September 23

Voluntary Simplicity: How To Not Let Stuff Rule Us

There is no dearth of material on minimalism—books, podcasts, blogs, shows. It can be addictive to watch someone on a Netflix show discard 90% of their possessions and still be left with a fairly cluttered space. But the reasons to simplify and declutter go beyond healthy bank balances and walkable spaces. Social scientists Elgin and Mitchell argue that, in addition to making life simpler and enabling personal growth, voluntary simplicity addresses the critical issues of our times—the problems of “ecosystem overload, alienation, unmanageable scale and complexity of institutions, and worldwide antagonism.”

I think we can all agree—Voluntary simplicity is worth a shot.

Less is more

It takes great discipline to reduce until you can’t further subtract anymore. John Pawson

British architectural designer John Pawson, who trained in Tokyo under one of the most influential 20thcentury designers Shiro Kuramata, has been an ambassador for the concept of minimalism. His career took off after Calvin Klein approached Pawson in 1993 to design the brand’s flagship store in New York.

Always attracted to the “less is more” philosophy, as a boy, Pawson experimented by removing nearly every object from his room except for a bed. Pawson, whose reductionism is apparent in all his works, said

“I feel more comfortable without the stuff around or without the clutter. It allows me to think.”

Hoarding stuff

From our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the Kon-Mari followers, the idea of owning just a few valuable possessions has always had its appeal. Our ancestors, whose very survival depended on how nimble they were on their feet, could not afford to be hoarders of stuff.

But then, as we settled in and built communities, our relationship with material possessions started to change. More stuff became a symbol of status, power, and happiness. But was it really the case?

Conspicuous consumption

In his 1899 book, The theory of the leisure class, Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term conspicuous consumption. The term describes how people use expensive material goods—that go well beyond practical value—to denote and increase their standing and status in society.

Originally a term used to describe the newly-minted rich denizens of the industrial revolution, the definition of conspicuous consumption has since been expanded to include all of society, regardless of people’s economic realities. We now live in a culture where we use material possessions to measure others’ and our own self-worth. But it has a considerable downside.

The byproduct of conspicuous consumption is not happiness but plenty of conspicuous and inconspicuous waste of time and resources.

Can money buy you happiness?

It’s a simple question with a surprisingly complicated answer that has changed over the years.

The famous and oft-quoted 2010 happiness study that indicated happiness tapering off after $75,000 in earned annual income (in the US) has been somewhat disproved by newer research studies. In a 2021 study, Wharton psychologist Killingsworth proves that money contributes to increased well-being even above $75,000.

But before you get disillusioned or start to hustle harder, here’s the nuance.

The reason happiness doesn’t plateau at 75K is primarily because of the financial stability and freedom higher earned incomes can bring. People can breathe easier when they know they have a financial cushion to weather unexpected setbacks in life such as sickness or accidents. That said, let’s not forget the fine print: spending money mindlessly on stuff does not, never has, and will never lead to lasting happiness. What it is most likely to do, though, is increase Buyer’s remorse.

So what good is earning money if we can’t buy things with it? The answer lies in what, why, and for whom we spend our money (and time). And it means asking ourselves a fundamental question.

Is it worth simplifying our lives?

Simple living, high thinking

Kevin Hall and other researchers at the National Institute of Health published a 2016 paper that showed how most contestants on reality TV shows such as the Biggest Loser tend to not just gain their weight back but add more pounds after the season is over.

While I haven’t found a comparable research study, anecdotally, it is evident that our finely-honed patterns of consumerism will keep resurfacing even if we were to Kon-Mari our homes today until we are crystal clear about our motivations to lead a simpler, non-materialistic lifestyle.

So, before you toss everything you own out in a minimalist TV-show-induced decluttering panic, only to realize later you needed it all and more, here are three questions to ponder about living a simpler life.

1. Do you need or use the stuff you’re planning to buy or hold on to?

Define the purpose: Ask yourself, “Do I buy or hold on to stuff that no longer serves a need?” If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, this is a surprisingly easy question to answer with a Yes/no.

If I already have a toaster that toasts my bread, I don’t need the new, fancy toaster—even if it can sing Happy Birthday in four languages. Nor do I need the latest iPhone, another black pair of shoes, or a winter parka that could keep me warm in Minsk even though I live in California. And yes, not even when they are 70% marked down.

2. What are you giving up in exchange?

To quote Newton (slightly out-of-context,) “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Regardless of what we buy or hold on to, we pay for it with some resource—money, time, or space.

Every buy/hold decision comes with a cost, sometimes obvious but most times not. Finding and factoring that cost in our decision to buy or hold can help us gain clarity.

That new house with higher square footage may not just increase your mortgage but will also increase your utility bills (more space to heat/cool) and the time you spend cleaning your house. Is that a tradeoff you’re willing to make?

3. Short-term gain, long-term pain?

It’s easy not to think twice before purchasing and loading frozen desserts into your freezer. But soon, the “in your house, in your mouth” reality kicks in, and you end up eating ice cream at 1 a.m. just because.

The same philosophy is valid for many purchases that seem to make us comfortable at the moment. Loading our phone with time-wasting games, subscribing to five different streaming services, etc., are all spur-of-the-moment decisions that we end up paying for many times over the long run.

Ask yourself if what you’re holding on to or buying will increase your dependence and make you less active or healthy in the long run.

Voluntary simplicity

In the summer of 1977, social scientists Duane Elgin and Arnold Mitchell published a paper titled Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. It’s a fascinating, well-written paper on how to move towards an enriching and happier life.

The authors defined voluntary simplicity as living a life that is outwardly simple but inwardly rich. In their words,

This way of life embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments that are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential—both psychological and spiritual—in community with others.

In Short

Elgin and Mitchell published their paper almost fifty years ago, convinced that we were at the threshold of a social revolution ready to embrace less consumerism. They believed that the philosophy of voluntary simplicity fits well with the burgeoning material needs of an increasingly populous world.

Unfortunately, that switch hasn’t occurred. Yet. But not all hope is lost.

I believe enough of us are starting to get more introspective about our consumerist tendencies and are at least asking the right questions now. While we wait for the world to change, we can make small changes by incorporating non-materialistic sources of happiness into our day—calling a friend, going for a hike, or engaging in genuine intellectual curiosity—non-transactional activities that don’t burden the world even more.

And it isn’t that hard. All it takes is to distinguish between our needs and wants. Like, I want abs, but I need chocolate. Gotta start somewhere!



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