What does it mean to live simply? Like most things these days, there’s a movement for it. There’s a lot more to it though. At least I hope so, otherwise I’ll run out of things to write on this blog pretty soon.
The Simplicity Movement is many things to many people. At its core lies the recognition that the consumerism at the heart of the Western way of living is not sustainable or even desirable. It seeks alternatives or modifications to conventional lifestyles for both personal and altruistic reasons.
A few years ago, I lived in a small wooden hut in Ecuador for five months. In that place we had limited electricity, heating, and creature comforts. Yet we lacked absolutely nothing. Myself and some others built this earthbag house.
Filling those earthbags in the sunshine on the side of that mountain was a stark reminder that I didn’t need much to be happy. Or in fact that in some ways, by choice having less material things, made me happier.
It got me thinking about the fundamentals of what living well meant, whether under the sunshine of South America or the more challenging grey winters of Northern Europe. It was the starting point of an active interest in living simply and really understanding what it means. Feeling it too. A red pill/blue pill moment of sorts, after which I can say my worldview had firmly shifted.
For me deliberately choosing to try to live in a simpler fashion is a reaction to the industrialised destruction of the environment that underpins our way of life. Trying to ‘do my bit’.
There are financial, emotional, environmental, spiritual, and lifestyle dimensions related to living a simplified life which are easy to outline, but more complex and interconnected in their effect.
That’s partly why I decided to start this blog – to learn and share with others.
This post is a somewhat philosophical exploration of the angles I see it from.
Finding the Value
Most of us living in consumer society are well conditioned to value what can be bought and value the means to allow us do just that.
Appreciating the value of something in broadly non-monetary terms can be difficult. Free things are missing that monetary value metric. It so happens that the things related to living simply are often free too; activities, experiences, possessions and how we spend time in relation to these.
Volunteering is a good start. Spending time in a funky city centre bike shop and out in the West of Ireland learning timber frame eco-building techniques (check out Sheltermaking at the Living Architecture Centre) have for me reinforced the value inherent in pursuing interests for their own sake.
It raises self-sufficiency to learn new things. Perhaps more importantly at this early stage of the journey, volunteering raises my awareness of my dependency on everything being provided from my wallet.
Sharing our house with strangers on couchsurfing or warmshowers is another interesting and rewarding experience. It’s good fun and the favour can be returned when we go travelling. I miss travelling and people from foreign lands bring a bit of that into our space.
Some other small steps recently included donating lots of my clothes to charity, selling most of my guitars and musical instruments, and eating more environmentally-conscious whole foods. Cycling everywhere. Each of these have added incremental rises in contentment to my life I didn’t know were there to be found.
All these things may seem unrelated. They are all connected however through a kind of simplicity – either to get rid of things that are not aligning me to it, or to reinforce the value I find in it some way. Ultimately that value becomes something real and felt, not just a concept.
Taking small steps towards sharing, self-sufficieny, and the pursuit of interests hydrates this idea of simplicity, adds a kind colour and sound and makes its value more real.
The Best in Our Nature
Living simply is in lots of ways related to the best in our nature, as individuals and a collective. It often relates to sharing, it can create an abundance of time, it creates space in which we can be our best selves.
Till now man has been up against Nature; from now on he will be up against his own nature. ~Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future, 1964
Giving away clothes I don’t need feels good, because it is good. A win-win. Selling extra guitars and other stuff I’ve accumulated over the years feels liberating and unhooks energy that is invested in these things.
When I have spent time with people who have much less material wealth as measured by typical metrics, I have often been taken by the generosity and kindness and open-heartedness on display and how such company brings out the best in me too.
I’m not glorifying poverty here either. It’s just that beyond a certain core threshold of food, warmth, companionship, and shelter, more does not usually equal better. It’s often a distraction.
Exploring voluntary simplicity is a door into understanding this dynamic.
It’s said the best things in life are free. They feel right and don’t require much external energy, belief or power to be so.
We are already hard-wired to enjoy them, but there are many layers wrapped around this particular onion by culture, society, and the activity of daily life. We are also hard-wired to adapt to changes very quickly and maintain a relatively stable level of happiness.
Hedonic adaptation maintains the idea that no matter what happens in life, we quickly get used to it. Turns out that moving up levels of material convenience makes us less inclined to enjoy things we once did.
Investigating this tension is worthwhile; it’s very possible to fish in vain for happiness amidst a sea of material abundance. Of course the abundance is not shared out very well among the planet’s inhabitants, so learning to live well with and happily with less is a good strategy.
Nothing wrong with pursuing material wealth either, but putting a finger on where the relentless pursuit of ‘more’ blocks the potential for happiness could be one of the most valuable exercises any of us undertake.
I see voluntary simplicity as a process of reverse-engineering my consumerist self to see where me and him meet. It’s a journey for sure.
Speaking of engineering.
Keep it Simple(r) Stupid
In software development/engineering, it is generally recognised that whatever serves its function in the simplest form is considered optimal, cost considerations aside. Good design principles use simplicity as the building block to create more complex forms.
Originating with the US Navy, the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) design principle states that systems and processes generally work best if they are kept simple. Unnecessary complexity should be avoided.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo Da Vinci
Life is a kind of system. There are a number of known inputs and expected outputs, at least over the shorter daily, weekly or monthly terms. Yet complexity is something we often find ourselves drawn into; it is a part of life too. All the drama.
Human-generated complexity now underpins every aspect of modern life. All the busyness can feel a little like we are running around filling up holes no one was asked to dig in the first place. Applying a little KISS to some of the moving parts can certainly serve to make life run smoother.
Tune In, Switch Off, Clear Out
I am introverted and have always been quite left and right brained; a maths or programming problem one day, a bit of music or writing the next. It can be hard to find the mental space and time sometimes. To keep tuned in.
Simplifying things makes it all run better and gives the time to pursue things. It’s efficient.
We did a clear out of our house and got rid of lots of crap. I’m not advocating aiming for two cups, two spoons, two forks and a pile of possessions that fits into a shoebox. I’m simply all for living with less to maximise the benefits I know are there to be realised.
Life is not a system to be fine-tuned to the nth degree. Nor would that be something that most of us aspire to. It can be tuned to allow for space though.
Simplifying things is fundamentally compatible with a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. In fact, it is the fundamental starting point to live in a more environmentally sustainable way.
If everyone drove 50% less, flew less, used less heating (better insulation!), sourced more local food, wasted much less water, and only ate meat once per week it would hugely mitigate our overall carbon footprint.
Far more than all the wind turbines, electric cars, and recycling that can be hoped to be implemented. It’s not sexy, but it’s true. Tackling our demand for energy starts at ground zero; us.
We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. ~Native American Proverb
Simpler living can effect a change in attitude towards consumption. It doesn’t have mean a massive change in standard of living either.
If developing countries rise to the West’s level of consumption in the coming decade/decades/years (who knows?), it will certainly force a very significant, possibly drastic, drop in everyone’s living standards over the longer term.
It’s a biggie, no doubt. For another post.
Early Days Yet…
Simplifying can often add real value to life through what it reflects back into it. It’s a kind of slow-burner – the effectiveness is a little hard to measure. A bit like underfloor heating; it needs space and time.
Whatever the benefits, on the macro level I think getting better at simpler living is part of an adjustment required in order that we can all continue to live well on this planet.
I am looking forward to seeing where this thing goes.