You probably know that carrying around extra weight can have negative effects on your health and happiness. But have you ever wondered how all the other "extras" in your life might be affecting you?
My good friend owns a successful real estate business, has a family with two young children, good health, and all the creature comforts he wants—a nice home, new cars every few years, and plenty of discretionary income. The last time I saw him, he looked extremely unhappy so I asked him what was going on. He told me he had just seen a family portrait that his 8-year-old daughter had drawn in school. The family was seated around the dinner table eating dinner—everyone, that is, except him. When he asked his daughter why he wasn’t in the picture, she said, "Daddy, you’re never home at dinner time. You don’t get home until bedtime."
My friend was devastated. He suddenly felt that everything he had worked so hard to achieve was meaningless—that he had failed his family. Over the next few months, he was able to develop more balanced perspective and recognize that some things needed to change. His work took way too much of his time and energy, and the material benefits his work provided were turning out to be no substitute for the other things his family needed from him—and no substitute for what he needed from them, either.
Does some variation of this story apply to your own life? Whether due to work, shopping, debt, overeating or something else, when things can get out of balance, you (and often the people you care about the most) suffer as a result. This suffering can take the form of depression, anxiety, self-defeating behaviors, or a vague sense of unhappiness—even when on the surface, you seem to be doing well by society’s standards.
The real problem may be that you've been living according to limited cultural stereotypes of what’s important, rather than finding out what’s really important to you and living according to those values and needs. The question is this: how do you give yourself the opportunity to live intentionally, according to your own priorities when there are so many competing demands on your time and energy?
More and more people are turning to the concept and the practice of voluntary simplicity to find practical and meaningful answers to this question.
What is Voluntary Simplicity?
Voluntary simplicity may conjure up images of people quitting their jobs, moving back to the land, growing their own food, making their own clothes, and doing without most of the products of modern technology. Well, that may work for some people, but voluntary simplicity has come a long way since those early expressions of it.
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.
When you operate out of embedded consciousness, most of your values and priorities are coming from outside of your self—from society, peers, the media, etc. Examples include: losing weight because it’s fashionable to be thin, or because it will make you more attractive to others; working too many hours because it’s considered a sign of adult responsibility, or because having things that money can buy indicates your importance, competence, or social status. Under embedded consciousness, you are guided mostly by concerns over what others think of you.
When you operate out of self-reflective consciousness, you are guided by what you think of yourself, based on your own conscience and values. This is not a matter of automatically rejecting cultural values just because they come from outside of you, or insisting on being completely unique and different. It’s about seeing how you are influenced by cultural values—how they shape our thoughts, perceptions, and feelings—and giving yourself the option of accepting those that you find helpful, and changing those that cause problems. This can give you the rewarding sense of living your own life, making it possible for you to really contribute to the health of society.
The practice of voluntary simplicity helps you reduce the influence and power of unhelpful cultural biases and habits, and gives you room to develop better alternatives for yourself and others. The better you become at simplifying your life and letting go of what’s not important and what you can’t control, the better you'll be able to fully experience what you are doing in the moment, and take what it offers you without being distracted by worries about what happened earlier or what might happen next. Almost always, it’s the worry and the desire to be elsewhere that makes people unhappy—not what they are actually doing.
When you think about it, making the most out of what you are doing right in this moment is the only way you ever can be happy and satisfied, because this moment is the only one you ever really have. By clearing out all the clutter and distractions, it's much easier to create (and enjoy) the life you truly want.