Consider This New Yorker Cover: Do You Love Simplicity or Abundance?

To my delight, I saw that this week’s New Yorker cover exactly illustrates a point that I make in Better Than Before.

There, I write about how we make and break habits, and here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: If you’re trying to form a habit, the first — and most important — thing to do is to know yourself.

Many discussions of habit argue for one particular method — with the unspoken assumption that everyone forms habits in the same way, everyone wants habits equally, and if a strategy works for one person, it will work for everyone. But that’s just not true, as is obvious from everyday life. We have to know ourselves, and suit our habits to our nature.

In Better Than Before, I explore the many strategies that people can use to change their habits, and one is the Strategy of Distinctions. This strategy is about understanding yourself, by seeing various distinctions among people.

Often, getting a glimpse of some aspect of yourself that you’ve never before recognized, or just having a word for it, is surprisingly helpful.

The New Yorker cover shows the difference between simplicity lovers and abundance lovers.

Simplicity lovers are attracted by the idea of “less,” of emptiness, bare surfaces and shelves, few choices, a roomy closet. I’m in this camp; I get more pleasure out of shedding things than from acquiring things. I easily feel overwhelmed when there’s too much noise, too much stuff, or too much happening at once.

Abundance lovers are attracted by the idea of “more,” of overflow, of addition, of ampleness, of a full pantry. They always want to have more than enough. They like a bit of bustle, and they enjoy collecting things and having a wide array of choices.

As the cover shows, simplicity lovers and abundance lovers thrive in different environments. For instance, a simplicity lover is likely to work better in an office that’s quiet, with minimal decoration; the abundance lover in an office that’s lively and crammed with visual details.

When changing habits, a simplicity lover may be attracted to elimination and simplification—to saving money by cutting off cable TV or quitting online shopping. An abundance lover may be attracted to addition and variety—to making money by starting a freelance career or learning how to invest.

Other key distinctions within the Strategy of Distinctions include…

Are you an under-buyer or an over-buyer? I’m an under-buyer.

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? I’m an abstainer, 100%. This was a HUGE revelation for me. This distinction is so  important that I devote an entire chapter to it.

Are you a finisher or an opener? I’m a finisher.

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? I’m a bit of both, but writing about happiness has definitely brought out my Tigger qualities. (I write a lot about the conflict between these two categories in Happier at Home.)

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter? I’m a marathoner.

Are you a familiarity-lover or a novelty-lover?

You might think it would be easy to know yourself, but in fact, it’s very difficult. As novelist John Updike observed, “Surprisingly few clues are ever offered us as to what kind of people we are.”

Do you love simplicity or abundance? Does knowing this distinction help you understand yourself — or others — better? A reader wrote, “I love abundance, and my husband loves simplicity, and now that I know that distinction, I understand our fights much better than I did before.”

  • Felicity

    Well, I would have said that I was a simplicity lover, but I far prefer the decoration of the lower scene on the cover: it looks cozy, and the one above looks sterile (to me). Now I’m confused! Guess I’ll have to read the book 😉

    • gretchenrubin

      I had the same thought…maybe the artist is an abundance lover, so gives that one an edge!

      • Jamie

        I think the “abundance” illustration is really quite simple when you look at it. A bookshelf, coffee table, it’s Christmas so there is a tree. The bottom one looks realistic for family life. As though that person is married with kids,”Honey I’m hooome!” The above one looks like the person is single and only hangs out at home to work.

  • bubu

    The “simplicity” picture instinctively appealed to me, but the “abundance” one looks a lot more like my house! Not sure where that leaves me. I like things cozy, and I want all my family members to feel they can have an imprint on our house, but no question I love the feeling of calm and serenity when we clean up all the clutter.

  • penelope schmitt

    I am an abundance lover, but I hate being choked and overwhelmed when I have so much that I CAN’T keep order. That has been my situation for the past two years, when my in-need-of-editing house received and infusion of two tons (the bill of lading said so) of my Mom’s china, clothes, books, and other personal things.

    ‘Yes, “organized clutter is still clutter.” I love bookshelves, but not books stacked two deep. I love clothing choices–many colorful tops and a few plain pants and skirts. I love old-fashioned decor, and change my displays often. I dislike being unable to put everything away. I like to cook, but I am embarrassed to own three five-shelf cabinets in my garage to hold the overflow from combined kitchens.

    I am eager to prune aggressively and get rid of excess from BOTH our collections now Mom is in assisted living. Today I pruned a bag full of books from MY room, and found a bag full of no-longer-fitting clothes in her room to give away, which made room for the few things left from the chest of drawers she took from my room.

    These are tiny steps against an awe-inspiring collection of books, paper, clothing, ‘crockery’ and kitchen items. I know I must do more than that to regain control of my space, and soon. I look forward to seriously working through the method presented by Maria Kondo in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Believe me, this will not bring me to minimalism, but it may pump some more air and white space into my rooms. I can hardly wait.

    Sign me never a minimalist but a white space fan.

    • Holly

      Thanks for mentioning the book Penelope. It looks very interesting.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        That book is delightful–it made me smile and I can’t wait to get the first layer of crazy out of here so that I can get serious about doing the major tidy.

  • Gillilan

    Interesting comparison! Like some of the other responders, I am somewhere between the two extremes. The top picture is in many ways appealing but a bit too sterile; the bottom picture has the appeal of coziness but is too cluttered. I am in most ways a simplicity-lover and am easily overwhelmed when there is too much going on in life but I like my surroundings to be warm and inviting. It seems whenever there is a bit of empty space, I find it looks bare and have a tendency to fill it with something.

    I do like a lot of decorations at Christmas – that’s one of my favourite parts of Christmas. But I don’t exchange gifts with anyone – including my husband. We happily cancelled that tradition decades ago. The only gift I give is to my 11-year-old great-niece.

    I am not acquisitive – I can admire something without having to own it. However, once I do own something, it’s mine for life. I finally managed to divest myself of some of the 40+ years of accumulated clutter a few years ago when I discovered the joys of donating to a thrift shop. That eliminated the moral anguish of sending things to the landfill. I do still suffer from the “I might need it some day” syndrome. The problem isn’t so much that I would have to go and buy a new item if I needed it but the fact that I can never find what I want when I shop so I don’t want to get rid of what I already have and risk that problem in the future. That is especially true of clothes. I lost some weight about 3 years ago and now have some pants and skirts in the back of the closet that are too big. I’d be happy to give them away but if I gain the weight back, I don’t want to have to shop for clothes (especially as it would hopefully be a temporary situation).

  • Hookchick

    I like abundance – I love to be surrounded by things that I love. The trick to controlling clutter and OVER-abundance is to only acquire things that I do TRULY love, and not just everything that catches my eye. Still mastering that; it’s a constant struggle!

  • Love this! I’m definitely an abundance lover. I thrive on stimulation. To me, more is more. 🙂

  • Mimi Gregor

    The first drawing goes rather overboard illustrating minimalism. I’m a minimalist, but I do like having some furniture! I’m hardly an ascetic, after all. The second drawing almost crosses the borderline between abundance and clutter, to my way of thinking. I feel unsettled when there is too much input — either visual or, worse yet, auditory. I like the calm feeling of neutral colors, expanses of tabletop with nothing on it, no carpeting or fussy window treatments, a capsule wardrobe of neutral colors — and just silence as my “background music”. Whenever I have to go to a mall to buy something, I find the sight and sound extravaganza uncomfortably overwhelming. I get in, buy what I need, then get out of Dodge as fast as possible.

  • Thanks for another wonderful post. I know for sure I am an over buyer. I am the one who buys two of every thing just in case one doesn’t work. I am not sure if I am a finisher or opener because I can be both at times. The second picture looks more like my life and house but I am working on becoming better.

  • Helou

    Really interesting! While I identifwy way more with the “abundance” picture, I do not enjoy having a lot of people around me or being somewhere loud and crowded. I don’t feel like those tendencies completely exclude each other. One can enjoy having a full house with many books and objects that would feel cozy and still want to save money instead of earning more by doing more (to use your example) 🙂

  • Tanya

    The first picture looks like my apartment, the second like my ex’s house! As a simplicity lover, the thought of living with an abundance-lover makes me panic.

  • Holly

    It seems that we might be assuming that clutter is part of abundance. Is it? Or are they two different things?

    I have found that clutter is overwhelming and over stimulating but minimalism, while restful, isn’t stimulating enough. I prefer space to be functional and beautiful so this means that whatever is in it is needed, attractive to look at and positioned in the space in such a way to balance the room and create a sense of flow. I don’t think that either of those pictures really emulate this. To add energy, I would use bright colors, as in the second pic and 2-3 well placed books and pictures but that is all.

    Is that Abundance or Minimalism? It feels like abundance to me with minimal clutter.

  • PolarSamovar

    I’m a simplicity lover. I love getting rid of stuff. The top picture does not look sterile to me; it looks like the little character can breathe.

    I like low-stimulation environments, but just as important is the *type* of stimulation I like. Smells are very important to me. In fact, one of the reasons I tend to dislike abundant environments is that they are often olfactorily overwhelming. Whether clean or not-so-clean, a room with a lot of items in it is likely to smell like all those items. Air scents in a room that also has a lot of other stuff going on (think froufrou boutiques with potpourri and candles) make me dizzy and nauseated. I even dislike Christmas decorations, and background music.

    So to me, a room that’s minimally occupied is easy to clean, easy to make smell like *one* thing (whether potpourri or just fresh air), easy to find things in, easy to know where to sit, easy to choose what (or who) to pay attention to. I feel like I can relax and open up.

  • phoenix1920

    Both pictures make me cringe-one too empty and one too full. But right now I am striving for balance so perhaps that is it.

  • Randee Bulla

    I can’t tell you how less stressed I am finally figuring out I’m an under-buyer, finisher, and a sprinter. I ready the tidying book you recently discussed, and boy does our house feel different. I’ve been trying to organize all our stuff for years by doing one drawer or area at a time, but then I’d burn out or lose interest and have to start over again 6 months or a year later. And I’d stock up on necessities because that’s what you’re supposed to do. After reading the book, I started out on a tear and nearly the entire house is purged and/or organized in the past 3 weeks, I’ve given away or sold so many things, and I feel like I can finally really breathe in the house. And I’ve given myself permission to just buy what I need to replace what I’m about to use up. I didn’t realize having a stockpile of items, regardless if I’d need them, made me stressed. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a lot of things, but what we have we actually use, or truly spark joy. One of my next steps is getting rid of all the organizational containers, boxes, binders, and bins I no longer need. And I can tell you that no matter how hard I used to try, I just couldn’t keep up with the laundry or keeping things picked up throughout the day/week. Now that everything has a place and has space to “breathe” I find myself easily keeping up with the laundry and usually putting away things as I get done with them. Very odd it all came together this way, but what a relief!

    • Randee Bulla

      And I found it interesting that I discovered I was an under-buyer and finisher by realizing how relieved I was when I finished something because I could then free up space in the cupboard by pulling out the replacement. Having that replacement in the cupboard too soon and storing it was more stressful than knowing I had it. I do have an emergency supply of people/kitty food and water/batteries/etc., but other than that, I’m now just buying what I need when I need it.

    • Helena

      I must have missed that post–which tidying book? Sounds like I could use it….

  • Jeanne

    Like others, I am somewhere in between. I live in a tiny post-WWII cottage in California. I would be more minimalist if I had more space! In about 800 square feet, it’s hard to have an empty shelf. I’m an artist, and my studio is only about 10 x 10 feet. It is very busy, but well organized, and I know where everything is. I think the way I solve the problem of not liking a lot of clutter and wanting some minimalism is to keep all my necessary stuff ordered and well organized and displayed. Can’t get rid of stuff I really need.

  • Kate on the Domestic Front

    The abundance one could be an illustration of my house! I do get frustrated by too much stuff, but it’s better than the empty feeling I get from minimalist spaces. I think there’s another useful distinction though – formal vs. casual. Are you more comfortable with clear rules and expectations and rituals, or do you like the gray areas better. I always think I like simplicity because I tend towards the casual, but in reality, I kind of like the mess!

  • Meg Clare

    I am attracted to the top picture of Simplicity, as I look around at my own place, it is more cluttered than I like but it seems that I am guilty of keeping things I have grown out of; at one point all the things here were useful and used regularly but as I moved on I didn’t move things out, just kept them put away (stored) and haven’t looked at them again. Last year I tried ‘decluttering’ and got stuck, I need to start again and look at what I do & don’t any longer have use for. I hate housework so if I had less it would be a faster, easier thing to get done. One challenge is to find a way to make simplicity look comfy and not sterile.

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  • Annalisa Damley

    Right away I gravitated to the first picture. It is ideal. I feel immediately happy, serene and at home in a simple environment with the minimum of everything. It’s peaceful. Less is more. Clutter and excess make me feel uncomfortable and out of control. The second picture, at first glance, appears warm and inviting and festive. But look closer and the man entering the room looks harried. That room will only make him feel worse. I wonder if the artist was trying to drop that hint? If he was entering the first room, at least there would be space for all his gifts! Really, I think when people come home they want a calm, peaceful environment. It’s really the people in a room or home that create an inviting and warm environment, not the stuff. Lots of stuff – throws, book shelves full of books, rugs, pillows, accessories are perceived to create warmth when all they do is create clutter. As I get older, the more I crave simplicity. I suppose we really become ourselves, our real independent selves and characters as we age!

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  • Annika Mukiri Horne

    I actually prefer the lower illustration. That looks much more cheerful. I just don’t like it when things are on the floor.

  • Ann

    Very interesting concept. It really makes you think about yourself.

    LifeAnnStyle

  • therufs

    Late to this, but came to say that I am the opposite of a minimalist when it comes to how I want my living spaces to look and feel (I guess that makes me a maximalist, though searching for “maximalist design” doesn’t turn up quite what I want.) I want layers and cozy nooks and secrets that hide in plain sight like Waldo.

    I do prefer for it all to have some rhyme and reason, though, and I’ve begun (only just begun) to pare down what I don’t actually have space for, and get rid of some of the secrets that I’m not happy to discover — stained t-shirts, mostly-empty bottles, furniture I hate.

  • Kit Dunsmore

    I think I want simplicity — clean open space really appeals to me — but it’s clear from how I live and work that I need color and beloved objects to feel comfortable in my space. My SIL is definitely a simplicity person — she has bathroom cupboards that are completely empty (I still do not know how she manages that!) and when I visit her, I go from admiring the calm, centered space she lives in to feeling that her house is cold and bleak (It’s neither, of course — it’s lovely!). I guess I need to work on accepting who I truly am — an abundance lover.

  • I think in time (7-15years) when the information age has really matured and people become more rational we will see a surge to minimalism. There will be no need to anker one self with stuff anymore. In the Industrial Age our wealth and knowledge was displayed by material belongings. In the Information Age knowledge equals wealth.

  • liina

    This picture has forced me to admit I’m more in the abundance camp though I am a minimalist wannabe. I suppose I’m still in the middle. I don’t really find either picture ideal though. The minimal one is way too boring. I think it would be fine with more color and a storage cabinet since I’m colorful and not yet a minimalist. In the other picture, I feel energized but there is too much clutter on all the surfaces. I would want to have a party there and then go to a calm and clean room to relax. It’s kind of like how we have a room full of toys and books lining the walls. I can’t stand to be in there long, but most people say the room is a delight with all the organized toys and shelves of books. Our family room is clean and serene. I say I like abundance because I do tend to stock up on things, but I don’t want to SEE them so I hide them in closets and cabinets. I LOVE staying in vacation homes with just a bag of my favorite things. I focus so well on creativity and realize how little I need to be creative and enjoy. Much much easier to clean up! I think I still want to have a lot of variety (abundance) but I am working toward more of a minimalist way and believe I can still get into more of that mindset in time because of how I feel in hotels and clutterfree guest homes. If I vacation in a cluttery place I feel let down. So although I do lean to the abundance side, I am extremely tidy and keep my abundance out of sight where possible. I tolerate the abundance of toys out of sheer love for my family and knowing someday they will outgrow all these toys. 🙂

  • Bridgett Mahoney

    These pictures don’t appeal to me, but I used to be super organized and tidy as a child and teen until getting a hoarder for a roommate and college (and best friend!). I gave up then, but lack of clutter and nicely, pretty organized things attracts me greatly. I can adore pictures involving simplicity with a lot of nature elements and light, but in my real life I adore pretty things and just try not to overdo it and make things cozy. But definitely I am closer to abundance. I am repelled by the kind of austerity my mother prefers.