Living Simply: How to Create Space for What Really MattersNov 01, 2009 02:00AM ● By Judith Fertig
Living simply is not a new idea. The Shakers, a celibate sect founded in the 18th century, believed that, “Tis a gift to be simple.” In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau went back to basics on Walden Pond. “Less is more,” proclaimed Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the renowned post-war minimalist architect, a century later.
The urge to simplify is timeless. What is new is recognizing the ripple effect when we choose a smaller life, explains Duane Elgin, in his new edition of Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich.
“Contrary to media myths,” observes Elgin, “consumerism offers lives of sacrifice, while simplicity offers lives of opportunity. Simplicity creates the opportunity for greater fulfillment in work, meaningful connection with others, feelings of kinship with all life and awe of a living universe.”
In 1977, Elgin was part of a think tank group at Stanford Research Institute that studied the voluntary simplicity movement. Each of the movement’s values identified by Elgin’s group—human scale, material simplicity, environmental awareness, self-determination and personal growth—build on each other. When an individual first chooses to live on a smaller, more human scale, the other values seem to fall in line.
Human scale means that we easily fit with our surroundings, our schedule and our stuff. When that isn’t happening and we realize we’re overwhelmed by the demands of a too-much life, we ask, “Is this really all there is?”
Architect Sarah Susanka asked herself that question when, as a managing partner in a firm of 45 people, she realized she was “asleep at the wheel, while barreling down the road of life on cruise control.” She was working long hours and doing well, but not doing what she had wanted to do since childhood. “Often, the things we were passionate about as children are good indicators of natural proclivities that may have fallen by the wayside as we’ve moved into adulthood,” she observes.
One thing Susanka felt was not working for her anymore was the pace at which she raced through her days. “We’ve become incredibly productive in recent decades,” she remarks, “and our successes are measured by income and by acquisitions.” But what Susanka wanted was not a bigger house or a new car—she wanted time to write.
“Our culture is grappling with time,” Susanka reflects. While we can get multiple things done with a press of a button, we can’t seem to allow ourselves the slow, unstructured time to just be present with our own thoughts. Trading superhuman self-perceptions for simply human views allowed Susanka the time to recollect herself and begin to write. The process of simplifying her life in order to pen The Not So Big House became the subject of her next book, The Not So Big Life.
Linda Breen Pierce experienced a similar self-revelation. In 1991, she downsized her six-figure income as a Los Angeles attorney, moved to a smaller house in a quieter community, and has since been living and writing about the simplicity movement until recently retiring to Mexico. “We are living the American dream gone amuck,” she writes in Simplicity Lessons: A 12-Step Guide to Living Simply. But now, we are learning that, “A fast-paced lifestyle prevents us from living mindfully.”
When life seems overwhelming, it’s time to take a good look at where we are, figure out where we want to be and eliminate obstacles. Do we want a smaller dwelling? Less to keep organized? More time for ourselves?
“If your goals aren’t clear and your thinking isn’t focused, you can’t break the habits that stand in your way,” states psychologist and author Peter Walsh, who appears regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “So many of my clients seem to have lost focus in their lives.”
Walsh’s main refrain is that in accumulating more things than we really need or want, many of us have been trying to meet a need for something more. Sometimes, he says, “There is an element of boredom, combined with a simmering sense of frustration, even anger.” Either way, the hope is that material things will bring meaning and fulfillment. In his experience, “It never works.”
In deciding how we can best simplify our lives, Elgin encourages us to ask the following questions: “Does what I own encourage activity and independence—or the opposite? Does what I buy satisfy or not? How tied is my present job to keeping up a large lifestyle?”
An even simpler approach is to heed the words of William Morris, a leader in the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Simplicity involves not only clearing out the physical and emotional clutter and replenishing mindfully, but also clarifies our view of how our actions have a wider impact.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a philosophy that Zoe Weil has lived for years. As the author of Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, Weil understands that most of us have lived at least part of our lives looking through a single lens, focused on “what’s good for me.” Weil challenges us to look through multiple lenses that see beyond personal interest, to embrace what’s also good for other people and animals and the planet. It can start with a simple act, such as choosing to refill a stainless steel bottle with filtered water, instead of consuming plastic water bottles that can languish for generations in landfills or require recycling.
Her mantra, “most good, least harm,” means considering the big picture to arrive at a better solution. For example, we might choose to buy fair trade coffee. Or we can seek out local produce to serve at meals and help independent farmers, even though we have to drive farther to the store. We might even decide to grow our own produce to cut the carbon emissions of the drive.
We can choose to use green cleaning products that don’t relay toxins into our bodies and our environment, even though they cost more. We can shop for cage-free eggs and free-range chicken, because these foods come from animals raised in a more humane manner, even if they’re harder to find.
The benefits are twofold: Making our lives simpler yields the time to make more thoughtful choices, and making thoughtful choices can make the world a more desirable place in which to live.
According to Pierce’s research, simpler living results in “more time, personal freedom, reduced stress, a slower pace of life, control of money, less stuff to maintain, fulfilling work, passion and purpose in life, joyful relationships, deeper spirituality, better health and a connection with nature.”
She has observed that while many people approach a simpler life with an interest only in these self-directed values, they soon develop other-directed values. People who have a simpler life also have the time, energy and passion to turn their talents towards the betterment of the community, the environment and the planet.
What it all boils down to is this: Living simply can make us happy. “Happiness studies through the years show that what makes us happy isn’t stuff,” concludes Elgin.
“That can be a revelation,” adds Susanka, “because for so much of our lives we’ve been oriented toward the accumulation of things to prove that we’re getting somewhere or making it ‘up’ some sort of hierarchy. What is critical is companioning with that which is most significant to you.”
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For more information and inspiration, contact: Duane Elgin at ; Sarah Susanka at and ; Linda Breen Pierce at ; Peter Walsh at ; and Zoe Weil at .