Offering a definition of the lifestyle choice of voluntary simplicity is best offered in the context of modern consumer society in America. It is widely recognized that theUnited States has become a society that is caught in the vise grip of materialist consumerism; in direct opposition to the principles behind the definition of voluntary simplicity as a lifestyle, Americans believe they need more, and as a result, they buy more. In fact, social scientists have even attached a name to this phenomenon: affluenza, a not-so-veiled allusion to the physical ailment of influenza, is conceived as a sickness that seizes its victims in a fever to shop until they drop, to delude themselves into thinking bigger and more equals better, and makes them work harder and longer hours in order to earn the money to pay for all of the items that are believed essential to modern life (DeGraaf, Wann, & Herbert 44). While affluenza, the antithesis of the lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, has become an “all-consuming epidemic" (DeGraaf, Wann, & Herbert 53), there is an antidote: voluntary simplicity, which involves taking stock of one’s materials needs, distinguishing them from wants, and evaluating the cost of their acquisition—in terms of time, money, and the feeling it generates—against the non-tangible variables that really define the quality of life and choosing the latter. While voluntary simplicity is a lifestyle choice that is not appropriate for everyone, most people could benefit from applying some of its principles, and those who embrace it as a way of living report that they feel more fulfilled than they ever felt when filling a shopping cart.
Voluntary simplicity has, in a certain sense, always been a lifestyle available to human beings. Throughout history, one can find examples of people who chose to reject materialism, to live simply and according to their needs, and to choose those activities that brought them pleasure through reflection and conscious attention rather than the stress of perpetually harried rushing and never-finished to-do lists (Stark 19). At the same time, however, individuals who adopted this type of lifestyle were typically seen as living on the fringe, rather than being members of the mainstream; hermits, nuns, and devotees of the monastic life from various religious traditions seemed somehow otherworldly and even early practitioners of what is now known as voluntary simplicity who were not religiously motivated, such as Thoreau, were often seen by their contemporaries as slightly crazy (Stark 19). In recent decades, however, voluntary simplicity has tracked a course away from the margins and has increasingly become a lifestyle choice available to the mainstream of society, characterized by scaling back in terms of one’s material goods, one’s commitments to projects or tasks that one does not really wish to perform, and just generally slowing down to take time for the people, activities, and experiences that truly bring one meaning and pleasure (Stark 19).
As the movement of voluntary simplicity has become more acceptable and popular, it has also become a more nuanced concept. As Stark (20) points out, many Americans have come to view voluntary simplicity as a way to reduce their commitments—especially in the sphere of work– while continuing to allow themselves the pleasures of materialism and consumerism and the benefits of living in a society with advanced technology and comfort-enhancing resources. Advocates of “true" voluntary simplicity remind the public that is not only about making life easier for oneself, but about being more aware and more conscientious of the choices that one makes in all areas of one’s life—from consumer purchases to the way in which one spends his or her time. Talvi cites a practitioner of voluntary simplicity as saying that “Itis the examined life, richly lived. Simplicity isn’t just about reducing consumerism, but thinking about what kinds of communities we want to create" (11). Voluntary simplicity also involves thinking about the way in which one wants to spend his or her life and create a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity outside of the norm of materialism and consumerism. In an article profiling executives who have “dropped out" of the “rat race," Caudron examines the trend toward voluntary simplicity as it is adopted and expressed by business people who are, by all external measures, highly successful people. As one interviewee reflected, “I was passionate about my work…but when I thought about my values and ideals, I realized I wasn’t the person I wanted to be" (126).
According to Caudron, when these executives step off the ladder that they have spent their entire professional lives climbing, they talk about their experiences in a narrative frame that is becoming increasingly familiar (126). They recall with some fondness the pleasure of power and the benefits—material and otherwise—of being a successful career person (Caudron 126). They also, though, describe the vague longing they had always felt to strike some sort of viable balance between work and the other aspects of their life that were important to them; in most cases, these other aspects of life—family, friendships, hobbies and other interests—had long gotten short shrift because they believed that had to excel in order to accumulate professional prestige and personal wealth (Caudron 126). When they make the decision to step off the ladder, though, they typically feel relief and a sense of peacefulness as they begin to recognize that their lives have become “simpler and more fulfilling" (Caudron 126). Their relationships tend to improve, they recognize that what they believed they needed was actually what they wanted, and they realize, in many cases, that they never even really knew why they wanted what they coveted in the first place (Caudron 126-127).
It is this segment of the American population which is now most likely to experiment with a transition to a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity (Caudron 126). According to survey data cited by Caudron, between 1990 and 1995, 48% of Americans reported that they had “taken steps…to simplify their lives" (126). The specific, concrete steps that were taken included “cutting back their hours at work and declining promotions" (Caudron 126). An additional 21% of survey respondents indicated that they had resisted taking on a position that would involve greater demands on time or effort (Caudron 126). Many respondents were proposing alternate arrangements to their employers, including flexible scheduling and job sharing. At the same time, those individuals moving towards the embrace of the traditional notion of voluntary simplicity—a freedom from unnecessary clutter in terms of possessions and personal commitments—began to practice cutting back in other areas of their lives. Caudron profiles one executive who “started saving instead of spending [and] got rid of expensive possessions" (127), including a luxury yacht, two expensive cars, a $250,000 home, and the habit of eating expensive restaurant dinners several times each week. The former executive says he misses none of these accoutrements of the “good" life, and that he now spends his time happily engaged in meaningful volunteer work and enjoying his deeper relationships with family members (Caudron 127).
Clearly, these type of lifestyle will not fit everyone’s personal or professional goals or capabilities, and this may be especially true for younger people. The fact of the matter is that we are assaulted constantly by advertising and other messages that tell us we should want to be, want, and do more (DeGraaf, Wann, & Naylor 59). It can be difficult to question those messages, much less reject them, particularly as we are surrounded daily by more and more goods that are promoted as making our lives more fulfilling and more convenient. It may be the case, as was true of the executives interviewed by Caudron, that it is only once one experiences the lack of fulfillment that all of these goods, identities, and accomplishments bring that one feels a nagging desire to turn towards a different type of lifestyle, adopting an approach which recognizes that less, in many cases, is actually more. The typical adopter of voluntary simplicity these days is someone who has long had the sickness of affluenza and who is looking for a cure. The cure, for these individuals, is believed to be in voluntary simplicity, and they feel a freedom and lightness as they begin to shed themselves of possessions, labels, and responsibilities that may have brought them some degree of pleasure, but which far more often caused them psychological and emotional burdens.
It may be difficult, if not impossible, to predict accurately what might happen if a larger number of people adopt a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. Critics worry and complain that the robust American economy might collapse if more and more people reduce their enthusiastic and unbridled participation in the country’s consumer culture. While voluntary simplicity might indeed have an impact on the economy, it is doubtful that a full-scale crisis would occur. As the anecdotal evidence of people who have adopted the lifestyle of voluntary simplicity seems to suggest, when people are happier and feel more fulfilled, they are also more conscious of how they want to contribute meaningfully to society, and they become more invested in their communities, directing their effort and energy towards projects and relationships that are truly important to them. If more people embraced this lifestyle, it is likely that Americans would begin to realize that many of their needs are met and many of their wants are unnecessary.
Voluntary simplicity has long been a feature of human life, but it has only recently gained widespread popularity as a lifestyle choice. Voluntary simplicity can be understood as scaling back in all areas of one’s life, cutting out excessive consumerism, overextended schedules, and non-fulfilling responsibilities. Individuals who decide to adopt a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity generally report that they are happier and more fulfilled than they have ever been in their lives; in fact, no reports to the contrary were identified in the review of literature conducted here. Although voluntary simplicity may not be an appropriate or easy lifestyle choice for every American, it is possible for every individual to embody the true spirit of voluntary simplicity, which is being more thoughtful and conscious about the decisions we make, how they affect our own well-being, and how they either contribute to or detract from a sense of community.
Caudron, Shari. “Downshifting Yourself." Industry Week 245.10 (1996): 126-127.
De Graaf, John, David Wann, and Thomas Herbert. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler (2001).