Sunday, June 07, 2009

Voluntary simplicity – wanting less – finding more out of life

Wandering around supermarkets pondering the dazzling array of choice on offer sometimes strikes me as a waste of time – armed with incomplete knowledge in abundance, can I really make meaningful choices when buying breakfast cereals, coffee, jam, and so on?

Sure, some things are important – ‘No sugar added’ is good, ‘Low fat’ too, and so are things like ‘Gluten free’ for some of us, but most of the time we don’t know what to do with the huge range of choice in front of us.

Barry Schwarz, speaking on TED ( recently, spoke of our lives being messed up by having so much choice – 6 million combinations of Hi-fi in one store, hundreds of cereals and brands of coffee etc.

Schwarz maintains that faced with so much choice, the average consumer is placed at a disadvantage – he is always wondering if he has bought the best there is – something that rarely if ever happened when choice was down to one or two – wondering if the folks next door got a better deal on their car -an age old problem – or just being mesmerized into inaction because of the number of choices – this removes the benefits of choice, says Schwarz.

This ‘giving’ us choice in almost everything has its roots in the political and economic philosophy of the recent past; choice is equated with freedom – more choice equals more freedom – and as we all desire freedom, more choice must also me more desirable.

There is much in that argument that is true – if we have alternatives, we feel freer to act in a way that suits us than if we had no alternative – so far, so good. To many these days though, everything has got out of hand – our choices are virtually, almost unlimited – in everything.

Put simply, many people are finding that ‘more is less’ in very real ways. The labor saving devices in my kitchen mean that I have to work longer hours to pay for them. Am I missing something here?

More importantly, the planet cannot sustain our preoccupation with unlimited choices in everything from food products, to consumer durables to automobiles, to package holidays to homes.

Since the world’s major economies are predicated on us spending our way out of the recession – economic growth will save us, it follows that we are actively encouraged to spend, spend, spend, but this world view cannot be supported by this world – the planet Earth!

A new movement is beginning – from where else but USA – the home of consumerism. It’s called ‘Voluntary simplicity’ and it is about freedom, it’s about owning your own life. It is not the same thing at all as ‘Frugality’ - living with less of what money can buy. Voluntary simplicity is wanting less.

Having more does not equal being happier – something we would all like to be. Actually, being content with what we have is a better road to happiness – people, Nature, not things, makes us happy. As William Wordsworth put it:
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
The ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ movement stems from these ideas - Voluntary simplicity means doing/having/living more with less--more time, meaning, joy, satisfaction, relationships, community; less money, material possessions, stress, competition, isolation. It doesn't mean depriving yourself; it doesn't mean buying "cheap" and always pinching pennies; it doesn't mean poverty. It does mean wanting what you have, and finding joy in having less; and recovering the connection with other people and with the Earth that alone makes life really worthwhile.
This all means a lot – perhaps too much for many of us hooked on the acquisition of plenty. The choice worth making – the real choice – is to opt out of the ruse we all live under – that getting more will make up happier – that endless choice is not good for us, for our psyche, even for our physical well-being – more importantly, it’s not good for our planet home.
Robert L. Fielding


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