Health & Wellness Articles

The Benefits and Virtues of Voluntary Simplicity

Simplify Your Life!

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These days, voluntary simplicity is less about doing without certain things, and more about having just enough. It’s about living a full life by intentionally designing your life so that you don' t have to sacrifice anything important or waste your time, energy or material resources on things you don't really need or cherish.  It’s also about integrating basic ethical concerns such as fair distribution of labor and resources and the well-being of the natural world into your personal choices.

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of voluntary simplicity, or a single set of rules to follow. It means different things to different people and in different situations. What you might find comfortable or enriching could be a life of deprivation and boredom to someone else. Your level of simplicity also depends on your existing responsibilities to other people—it does not mean abandoning legitimate commitments and starting over, or imposing your values on other people.

Moving Towards Voluntary Simplicity
The first step towards constructing a voluntarily simple life is to gradually begin paring your life down to basic essentials—the things, activities and relationships that you truly need or genuinely cherish. For most people, this takes time and careful planning. Abrupt or poorly-planned changes, like quitting a job with nothing else lined up, can result in disaster. The goal here is to unburden yourself of possessions and activities that lock you into the “rat race” of earning more and more money to pay for more and more things you don’t really need; and to free up more time, resources, and energy for things that add real quality and meaning to your life.

Here’s a short list that many people focus on while trying to move towards voluntary simplicity:
  • Limiting material possessions to what is needed and/or cherished
  • Meaningful work, whether paid or volunteer
  • Quality time with friends and family
  • Joyful and pleasurable leisure activities
  • A conscious and comfortable relationship with money, charting a course between deprivation and excessive accumulation
  • Connection to community, but not necessarily in formal organizations
  • Sustainable spending and consumption practices, such as recycling and supporting local, community-based businesses with fair labor and environmental practices
  • A healthy lifestyle, including exercise, adequate sleep, and nutritious food
  • Practices that foster personal growth, an inner life, or spirituality, such as yoga, meditation, prayer, religious ceremonies, journaling, and/or spiritual reading
  • A connection to nature, such as spending time outdoors regularly
  • Aesthetic beauty in personal environment
The “Secret Ingredient”
There are several good books about voluntary simplicity and intentional living. One of my favorites is Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, by Duane Elgin. Elgin suggests that the practice of voluntary simplicity helps us make the shift from “embedded consciousness” to “self-reflective consciousness,” which is crucial for personal growth and the well-being of self and society.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • Simplicity started out involuntarily for me, when I had to stop working because of a chronic disease. I still have some income, but it's a bare minimum. I came to like the simple life pretty soon. Fortunately, I don't own a house so no mortgage, I live in a reasonably cheap apartment. I don't own a car and don't need one - do everything by bike and if it's too far by train. I don't go on holidays anymore, and am always on the search for free or cheap things, free or low budget courses (I love learning), second hand clothes and furniture (or I make them myself). Don't have cable anymore, if I really want to watch things I can always find them online. Started gardening on my very small patch of ground. Stopped buying books but get them from the library now. I enjoy my relatively simple life (which is, compared to life in really poor countries, still quite luxurious).
    Only thing I miss is being able to give my son some extra money so he has to take a considerable student loan, and perhaps taking more classes. - 7/28/2015 4:54:19 AM
  • Two years of unemployment knocked this sense into me, When I FINALLY was able to land a job (PT) I learned to live on that income and enjoyed the simplicity of it. 5 years later I am lovin' life and heading toward retirement in another 5 years. I'll be ready if I do decide to retire but I doubt it. I love my PT job and God has been to good to me.

    Have faith !!! - 3/20/2015 8:20:04 AM
  • This was one of the best articles I've ever read on Spark and I've been here a LONG time. The only issue not addressed was people who must work long hours just to support their family. Companies increasingly treat employees as disposable and demand more and more with the warning "you're lucky to have a job." This attitude is devastating to the individual family and to society as a whole. - 3/20/2015 7:53:14 AM
  • VAINVT
    This was a great article. The suggestions were reasonable and worthy. Although we have downsized, and although I became far more thoughtful about buying new and getting rid of no longer used items, I am way behind many of the people who commented on your article. One thing I'd add to the comments is that when we downsized, I felt "lighter" and less encumbered. It was an eye-opener to read both the article and the comments. - 2/4/2015 7:42:04 AM
  • IRELANDSIS
    Great article. We downsized in 2007 from a 3000 square foot home to a 1000 square foot home for four people. We love it! We have to be more creative with our storage and nearly everything in our home serves a practical purpose and isn't there just to be decorative. We have no attic space, minimal closets, and refuse to pay for off-site storage, so we really have to be careful with what we buy. If we haven't used it in 6 months, it goes out the door to someone else who can find a use for it (donation to charity or a friend). We spend much more time together as a family creating memories than taking care of possessions. It's a good life, but the steps to get here can be overwhelming at first. :) - 12/29/2014 9:58:24 PM
  • This article is very affirming of our decision 7 years ago to take early retirement, sell our house at a loss in the beginning of the Great Recession, and move to FL to become the "family" and full time back up caregivers for our grandchildren who were at that time ages 18 mos. and a newborn. We have a small but adequate home, lots of fun and practical "stuff" and we don't have to lock our doors because we have nothing worth stealing. Our days revolve around helping our daughter's family, supporting them so that the parents can do their work in the medical professions. We are helping them while they help others. Our needs are few, and we have everything we need and most of what we want. We are blessed, thanks Doc Dean for affirming this choice. - 12/20/2014 10:00:22 AM
  • In May 2013 I quit my job of 9 years and got rid of most of my Worldly possessions. I biked across the country for a charity and worked on poverty housing all summer. I joined the Peace Corps right after I got back and obviously the timing was wrong, I was returned shortly after due to safety. I also helped move my partner to Sacramento from Seattle and with all the crazy changes I still think having less stuff is like being given your freedom. When you no longer worry about things being stolen and where to store things, you begin a fabulous journey called life! - 10/17/2014 12:44:02 PM
  • FOXGLOVE999
    This is how I choose to live my life, very simply. I am fortunate to be able to do this. I do have issue with any one who believes that you get what you deserve in this life. Rich people do not deserve to be rich, poor people do not deserve to be poor. You get what you get, sometimes effort plays a part, sometimes it doesn't. The only generalization that can be made about rich and poor people, is that rich people have more money. - 10/3/2014 9:13:51 AM
  • Wow! This is a very interesting article. I've been moving this direction for the past couple of years, and according to this list I'm doing a great job. I still have more paring down to do, and we have really slowed our spending, collecting, and we really think about a purchase and how it fits in to our lives, not just another accessory, gadget, something else to take up space. We are really simplifying, growing our own food, concentrating on good stewardship, etc. The top I have not been successful at, is the work category. I haven't figured this out yet, as it would take a major change career change for this to happen, but also the biggest stressor for me. It would mean getting away from behind the desk, which is great, but away from all of my skills, etc. It's on my mind more and more though. I do have to say, my simpler life is really nice and peaceful, spiritual too. - 7/10/2014 1:13:14 PM
  • I have to admit that when I read "fair distribution of labor and resources and the well-being of the natural world", I got scared. Who is to say what is "fair"? Environmental Activists who lecture us while flying around in private planes? Socialists who wish to forcefully take resources from those who work hard? "Fair" remains a very dangerous word.

    I know many who enjoy working. Those who obtain wealth and remain charitable, humble and happy people. Yet my husband and I live on one income so we can educate our daughter at home. I do not use my degree which would have lead to a much higher household income and bigger house, but instead chose the simple life so my daughter could be happy and free.

    This was not a bad article, but having escaped communism, I stress that we are FREE to choose. As the author said, this should not be imposed on others. - 5/26/2014 8:23:58 AM
  • This is how I strive to live my life. Even when I was a teen I knew personal relationships with friends, family, nature and with God where more important than the almighty to do list! I come from a family with overachieving siblings and a mother with a Type A personality. It is so great to know that I am not the ony one and I am not stupid and lazy. When you have Go, Go Go people around all the time, it gets exhausting and fushtrating when your brain is pulling you back saying stop and smell the roses. In my opinion, I have simplier, calmer life compared to my family. I don't tend to worry as much about anything. I attend college and that is the amount of stress I deal with most of the time, I have fewer relatonships but the few I have are close and full of trust. Compared to my mom and my sister, I am more active and have a better self-esteem. My blood pressure is the lowest and most consistant, I have weird medical issues but (knock on wood) all are in check, stress would not allow this to be. I wish more people would be able to at least understand this lifestyle, so the ones of us that live it can be more widely accepted and respected. I plan to read the book and see how my life truely relates to this. - 5/13/2014 7:08:53 AM
  • MANDYCAT3
    My husband and I have always lived considerably below our means. For example, in 2000 we were shocked to learn how big a mortgage our credit union was willing to give us; we borrowed 60% of that amount. We don't think of ourselves as big spenders or compulsive shoppers by any means. But in getting our house ready to go on the market in 2010, I was on a first name basis with the Vietnam Veterans' donation truck driver. Where on earth all that stuff came from was a mystery to both of us. We've been more conscious since then of how much stuff comes into our lives. (Full disclosure: still too much.) - 1/26/2014 5:38:54 PM
  • This is one of my favorite articles and speaks to exactly what I want to do with my life!! - 12/30/2013 11:17:19 AM
  • Great article. - 11/29/2013 7:00:15 PM
  • I live that life! . . . or aspiring to . . . but, even a simple life can get hectic and stressful.

    My husband and were married almost 37 years ago and on our first meeting we discussed our dreams about living simply. Shortly after we were married and moved to a beautiful old Victorian farmhouse we began creating our life of simplicity. We got an old wood stove that perfectly complimented the house and collected old fence posts and debris to burn. Soon neighbors were calling us to help them clean out their fence rows and such for the wood. We shopped at thrift stores, flea markets, and yard sales. We grew our own food, organically. We bought our wheat and meat (on the hoof) from local farmers and ground our own flour and cornmeal. We subscribed to Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News magazines for inspiration and bought books supporting our goals. My husband became a woodworker and built our first home . . . using recycled materials. (A farmer was clearing a field and we were able to salvage wood for framing and a garage from his pile of trees he was soon to set fire to.) We took it and kiln dried it and built our home along with other salvaged construction materials. He has supported our family for 25 years on his carpentry skills and cabinetmaking profession and has become a handyman extraordinaire. lol He works from our home location so there is always a sense of 'life' here.

    I was a homemaker for the first 10 years and home schooled my kids for 3 years before I had to go to work for extra income and to expand my horizons. I went to school and got an assoc. degree in commercial art and went to work for the next 25 years developing career skills along the way. During this time our family adjusted to living in the fast lane--a working mom and busy extracurricular events with the family. Our simple life became a little more compromised than our original vision, but we were able to maintain our small farmstead and still grow much of our food and, most of all, maintain our values.

    Now that the kids are grown we ... - 7/22/2013 11:31:36 AM

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