Voluntary Simplicity: Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich

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“Voluntary Simplicity” is a fulfilling alternative to our consumerist society, and it lays out the ways in which we can establish a sustainable future by making conscious changes in our lives: the work we do, the neighborhood in which we live, the housing we choose, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the transportation we choose, and much more.
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In living more simply, we encounter life more directly — in a firsthand and immediate manner. We need little when we are directly in touch with life. It is when we remove ourselves from direct and wholehearted participation in life that emptiness and boredom creep in.

The following is an excerpt from Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010). Hailed by the Wall Street Journal as the “bible” of the modern simplicity movement, Elgin’s hopeful, artistic manifesto challenges misconceptions about simple living, reasoning that simplicity leads to balance and happiness, not to regression and poverty. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Living Simply.” 

The dictionary defines “simplicity” as being “direct, clear; free of pretense or dishonesty; free of vanity, ostentation and undue display; free of secondary complications and distractions.” In living more simply, we encounter life more directly — in a firsthand and immediate manner. We need little when we are directly in touch with life. It is when we remove ourselves from direct and wholehearted participation in life that emptiness and boredom creep in. It is then that we begin our search for someone or something that will alleviate our gnawing dissatisfaction. Yet the search is endless in that we are continually led away from ourselves and our experience in the moment.

If you were to choose death as an ally (as a reminder of the preciousness of each moment) and the universe as your home (as a reminder of the awesome dimensions of our existence), then wouldn’t a quality of aliveness, immediacy and poignancy naturally infuse your moment-to-moment living? If you knew that you were going to die within several hours or days, wouldn’t the simplest things acquire a luminous and penetrating significance? Wouldn’t each moment become precious beyond all previous measure? Wouldn’t each flower, each person, each crack in the sidewalk, each tree become a fleeting and never-to-be-repeated miracle? Simplicity of living helps brings this kind of clarity and appreciation into our lives.

An old Eastern saying states, “Simplicity reveals the master.” As we gradually master the art of living, a consciously chosen simplicity emerges as the expression of that mastery. Simplicity allows the true character of our lives to show through — as if we were stripping, sanding and waxing a fine piece of wood that had long been painted over.

Simplicity as Balance of Living

A key figure in the history of simplicity in the West is Richard Gregg. He was a student of Gandhi’s teaching and, in 1936, he wrote about a life of “voluntary simplicity.” He said that the purpose of life was to create a life of purpose. Gregg saw a life of conscious simplicity and balance as vital in realizing our life purpose because it enables us to avoid needless distractions and busyness. Gregg understood that the nature of one’s life purpose — or giving our true gifts to the world — will determine how we arrange our lives. For example, if my true gift is to adopt and raise children, then I may need a large house and car. However, if my true gift is creating art, then I may choose to forgo the house and car and instead travel the world and develop my art. Simplicity is the razor’s edge that cuts through the trivial and finds the essential. Simplicity is not about a life of poverty, but a life of purpose. Here is a key passage from Gregg’s writing that describes the essence of voluntary simplicity:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose and sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another … The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself. 

There is no special virtue to the phrase “voluntary simplicity” — it is merely a label, and a somewhat awkward one at that. Still, it does acknowledge explicitly that simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole.

To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally and purposefully — in short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This requires that we pay attention not only to the actions we take in the outer world, but to ourselves acting — our inner world.

To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life, our capacity for voluntary, deliberate and purposeful action is diminished.

To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction. The particular expression of simplicity is a personal matter. We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon us and that make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward. To live more simply is to unburden ourselves — to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically. It is to establish a more direct, unpretentious and unencumbered relationship with all aspects of our lives: the things that we consume, the work that we do, our relationships with others, our connections with nature and the cosmos, and more. Simplicity of living means meeting life face-to-face. It means confronting life clearly, without unnecessary distractions. It means being direct and honest in relationships of all kinds. It means taking life as it is — straight and unadulterated.

When we combine these two concepts for integrating the inner and outer aspects of our lives, we can then say: Voluntary simplicity is a way of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich. It is a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living. This way of life is not a static condition to be achieved, but an ever-changing balance that must be continuously and consciously realized. Simplicity in this sense is not simple. To maintain a skillful balance between the inner and outer aspects of our lives is an enormously challenging and continuously changing process. The objective of the simple life is not to dogmatically live with less but to live with balance in order to realize a life of greater purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction.

Does Money Buy Happiness?

A key assumption in consumer societies has been the idea that “money buys happiness.” Historically, there is a good reason for this assumption — until the last few generations, a majority of people have lived close to subsistence, so an increase in income brought genuine increases in material well-being (e.g., food, shelter, health care) and this has produced more happiness. However, in a number of developed nations, levels of material well-being have moved beyond subsistence to unprecedented abundance. Developed nations have had several generations of unparalleled material prosperity, and a clear understanding is emerging: More money does bring more happiness when we are living on a very low income. However, as a global average, when per capita income reaches the range of $13,000 per year, additional income adds relatively little to our happiness, while other factors such as personal freedom, meaningful work and social tolerance add much more. Often, a doubling or tripling of income in developed nations has not led to an increase in perceived well-being.

In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser assembles considerable research showing “the more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished.” He found that people who placed a relatively high importance on consumer goals such as financial success and material acquisition “reported lower levels of happiness and self-actualization and higher levels of depression, anxiety, narcissism, antisocial behavior and physical problems such as headaches.”

The bottom line is that there is a weak connection between income and happiness once a basic level of economic well-being is reached — roughly $13,000 per year per person. To illustrate this point, the World Values Survey of 2007 revealed that people in Vietnam, with a per capita income of less than $5,000, are just as happy as people in France, with its per capita income of about $22,000. The cattle-herding Masai of Kenya and the Inuit of northern Greenland expressed levels of happiness equal to that of American multimillionaires.

After a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness:

  • Good health. Physical, emotional and mental well-being.
  • Personal growth. Opportunities for learning, both inner and outer, and giving creative expression to one’s true gifts.
  • Strong social relationships. Close personal relationships with family, friends and community in the context of a tolerant and democratic society that values freedom.
  • Service to others. Feeling that our lives contribute to the well-being of others.
  • Connection with nature. Communion with the wildness of nature brings perspective, freshness and gratitude into our lives.

When we look over this list, it is clear that happiness does not have to cost a lot of money. A tolerant society does not cost a lot in material terms, but the rewards to the social atmosphere in civility, congeniality and happiness are enormous. Feelings of communion with nature and the cosmos come free with being alive. The quality of relationships with family and community grow from the quality of the time and attention we give to them. Personal growth requires nothing more than paying attention to the experience of moving through life. Feelings of gratitude for life are free.

Happiness is a nonmaterial gift that can spread like a contagion among family, friends and neighbors — rippling out to touch people who do not even know one another. This is the striking conclusion of a study of more than 4,700 people over a 20-year period. The study found that one person’s happiness can affect another’s for as much as a year. Researchers also found that, while unhappiness can spread from person to person like an infection, that emotion appears to be far weaker, and does not spread as far or as powerfully, as happiness. The study also explored the importance of friends and social networks as a source of happiness as compared with the importance of money. The study’s coauthor states, “Our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a $5,000 raise.” In the face of economic difficulties, his message is “You still have your friends and family, and these are the people to rely on to be happy.” Happiness is a social network phenomenon and can reach up to three degrees of separation (the friend of a friend of a friend), which means that your happiness can involve persons you have not even met.

Happiness is largely a networked social phenomenon after a sustaining level of material well-being is reached. If we worried less about material appearances and thought more about soulful connections with others, we could put our life-energy into creating robust, healthy and rewarding relationships. The more we learn about the “science of happiness,” the more we see that focusing on material acquisition and status is not serving us well and that it would be enormously helpful to redefine progress.

Redefining Progress

How can we visualize “progress” in a world that is cultivating lifeways of sophisticated simplicity? The eminent historian Arnold Toynbee invested a lifetime studying the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history, and published numerous volumes. Importantly, Toynbee found a strong connection between simplicity and human progress. Drawing upon his vast knowledge of history, he summarized the essence of a civilization’s growth in what he called the Law of Progressive Simplification. He wrote that the progress of a civilization is not accurately measured by its conquest of land and people. Instead, the true measure of growth lies in a civilization’s ability to transfer increasing amounts of energy and attention from the material side of life to the nonmaterial side — areas such as personal growth; family relationships; music, theater and other arts; meditation; community life; personal expression; and democracy. Toynbee invented the word “etherialization” to describe the process whereby, over time, we humans learn to accomplish the same or even greater results using progressively less time and energy. “Ephemeralization” is the word that Buckminster Fuller used to describe the process of getting greater material output for less time, weight and energy invested.

Material ephemeralization is evident in many areas of our lives. For example, computers have evolved from room-size giants to slim laptops or even handheld phones with vastly more computing power. Libraries are being transformed from massive buildings that warehouse millions of books to small computer chips that can store — and intelligently retrieve — an even greater volume of knowledge. Telephone technology has evolved from a heavy network of telephone poles, wires, and transformers to cheap, light, and far more powerful cell phone technologies that use transmitting towers and no longer require cumbersome copper wires strung across the landscape. Automobiles have also ephemeralized as they have advanced from heavy works of iron and steel to an increasingly lighter architecture of high-strength plastic, aluminum and exotic materials.

Integrating the historical insights of Toynbee and the material insights of Fuller, we can redefine progress as follows: Progress is a twofold process involving the simultaneous refinement of the material and nonmaterial aspects of life. With ephemeralization, the material side of life grows lighter, stronger, and more eco-friendly in production, consumption and recycling. At the same time, the nonmaterial side of life grows in vitality, expressiveness and insight. Ephemeralization involves the co-evolution of inner and outer aspects of life in balance with one another.

The life cycle of an individual provides a useful analogy. From the time that a person is born until his or her late adolescent years, there is usually a tremendous amount of physical growth. Then, in the late teen years, physical growth stabilizes and the person can continue to grow for the rest of his or her lifetime in ways that don’t involve growing bigger physically — in physical capacity and skill, in empathy and compassion, in intellectual understanding, and in soulful connection. In a similar way, a portion of our species has experienced a period of extraordinary material growth and is now moving into a stage where further growth could be primarily of a nonphysical nature. In turn, this would liberate resources for those in desperate need and foster a more peaceful world.

Ephemeralism is a co-evolutionary approach to living that invites us to continuously balance two aspects of life — maintaining ourselves (creating a workable existence) and surpassing ourselves (creating a meaningful existence). A statement by the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir helps clarify this: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” On the one hand, if we seek only to maintain ourselves, then no matter how grand our style of living might be, we are doing little more than “only not dying.” On the other hand, if we strive only for a meaningful existence without securing the material foundation that supports our lives, then our physical existence is in jeopardy and the opportunity to surpass ourselves becomes little more than a utopian dream.

Ephemeral progress does not turn away from the material side of life; instead, this principle of living calls forth a new partnership in which the material and the nonmaterial aspects of life co-evolve and grow in concert with one another. Working together, they can produce ways of living that are materially sustainable, personally rewarding, and culturally rich and engaging. In place of the failing paradigm of materialism we can choose the promising paradigm of ephemeralism.

Simplicity and Consumption

To live sustainably, it is vital that we each decide how much is “enough.” Simplicity is a double-edged sword: Living with either too little or too much will diminish our capacity to realize our potentials. Balance occurs when there is neither material excess nor deficit. To find this in our everyday lives requires that we understand the difference between our needs and wants. “Needs” are those things that are essential to our survival and our growth. “Wants” are those things that are extra — that gratify our psychological desires. For example, we need shelter in order to survive; we may want a huge house with many extra rooms that are seldom used. We need basic medical care; we may want cosmetic plastic surgery to disguise the fact that we are getting older. We need functional clothing; we may want frequent changes in clothing style to reflect the latest fashion. We need a nutritious and well-balanced diet; we may want to eat at expensive restaurants. We need transportation; we may want a new Mercedes. Only when we are clear about what we need and what we want can we begin to pare away the excess and find a middle path between extremes. Discovering this balance in everyday life is central to our learning, and no one else can find it for us.

The hallmark of a balanced simplicity is that our lives become clearer, more direct, less pretentious, and less complicated. We are then empowered by our material circumstances rather than enfeebled or distracted by them. Excess in either direction — too much or too little — is complicating. If we are totally absorbed in the struggle for subsistence or, conversely, if we are totally absorbed in the struggle to accumulate, then our capacity to participate wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in life is diminished. Four consumption criteria go to the very heart of the issue of balanced consumption:

  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
  • How tied are my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the Earth?

This compassionate approach to consumption stands in stark contrast to the modern view that consumption is a critical expression of our personal identity. Too often we equate our identity with that which we consume. When we engage in “identity consumption,” we become possessed by our possessions, we are consumed by that which we consume. Our identity becomes not a freestanding, authentic expression in the moment, but a material mask that we have constructed so as to present a more appealing image for others to see. The vastness of who we are is then compressed into an ill-fitting and awkward shell that obscures our uniqueness and natural beauty. We begin a never-ending search for a satisfying experience of identity. We look beyond ourselves for the next thing that will make us happy: a new car, a new wardrobe, a new job, a new hairstyle, a new house and so on. Instead of lasting satisfaction, we find only temporary gratification. After the initial gratification subsides, we must begin again — looking for the next thing that, this time, will bring some measure of enduring satisfaction. But the search is both endless and hopeless, because it is continually directed away from the “self” that is doing the searching.

Reprinted with permission fromVoluntary Simplicity, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.