living light on your wallet and light on the planet, and it enables certain choices (such as mobility) that are closed off to most people. The hows and whys of minimalism are the topic of Lawrence's book.

When Lawrence lays out his own path, the book is great. The story of how he came to minimalism and of how he lives his life is fascinating and compelling. He provides solid details on the specific choices he has made, in terms of what he finds he needs and how he gets by without many of the things that most people figure are needs.

I wish the book had more of that, because that's what Lawrence has to offer — his own experience told in his own words.

Unfortunately, that's only half of this rather short book. The other half is advocacy for minimalism, and that part reads as if Lawrence didn't trust the truth of his own words and his own experience. The advocacy part of the book is larded with quotes from Gandhi, Confucius, Socrates, Aesop's fables, the Bible, etc. There are literally pages of quotes. They're all fine statements of the value of living in accordance with your own values (rather than the values of society at large) and of minimalism as a pathway to doing so — but they're largely statements that everyone has seen before.

Nobody says it better than Thoreau, but rather than yet another repetition of "We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without," I'd have much preferred more of Lawrence's own insights:

I don't have a 42-inch flat panel high-definition TV. However, I take pride in my 120-inch high-definition view from my home of the mountain range. I get to see the sun rise every morning and moon rise every month.

Is there a danger of oversimplification or trying to minimize something that should not be minimized. Yes. Exercise is a good example.

We all live somewhere on the continuum from minimalism to maximalism, but where we are now is an artifact of our own history, social and family pressures, and mere happenstance. Unless we've lived a very thoughtful life, or been very lucky, we're probably not at the best possible point. Getting close to your own best point comes down to a thoughtful examination of your own values and a close look at how your life does or doesn't match them. Where a book like The Happy Minimalist can help is by illuminating one point along the continuum and saying, "Here's what it's like at this point! Here's what's good about it!" That knowledge can then inform us as we make the choices that move us one direction or another along the continuum. Despite its flaws, The Happy Minimalist does that.

Note: I received a free copy of the book for review. Links to the book are affiliate links.

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Guest's picture

I read this book & actually liked it because it was short ;)
Despite its brevity, it left me questioning my priorities in life, how I want to continue leading my life etc.
I've even walked away from purchasing some "stuff" since reading the book.
Worth reading.

Guest's picture

I like your review very much. I will probably not pick up the book though. A lot is written of minimalism yet I think the learning is in the doing. It's a pet peeve of mine. Whenever someone wants to get "organized" they run out and buy a bunch of plastic cubes. When they want to improve their relationships, they run to a book or counselor. When they want to improve their tennis game, they run to a teacher and club membership.

There is nothing wrong with any of these "solutions" except that they have a tendency to take you away from the very things that need to be done to accomplish your goals. Your mind is what organizes your life. With mindfulness and creativity, free cardboard boxes will do the job. Nothing will improve a relationship more than honest engagement with and caring about another human. Your tennis game is best improved through practice.

Time is not infinite. Choose wisely. Bonus points: things that cost nothing or next to nothing are desirable whereas methods that sell you goods and services require even more of your time because you must acquire the money to pay for them.

Philip Brewer's picture

On the specific topic of spending money for "organizing solutions," I agree with you completely. I even wrote a post on the topic: Stuff Will Never Make You Organized.

More broadly, I agree that you can only become an expert by doing the practice, but I think there's also a place for books like this. Without such an example, many people could go their whole lives without ever considering that a minimalist life was an option. Reading a book is no alternative to simplifying your life, but it does at least point out that the possibility exists. For some people, that might be just what they need.