Let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m 35 years old, male, single, never been married. I work as an editor at a publishing company. I recently moved from the Nakameguro neighbourhood in Tokyo, where I lived for a decade, to a neighbourhood called Fudomae in a different part of town. The rent is cheaper, but the move pretty much wiped out my savings.
Some of you may think that I’m a loser: an unmarried adult with not much money. The old me would have been way too embarrassed to admit all this. I was filled with useless pride. But I honestly don’t care about things like that any more. The reason is very simple: I’m perfectly happy just as I am.
The reason? I got rid of most of my material possessions.
Minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the least possible. Living with only the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits such as the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.
We think that the more we have, the happier we will be. We never know what tomorrow might bring, so we collect and save as much as we can. This means we need a lot of money, so we gradually start judging people by how much money they have. You convince yourself that you need to make a lot of money so you don’t miss out on success. And for you to make money, you need everyone else to spend their money. And so it goes.
So I said goodbye to a lot of things, many of which I’d had for years. And yet now I live each day with a happier spirit. I feel more content now than I ever did in the past.
I wasn’t always a minimalist. I used to buy a lot of things, believing that all those possessions would increase my self-worth and lead to a happier life. I loved collecting a lot of useless stuff, and I couldn’t throw anything away. I was a natural hoarder of knickknacks that I thought made me an interesting person.
At the same time, though, I was always comparing myself with other people who had more or better things, which often made me miserable. I couldn’t focus on anything, and I was always wasting time. Alcohol was my escape, and I didn’t treat women fairly. I didn’t try to change; I thought this was all just part of who I was, and I deserved to be unhappy.
My apartment wasn’t horribly messy; if my girlfriend was coming over for the weekend, I could do enough tidying up to make it look presentable. On a usual day, however, there were books stacked everywhere because there wasn’t enough room on my bookshelves. Most I had thumbed through once or twice, thinking that I would read them when I had the time.
The closet was crammed with what used to be my favourite clothes,most of which I’d only worn a few times. The room was filled with all the things I’d taken up as hobbies and then gotten tired of. A guitar and amplifier, covered with dust. Conversational English workbooks I’d planned to study once I had more free time. Even a fabulous antique camera, which of course I had never once put a roll of film in.
Meanwhile, I kept comparing myself with others. A friend from college lived in a posh condo on newly developed land in Tokyo. It had a glitzy entrance and stylish Scandinavian furniture. When I visited, I found myself calculating his rent in my head as he graciously invited me in. He worked for a big company, earned a good salary, married his gorgeous girlfriend, and they’d had a beautiful baby, all dressed up in fashionable babywear. We’d been kind of alike back in college. What had happened, I thought? How did our lives drift so far apart?
Or I’d see a pristine white Ferrari convertible speeding by, showing off, probably worth twice the value of my apartment. I’d gaze dumbly at the car as it disappeared from view, one foot on the pedal of my secondhand bicycle.
I bought lottery tickets, hoping I could catch up in a flash. I broke up with my girlfriend, telling her I couldn’t see a future for us in my sad financial state. All the while, I carefully hid my inferiority complex and acted as though there was nothing wrong with my life. But I was miserable, and I made other people miserable, too.
Three shirts, four pairs of trousers: meet Japan's 'hardcore' minimalists
It may sound as if I’m exaggerating when I say I started to become a new person. Someone said to me: “All you did is throw things away,” which is true. But by having fewer things around, I’ve started feeling happier each day. I’m slowly beginning to understand what happiness is.
If you are anything like I used to be – miserable, constantly comparing yourself with others, or just believing your life sucks – I think you should try saying goodbye to some of your things. Yes, there are certainly people who haven’t ever been attached to material objects, or those rare geniuses who can thrive amid the chaos of their possessions. But I want to think about the ways that ordinary people like you and me can find the real pleasures in life. Everyone wants to be happy. But trying to buy happiness only makes us happy for a little while. We are lost when it comes to true happiness.
After what I’ve been through, I think saying goodbye to your things is more than an exercise in tidying up. I think it’s an exercise in learning about true happiness.
Maybe that sounds grandiose. But I seriously think it’s true.
- This is an edited extract from Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki, published by Particular Books.
Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University