“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” —André Gide
I once had a friend. Let’s call him Jim. Jim was just an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life, much like many of us. He had a steady job, a modest home, and a family he loved.
One sunny Saturday afternoon, Jim decided to tackle a long-overdue task—cleaning out the clutter in his garage. It had become a messy storage space over the years, filled with old sports equipment, unused tools, car accessories, plastic toys, and countless boxes of who-knows-what. The clutter had reached a point where he and his wife could barely park both cars in the garage.
With much excitement about the possibility of a tidy garage, Jim started sifting through the items.
He picked up an old bicycle, covered in dust. Memories of long-forgotten bike rides with his kids flashed before his eyes. “I should keep this,” he thought, even though nobody had ridden it in years.
As he continued his decluttering mission, Jim came across a collection of CDs. He used to be an avid music collector, and these CDs had once brought him hours of entertainment. But with streaming services at his fingertips, he hadn’t touched these discs in ages. “I can’t get rid of these,” he muttered, “I love these bands.” And he placed the CDs back on the shelf.
Hours slowly turned into an entire weekend, as Jim worked tirelessly, trying to make sense of the mess.
Oftentimes, he picked up an item and placed it back on the shelf, hesitating to let go of items that hadn’t even seen the light of day for years.
It was as if the mere thought of parting with them triggered an inexplicable fear—a fear of loss.
Did you know there is actually a name for this phenomena? It’s called: Loss Aversion.
As we seek to let go, we encounter any number of invisible barriers that hold us back. Understanding what they are (and how to overcome them) is a worthwhile pursuit. Not just in wanting to declutter a garage, but in bringing about any positive life-change we desire.
One such concept, deeply rooted in our psyche, is “Loss Aversion.” And once we understand what it is, we begin to see it at play in our minds, in countless areas of life.
Loss Aversion, simply put, is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains.
It’s a concept that often appears in conversations around behavioral economics analyzing why people make the financial decisions they make. In economics, it is seen over and over again that for people, the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.
To illustrate, in our minds, it’s better not to lose $20, than to find $20.
On paper, it shouldn’t matter. But in real life, it does.
One of the most revealing studies on Loss Aversion was conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In their experiment, half of the participants were given a mug and told they could sell it if they chose. The other half were not given a mug but were told they could buy one.
Interestingly, the price at which those with the mug were willing to sell it was significantly higher than the price the buyers were willing to pay. This gap demonstrated a fascinating phenomenon: the sellers felt a stronger attachment to the mug simply because they owned it, perceiving its loss as more significant than the buyers did the potential gain.
Other studies (even globally) continue to affirm the theory. In one study, the question was asked, “If you were given $1,000 to play a game, would you accept a 50% chance to double your money or a 100% guarantee of gaining an additional $500?” My guess is you, like most people in the study, chose the sure $500.
That’s because we tend to be risk-seeking when maximizing gains, but risk-averse when minimizing losses.
Loss Aversion is this idea that the pain of losing something is stronger than the pleasure of gaining something of equal value.
Understanding this principle in everyday contexts, like Jim’s garage cleaning scenario, highlights why it can be so challenging to declutter and let go of possessions.
We hold onto items, not because of their utility or joy they bring, but solely because of the perceived ‘loss’ of parting with them. This overlaps somewhat with the Endowment Effect, where we assign more value to things merely because we own them.
But Loss Aversion digs deeper, often rooted in fear—fear of losing a part of our past, our identity, or potential future use.
Retailers and marketers are skillful at exploiting this tendency. They lure us with trials, rebates, and refund policies, framing our purchases in terms of ‘loss’ if we don’t act. Even the potential loss of a good deal or a limited-time offer can overshadow our rational judgment, leading us to acquire things we don’t need, further cluttering our lives.
Perhaps most importantly, this can explain why some are slow to embrace the benefits of minimalism in their life. Minimalism, in most cases, requires us to confront loss aversion head-on. It requires us to lose something in order to gain something better.
The minimalist journey isn’t just about discarding physical items; it’s a trade-off. We let go of material possessions to gain something more valuable—time, focus, intention, peace. It’s a process of exchanging the tangible for the intangible—a concept that becomes even more difficult given our inherent aversion to loss.
How then can we overcome Loss Aversion?
This is an important question—not just in the pursuit of owning less, but in countless other areas.
For the sake of this article, let me offer some ideas based around the concept of minimalism and owning less—and allow you to draw parallels wherever might be necessary in your life.
1. Acknowledge the Fear of Loss
The first step is to recognize when loss aversion is influencing your decisions. Are you keeping an item because it moves you toward your purpose? Or are you giving extra weight to the fear of what you may be losing?
2. Redefine ‘Loss’ and ‘Gain’
Rather than focusing on what you are giving up, shift your perspective to what you’re gaining through owning less. Minimalism is about addition more than it is about subtraction—more space, less stress, increased focus on what truly matters. The loss of physical items pales in comparison to these gains.
3. See Marketing Strategies for What They Are
Be aware of marketing tactics designed to trigger your loss aversion. To help with this, ask yourself, “Am I considering this purchase out of a genuine need, or fear of missing out?”
4. Small Steps for Big Changes
Start with decluttering small areas or items you’re less attached to. This gradual approach helps mitigate the sense of loss while highlighting the benefits of owning less.
It is one of the central tenets to my Method of owning less.
5. Celebrate Your Progress
Acknowledge and celebrate each step towards minimalism. Progress is progress and you can’t reach your goals without it. So celebrate every step in the right direction.
Again, this positive reinforcement helps shift your focus from what you’re losing to what you’re gaining.
6. Embrace the Joy of Letting Go
The joy of what we will find ahead is much greater than what we leave behind.
Keep that thought in mind—every item you let go of is a step towards a more intentional life. This mindset can help counterbalance the initial discomfort of parting with possessions. And while our tendency may be to overvalue the loss… we can overwhelm that tendecency with the promise of something better. So keep focused on it.
7. Visualize the Benefits
Lastly, to help with Step #6, regularly remind yourself of the positive impact minimalism has on your life.
Articulation of what you’ve seen and visualization for the future can be powerful tools in overcoming the hesitancy created by loss aversion.
Understanding Loss Aversion is so very powerful in overcoming its influence—in many areas of life, but especially if you are struggling to own less.
As we let go of the unnecessary, we make room for so much more—more time, more clarity, more joy. And isn’t that a gain worth pursuing?