Social innovations arise from social movements – in response to social problems. Over the past 40 years, we have seen the rise of a number of new lifestyles, behaviors, and values that were part of the sixties counter-culture.  One of the most important and interesting ones involves the movement away from consumerism toward a simpler lifestyle.  This is known as “voluntary simplicity” and really represents a return to our historic roots of thrift and sustainability.  It is also a way to deal with stress and social strain – leading to a happier and more successful life.  In this BLOG post, I include some key articles that define voluntary simplicity and outline ways to achieve this lifestyle.  I also have collected some key quotes and pix for further inspiration.
Click below to learn about the social innovation of voluntary simplicity.

Voluntary simplicity movement re-emerges. By Ralph Blumenthal and Rachel Mosteller – New York Times – May 18, 2008

Though it may not be the stuff of the typical American dream, the voluntary simplicity movement, which traces its inception to 1980s Seattle, is drawing a great deal of renewed interest, some experts say.  “If you think about some of the shifts we’re having economically – shifts in oil and energy – it may be the right time,” said Mary Grigsby, associate professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri and the author of “Buying Time and Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement.”

“The idea in the movement was ‘everything you own owns you,”‘ said Grigsby, who sees roots of the philosophy in the lives of the Puritans. “You have to care for it, store it. It becomes an appendage, I think. If it enhances your life and helps you do the things you want to do, great. If you are burdened by these things and they become the center of what you have to do to live, is that really positive?”

Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of “The Overspent American,” said the modern “downshifters,” as she called them, owed debts to the hippie era and the travel romance of the writer Jack Kerouac.  “Their previous lives have become too stressful,” Schor said. “They have a lack of meaning because their jobs are too demanding.”

But Will It Make You Happy? By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM – New York Times – August 7, 2010

SHE had so much:  A two-bedroom apartment. Two cars. Enough wedding china to serve two dozen people.  Yet Tammy Strobel wasn’t happy. Working as a project manager with an investment management firm in Davis, Calif., and making about $40,000 a year, she was, as she put it, caught in the “work-spend treadmill.”  So one day she stepped off.

Inspired by books and blog entries about living simply, Ms. Strobel and her husband, Logan Smith, both 31, began donating some of their belongings to charity. As the months passed, out went stacks of sweaters, shoes, books, pots and pans, even the television after a trial separation during which it was relegated to a closet. Eventually, they got rid of their cars, too. Emboldened by a Web site that challenges consumers to live with just 100 personal items, Ms. Strobel winnowed down her wardrobe and toiletries to precisely that number. …

Now the couple have money to travel and to contribute to the education funds of nieces and nephews. And because their debt is paid off, Ms. Strobel works fewer hours, giving her time to be outdoors, and to volunteer.  “The idea that you need to go bigger to be happy is false,” she says. “I really believe that the acquisition of material goods doesn’t bring about happiness.”  While Ms. Strobel and her husband overhauled their spending habits before the recession, legions of other consumers have since had to reconsider their own lifestyles, bringing a major shift in the nation’s consumption patterns.

“We’re moving from a conspicuous consumption — which is ‘buy without regard’ — to a calculated consumption,” says Marshal Cohen, an analyst at the NPD Group, the retailing research and consulting firm.  Amid weak job and housing markets, consumers are saving more and spending less than they have in decades, and industry professionals expect that trend to continue.

On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could — as a raft of new research suggests — make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses. …

While the current round of stinginess may simply be a response to the economic downturn, some analysts say consumers may also be permanently adjusting their spending based on what they’ve discovered about what truly makes them happy or fulfilled.  “This actually is a topic that hasn’t been researched very much until recently,” says Elizabeth W. Dunn, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of British Columbia, who is at the forefront of research on consumption and happiness. “There’s massive literature on income and happiness. It’s amazing how little there is on how to spend your money.”

CONSPICUOUS consumption has been an object of fascination going back at least as far as 1899, when the economist Thorstein Veblen published “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” a book that analyzed, in part, how people spent their money in order to demonstrate their social status.  Studies over the last few decades have shown that money, up to a certain point, makes people happier because it lets them meet basic needs. The latest round of research is, for lack of a better term, all about emotional efficiency: how to reap the most happiness for your dollar.

So just where does happiness reside for consumers? Scholars and researchers haven’t determined whether Armani will put a bigger smile on your face than Dolce & Gabbana. But they have found that our types of purchases, their size and frequency, and even the timing of the spending all affect long-term happiness.  One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff. …

According to retailers and analysts, consumers have gravitated more toward experiences than possessions over the last couple of years, opting to use their extra cash for nights at home with family, watching movies and playing games — or for “staycations” in the backyard. Many retailing professionals think this is not a fad, but rather “the new normal.” …

While it is unlikely that most consumers will downsize as much as Ms. Strobel did, many have been, well, happily surprised by the pleasures of living a little more simply. The Boston Consulting Group said in a June report that recession anxiety had prompted a “back-to-basics movement,” with things like home and family increasing in importance over the last two years, while things like luxury and status have declined.

“There’s been an emotional rebirth connected to acquiring things that’s really come out of this recession,” says Wendy Liebmann, chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail, a marketing consulting firm that works with manufacturers and retailers. “We hear people talking about the desire not to lose that — that connection, the moment, the family, the experience.”

Current research suggests that, unlike consumption of material goods, spending on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. (Academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social bonds has a good chance of making us feel all warm and fuzzy.)  And the creation of complex, sophisticated relationships is a rare thing in the world. …

One reason that paying for experiences gives us longer-lasting happiness is that we can reminisce about them, researchers say. That’s true for even the most middling of experiences. That trip to Rome during which you waited in endless lines, broke your camera and argued with your spouse will typically be airbrushed with “rosy recollection,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. …

Another reason that scholars contend that experiences provide a bigger pop than things is that they can’t be absorbed in one gulp — it takes more time to adapt to them and engage with them than it does to put on a new leather jacket or turn on that shiny flat-screen TV.  “We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it,” says Professor Lyubomirsky, who studies what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.  Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.  “We stop getting pleasure from it,” she says.  And then, of course, we buy new things. …

Scholars have discovered that one way consumers combat hedonic adaptation is to buy many small pleasures instead of one big one. Instead of a new Jaguar, Professor Lyubomirsky advises, buy a massage once a week, have lots of fresh flowers delivered and make phone calls to friends in Europe. Instead of a two-week long vacation, take a few three-day weekends.  “We do adapt to the little things,” she says, “but because there’s so many, it will take longer.”  Before credit cards and cellphones enabled consumers to have almost anything they wanted at any time, the experience of shopping was richer, says Ms. Liebmann of WSL Strategic Retail. “You saved for it, you anticipated it,” she says.

In other words, waiting for something and working hard to get it made it feel more valuable and more stimulating.  In fact, scholars have found that anticipation increases happiness. Considering buying an iPad? You might want to think about it as long as possible before taking one home. Likewise about a Caribbean escape: you’ll get more pleasure if you book a flight in advance than if you book it at the last minute.

Once upon a time, with roots that go back to medieval marketplaces featuring stalls that functioned as stores, shopping offered a way to connect socially, as Ms. Liebmann and others have pointed out. But over the last decade, retailing came to be about one thing: unbridled acquisition, epitomized by big-box stores where the mantra was “stack ’em high and let ’em fly” and online transactions that required no social interaction at all — you didn’t even have to leave your home. …

FOR the last four years, Roko Belic, a Los Angeles filmmaker, has been traveling the world making a documentary called “Happy.” Since beginning work on the film, he has moved to a beach in Malibu from his house in the San Francisco suburbs.  Now he surfs three or four times a week. “It definitely has made me happier,” he says. “The things we are trained to think make us happy, like having a new car every couple of years and buying the latest fashions, don’t make us happy.”  Mr. Belic says his documentary shows that “the one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.”

Buying luxury goods, conversely, tends to be an endless cycle of one-upmanship, in which the neighbors have a fancy new car and — bingo! — now you want one, too, scholars say. A study published in June in Psychological Science by Ms. Dunn and others found that wealth interfered with people’s ability to savor positive emotions and experiences, because having an embarrassment of riches reduced the ability to reap enjoyment from life’s smaller everyday pleasures, like eating a chocolate bar.  Alternatively, spending money on an event, like camping or a wine tasting with friends, leaves people less likely to compare their experiences with those of others — and, therefore, happier.

The Simplicity Movement: Living on less and liking it. – July 1998 By Tom McNichol – USA Weekend

A small but growing number of Americans are saying “Enough!” and scaling back, paring down, doing without.  The loosely knit voluntary simplicity movement began in the early ‘90s in the Pacific Northwest. Now an estimated 10-12 percent of U.S. adults practice some form of voluntary simplicity, and that num­ber will rise to 15 percent in the next two years, says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute.  “People of all ages and income levels are asking, ‘Is my life only about making more money and spending it?’ “ says Celente. ‘And a lot are answer­ing, ‘No. This is insane.’”

Voluntary simplicity has its roots in 18th century “Yankee frugality” and in Henry David Thoreau’s urge to “simplify. simplify.” Today, that message is gaining a foothold in bookstores, where titles such as Simple Abundance. The Simple Living Guide and Your Money or Your Life are top sellers, and on TV, where the PBS special Affluenza spawned a sequel this month, Escape From Affluenza.  It even has caught on among those whose lives seem enviously uncluttered.  …

The “simplists” insist simplicity is not austerity. It means buying the things you really need rather than the things you think you want. “I don’t deny myself or live a monastic existence,” says Peter Mui, 36, of Berkeley, Calif. “But I don’t do lavish things on the spur of the moment. I get satisfaction from banking money instead of spending it.”

Mui had a well-paying, but stressful, job in book publishing that had him working 12-hour days and checking his e-mail and faxes in the middle of the night. Now, working a variety of part-time jobs, he lives on far less by curbing impulse spending and visiting garage sales weekly. Now he has time to do things that matter to him, like starting a community basketball league and volunteering at a museum.

Still, some skeptics question whether voluntary simplicity is realistic. “I can understand the appeal, because so many people feel their time is constrained by things out of their control,” says Peter Kivisto, a sociology professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. “But I can’t see many people being successful breaking out of their routine.”  Others see voluntary simplicity as an elitist movement. One tip in Elaine St. James’ Simplify Your Life is “Sell the damn boat,” which assumes you have one in the first place. …

Simplists caution those who wish to join them that “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.” Realigning your daily life with your values requires tough choices, hard work and discipline. But the rewards, they say, are worth it.

A Garden of Simplicity Is Growing In the World. By Duane Elgin – January 2007

Voluntary Simplicity has become a “modern classic” because it gives voice to ways of living that are vital for building a workable and meaningful future.  As we awaken to an endangered world, people are asking, “How can we live sustainably on the Earth when our actions are already producing dramatic climate change, species extinction, oil depletion, and more?”  For a generation, a diverse subculture has grappled with these concerns and, in the United States and a dozen or so other “postmodern” nations, this subculture has grown from a miniscule movement in the 1960s to a respected part of the mainstream culture in the early 2000s.  Glossy magazines now sell the simple life from the newsstands across the U.S. while it has become a popular theme on major television talk shows.  More significantly, surveys show that at least 10 percent of the U.S. adult population or 20 million people are consciously exploring various expressions of simplicity of living. …

Simplicity is not an alternative lifestyle for a marginal few; it is a creative choice for the mainstream majority, particularly in developed nations.  If we are to pull together as a human community, it is crucial that people in affluent nations confront the choice of simplicity and sustainability head on.  Simplicity is simultaneously a personal choice, a civilizational choice, and a species choice.  Even with major technological innovations in energy and transportation, it will require dramatic changes in our overall patterns of living and consuming if we are to maintain the integrity of the Earth as a living system.  The coming era of constraint can bring focus and energy to crafting lives of elegant and creative simplicity.

Although the ecological pushes toward simpler ways of living are strong, the pulls toward this way of life seem equally compelling.  In reality, most people are not choosing to live more simply from a feeling of sacrifice; rather, they are seeking deeper sources of satisfaction than are being offered by a high stress, consumption-obsessed world.  To illustrate, while real incomes doubled in the U.S. in the past generation, the percentage of the population reporting they are very happy has remained unchanged (roughly one-third).  While happiness has not increased, during this same period divorce rates have doubled and teen suicide rates have tripled.  A whole generation has tasted the fruits of an affluent society and has discovered that money does not buy happiness.  In the search for satisfaction, millions of people are not only “downshifting”—or pulling back from the stress of the rat race—they are also “upshifting” or moving ahead into a life that is, though materially more modest, rich with family, friends, community, creative work in the world, and a soulful connection with the universe.

Although simplicity is intensely relevant to building a workable world, this approach to living is not a new idea.  Simplicity has deep roots in history and finds expression in all of the world’s wisdom traditions.  More than two thousand years ago, in the same historical period that Christians were saying “Give me neither poverty nor wealth,” (Proverbs 30:8), the Taoists were asserting “He who knows he has enough is rich” (Lao Tzu), Plato and Aristotle were proclaiming the importance of the “golden mean”—a path through life with neither excess nor deficit—and the Buddhists were encouraging a “middle way” between poverty and mindless accumulation.  Clearly, the wisdom of simplicity is not a recent revelation.

Although simplicity has a long history, we are now entering radically changing times—ecological, social, economic, and psycho-spiritual—and we should expect the worldly expressions of simplicity to evolve and grow in response. For more than thirty years I’ve explored the “simple life” and I’ve found that simplicity is not simple.  I’ve encountered such a diversity of expressions of the simple life that I find the most accurate way of describing this approach to living is with the metaphor of a garden.

To portray the richness of simplicity, here are ten different flowerings of expression that I see growing in the “garden of simplicity.”  Although there is overlap among them, each expression of simplicity seems sufficiently distinct to warrant a separate category.  So there would be no favoritism in listing, they are placed in alphabetical order based on the brief name I associated with each.

  1. Choiceful Simplicity: Simplicity means choosing our unique path through life consciously, deliberately, and of our own accord.  It means to live whole—to not live divided against ourselves.  This path emphasizes the challenges of freedom over the comfort of consumerism.  A choiceful simplicity means staying focused, diving deep, and not being distracted by consumer culture.  It means consciously organizing our lives so that we give our “true gifts” to the world—which is to give the essence of ourselves.  As Emerson said, “The only true gift is a portion of yourself.”
  2. Compassionate Simplicity: Simplicity means to feel such a strong sense of kinship with others that, as Gandhi said, we “choose to live simply so that others may simply live.”  A compassionate simplicity means feeling a bond with the community of life and being drawn toward a path of reconciliation—with other species and future generations as well as, for example, between those with great differences of wealth and opportunity.  A compassionate simplicity is a path of cooperation and fairness that seeks a future of mutually assured development for all.
  3. Ecological Simplicity:  Simplicity means to choose ways of living that touch the Earth more lightly and that reduce our ecological impact. This life-path remembers our deep roots in the natural world.  It encourages us to connect with nature, the seasons, and the cosmos.  A natural simplicity feels a deep reverence for the community of life on Earth and accepts that the non-human realms of plants and animals have their dignity and rights as well the human.
  4. Economic Simplicity: Simplicity means there are many forms of “right livelihood” in the rapidly growing market for healthy and sustainable products and services of all kinds—from home-building materials and energy systems to foods and transportation.  When the need for a sustainable infrastructure in developing nations is combined with the need to retrofit and redesign the homes, cities, workplaces, and transportation systems of “developed” nations, then it is clear that an enormous wave of highly purposeful economic activity can unfold.
  5. Elegant Simplicity: Simplicity means that the way we live our lives represents a work of unfolding artistry.  As Gandhi said, “My life is my message.”  In this spirit, an elegant simplicity is an understated, organic aesthetic that contrasts with the excess of consumerist lifestyles.  Drawing from influences ranging from Zen to the Quakers, simplicity is a path of beauty that celebrates natural materials and clean, functional expressions.
  6. Family Simplicity: Simplicity means that the balanced lives of children and families are of highest priority and that it is important not to get sidetracked by our consumer society.  In turn, a growing number of parents are opting out of consumerist lifestyles and seeking to bring enhancing values and experiences into the lives of their children and family.
  7. Frugal Simplicity: Simplicity means that, by cutting back on spending that is not truly serving our lives, and by practicing skillful management of our personal finances, we can achieve greater financial independence.  Frugality and careful financial management bring increased financial freedom and the opportunity to more consciously choose our path through life.  Living with less also decreases the impact of our consumption upon the Earth and frees resources for others.
  8. Political Simplicity: Simplicity means organizing our collective lives in ways that enable us to live more lightly and sustainably on the Earth which, in turn, involves changes in nearly every area of public life—from transportation and education to the design of our homes, cities, and workplaces.  The politics of simplicity is also a media politics as the mass media are the primary vehicle for reinforcing—or transforming—the mass consciousness of consumerism.  Political simplicity is a politics of conversation and community that builds from local, face-to-face connections to networks of relationships emerging around the world through the enabling power of television and the Internet.
  9. Soulful Simplicity: Simplicity means to approach life as a meditation and to cultivate our experience of intimate connection with all that exists.  A spiritual presence infuses the world and, by living simply, we can more directly awaken to the living universe that surrounds and sustains us, moment by moment.  Soulful simplicity is more concerned with consciously tasting life in its unadorned richness than with a particular standard or manner of material living.  In cultivating a soulful connection with life, we tend to look beyond surface appearances and bring our interior aliveness into relationships of all kinds.
  10. Uncluttered Simplicity: Simplicity means taking charge of lives that are too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented.  An uncluttered simplicity means cutting back on trivial distractions, both material and non-material, and focusing on the essentials—whatever those may be for each of our unique lives.  As Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. . . Simplify, simplify.”  Or, as Plato wrote, “In order to seek one’s own direction, one must simplify the mechanics of ordinary, everyday life.”

As these ten approaches illustrate, the growing culture of simplicity contains a flourishing garden of expressions whose great diversity—and intertwined unity—are creating a resilient and hardy ecology of learning about how to live more sustainable and meaningful lives.  As with other ecosystems, it is the diversity of expressions that fosters flexibility, adaptability, and resilience.  Because there are so many pathways of great relevance into the garden of simplicity, this cultural movement appears to have enormous potential to grow—particularly if it is nurtured and cultivated in the mass media as a legitimate, creative, and promising life-path for the future.  As the culture of simplicity develops, it will draw people toward it by demonstrating a more meaningful and fulfilling way of life beyond modern materialism.  In turn, a vital foundation for nurturing the garden of simplicity will be the flowering of new forms of human-scale community. …

Although human societies have confronted major hurdles throughout history, the challenges of our era are unique. Never before has the human family been on the verge of devastating the Earth’s biosphere and crippling its ecological foundations for countless generations to come. Never before have so many people been called upon to make such sweeping changes in so little time. Never before has the entire human family been entrusted with the task of working together to imagine and consciously build a sustainable and compassionate future.  As we awaken to this new world, integrating life-ways of simplicity and new forms of community will be at the foundation of building a stewardship society and promising future.  Seeds of simplicity, growing quietly for the past generation, are now blossoming into a garden of expressions.  May the garden flourish!

THE SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF VOLUNTARY SIMPLICITY By Samuel Alexander (Speech Sustainability Week, Melbourne University, 22nd March 2010)

Voluntary simplicity is an oppositional living strategy that rejects the materialistic lifestyles of consumer culture and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life,’ or ‘downshifting.’ The rejection of consumerism arises from the recognition that ordinary Western-style consumption habits are destroying the planet; that lives of high consumption are unethical in a world of great human need; and that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things. Extravagance and acquisitiveness are therefore considered to be undeserving of the social status and admiration they seem to attract today. The affirmation of simplicity arises from the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products or attainable through them.

Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’ this approach to life involves providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimizing expenditure on consumer goods and services, and directing progressively more time and energy towards pursuing non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. This generally means accepting a lower income and a lower level of consumption, in exchange for more time and freedom to pursue other life goals. The grounding assumption of voluntary simplicity is that all human beings have the potential to live meaningful, free, happy, and infinitely diverse lives, while consuming no more than an equitable share of nature. Ancient but ever-new, the message is that those who know they have enough are rich. …

Voluntary simplicity does not, however, mean living in poverty, becoming an ascetic monk, or indiscriminately renouncing all the advantages of science and technology. It does not involve regressing to a primitive state or becoming a self-righteous puritan. And it is not some escapist fad reserved for saints, hippies, or eccentric outsiders. Rather, by examining afresh our relationship with money, material possessions, the planet, ourselves and each other, ‘the simple life’ of voluntary simplicity is about discovering the freedom and contentment that comes with knowing how much consumption is truly ‘enough.’ And this might be a theme that has something to say to everyone, especially those of us who are everyday bombarded with thousands of cultural messages insisting that ‘more is always better.’ Voluntary simplicity is an art of living that is aglow with the insight that ‘just enough is plenty.’

What will be clear from this definition is that voluntary simplicity is a way of life that is very different from the materialistic lifestyles widely celebrated in consumer cultures today. In those cultures, including our own, it is often assumed that more money is the path to increased well-being, since with more money we can presumably satisfy more of our desires by purchasing consumer goods and services. If that is true then voluntary simplicity, by trying to do with less money and consumption, seems hopelessly misguided as a living strategy. I propose, however, that it is not misguided at all.  Many ancient wisdom traditions, both ‘philosophical’ and ‘religious,’ tell us that materialistic values can have a caustic effect on our lives and our societies, that focusing on attaining material possessions and social renown can detract from what is meaningful about life.

Our planet urgently needs us to explore alternative ways to live, and one promising way to lessen our impact on Nature is to reject the high-impact lifestyles of consumer cultures and voluntarily embrace ‘a simpler life’ of reduced consumption. Without any doubt, there would be huge environmental benefits if Western societies deliberately set about reducing their consumption. In fact, it is probably fair to say that to achieve an environmentally sustainable society, it will be necessary for us to reduce our consumption. But my focus today is not on the ecological benefits of living simply, great though there are. My focus instead is on how the pursuit of money and consumption is not the path to personal and social well-being and how there may be huge rewards – personal, social, and ecological – if people are able to step out of the rush and escape the rat race. A few words will suffice to make my central point. …

If people were to live simpler lives of reduced consumption, however, they wouldn’t need to dedicate so much of their lives to the pursuit of ‘nice things,’ and this would free up more time and energy for the pursuit of other, more fulfilling goals. Just imagine, for a moment, if voluntary simplicity entered the mainstream and took hold at the societal level. With less time dedicated to the pursuit of money and material possessions, millions of people would have more time and energy for other life goals, such as social and community engagements, family time, artistic or intellectual projects, more fulfilling employment, political participation, sustainable living, spiritual exploration, reading, conversation, contemplation, relaxation, pleasure-seeking, love, and so on – none of which need to rely on money, or much money. The social significance of such a cultural shift would be truly profound. Victor Hugo once said, ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’ It’s hard to be confident, but just perhaps voluntary simplicity is such an idea.

To conclude, it seems that in affluent Western societies today getting richer has generally stopped making people any happier. A huge body of social research confirms this, and that research simply confirms what many ancient wisdoms traditions have been insisting for millennia. It should trouble us, therefore, that our culture is geared towards maximizing wealth or maximizing GDP. As the great ‘simple liver’ Henry David Thoreau would say, we ‘labor under a mistake.’ Fortunately, however, the mistake of consumerism is not the only way to live. Voluntary simplicity presents an alternative that is both socially and ecologically sustainable, and it is an alternative which I believe we should take seriously, today more than ever  before.

Recipe for Simplicity ~ by Linda Breen Pierce – 2000

“Simplify, Simplify…” More than a century after Henry David Thoreau uttered these words, his plea for simplicity has more significance now than ever before. We work hard and play hard, filling nearly every moment with activity. Most families believe they need two incomes to pay for a standard of living that has doubled in the last 50 years. But do we?

Based on my three-year study of over 200 people who have simplified their lives, I found that we can work less, want less, and spend less, and be happier and more fulfilled in the process. Here are ten suggestions to simplify your life. Don’t try to simplify your life in a few weeks or months; most people need an initial period of three to five years to complete this transition. Small, gradual steps are best.

  1. Don’t let any material thing come into your home unless you absolutely love it and want to keep it until it is beyond repair. Too much stuff – it’s suffocating us. Purchasing, maintaining, insuring, storing and eventually disposing of our stuff sucks up our precious life energy.
  2. Live in a home with only those rooms that you or someone in your family use every day. Create a cozy home environment that fits your family. You will find this is much more satisfying than living in a museum designed to impress your friends. Spending time and money to maintain a home that is larger than you truly need diverts these resources from more fulfilling endeavors.
  3. Limit your work (outside of the home) to 30 hours a week, 20 if you are a parent. To live a balanced life, we need “down” time – time to daydream, to relax, to prepare a leisurely meal, to take a walk. If we surround our structured activities with empty spaces, those activities will become more productive and meaningful.
  4. Select a home and place of employment no more than 30 minutes away from each other. Commuting time is dead time. It nourishes not the body, the mind, nor the soul. Preserve your energy and money for more rewarding life experiences.
  5. Limit your children’s extracurricular activities to one to three a week, depending on age. Otherwise, you will exhaust yourself and your children will grow up addicted to constant stimulation.
  6. Take three to four months off every few years and go live in a foreign country. Living in a different culture fascinates, excites, and vitalizes us. It teaches us to live in the present, a core practice of simple living. We gain perspective when we experience a foreign culture. We learn how much we have to be grateful for.
  7. Spend at least an hour a week in a natural setting, away from crowds of people, traffic, and buildings. Three to four hours of nature time each week is even better. There is nothing more basic, more simple, than the natural world.
  8. Do whatever you need to do to connect with a sense of spirit in your life, whether it be prayer, religious services, journal writing, meditation, or spiritually-related reading. Simplicity leads to spirituality; spirituality leads to simplicity. Cultivate a practice of silence and solitude, even for 15 to 30 minutes a day. Your spirituality will evolve naturally.
  9. Seek the support of others who want to simplify their lives. Join or start a simplicity circle if you enjoy group interaction. Living simply in our culture can be a lonely journey. Your friends and family may still be on the work-and-spend treadmill and are unlikely to give you support. Participating in a study group will give you support and validation for your choices.
  10. Practice saying no. Say no to those things that don’t bring you inner peace and fulfillment, whether it be more material things, greater career responsibility, or added social activities. Be vigilant with your time and energy; they are limited resources. If you say yes to one thing (like a job promotion), recognize that you are saying no to something else (perhaps more time with family). Live consciously and deliberately.

Linda Breen Pierce is the author of Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World and Simplicity Lessons: A 12-Step Guide to Living Simply.


Simplicity should not be identified with bareness. – Felix Adler

The great artist and thinker are the simplifiers. — Henri Frederic Amiel

Receive wealth and prosperity without arrogance and be ready to let it go. – Marcus Aurelius.

The simplest things are often the truest. -Richard Bach

Simplicity is the essence of happiness. — Cedric Bledsoe

Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying.  The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things. – Elise Boulding

Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things. — Robert Brault

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. – John Burroughs

I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. – John Burroughs.

For a rich man to lead a simple life is about as hard as for a camel to go through needle’s eye. – John Burroughs

To simplify complications is the first essential of success. — George Earle Buckle

Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art. -Frederic Chopin

A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life. — Winston Churchill

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. -Confucius

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. – Leonardo DaVinci

The little things are infinitely the most important.  — Arthur Conan Doyle

As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art. – Albrecht Durer

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. – Albert Einstein

Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. — Albert Einstein

Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

To have but a few desires and to be satisfied with simple things is the sign of superior man. – Gampopa.

Let us learn to live simply, so that others may simply live. — Gandhi

Possessions seems to me to be a crime. – Gandhi.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not enough for every man’s greed. – Gandhi.

Simplicity is an acquired taste. Mankind, left free, instinctively complicates life. – Katharine Fullerton Gerould

The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply. — Kahlil Gibran

The whole is simpler than the sum of its parts. — Willard Gibbs

Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity. – Thor Heyerdahl

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. – Hans Hofmann

Simplicity, clarity, singleness: These are the attributes that give our lives power and vividness and joy as they are also the marks of great art. They seem to be the purpose of God for his whole creation. – Richard Holloway

You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need. — Vernon Howard

We don’t need to increase our goods nearly as much as we need to scale down our wants.  Not wanting something is as good as possessing it. – Donald Horban

The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination. – Elbert Hubbard

Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more. — John Kabat-Zinn

Simplicity makes me happy. – Alicia Keys

Simplicity is the key to brilliance. — Bruce Lee

I have learned by some experience, by many examples, and by the writings of countless others before me, also occupied in the search, that certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others. There are, in fact, certain roads that one may follow. Simplification of life is one of them. — Ann Morrow Lindbergh

In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. – Charles Mingus

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. — William Morris

Nobility of spirit has more to do with simplicity than ostentation, wisdom rather than wealth, commitment rather than ambition. — Riccardo Muti

Nature is pleased with simplicity. — Isaac Newton

Simplicity involves unburdening your life, and living more lightly with fewer distractions that interfere with a high quality life, as defined uniquely by each individual. You will find people living simply in large cities, rural areas and everything in between. — Linda Breen Pierce

Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity. – Plato

There is a certain majesty in simplicity which is far above all the quaintness of wit. – Alexander Pope

Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in simplicity of living. It is those who have enough but not too much who are the happiest. – Peace Pilgrim

A little simplification would be the first step toward rational living, I think. – Eleanor Roosevelt

The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. – E. F. Schumacher.

I just like simplicity. I like simple songs, I like simple chords, simple vocals, simple lead guitar. I just like simplicity. That’s just the way I like it. – Jeremy Spencer

As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. – Henry David Thoreau

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have even lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. — Henry David Thoreau

There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth. – Leo Tolstoy

Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. – Lao Tzu

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. – Lao Tzu

Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires. – Lao Tzu

In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. — Henry Wadsworth

Simplicity is a state of mind. – Charles Wagner

The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, seek simplicity and distrust it. – Alfred North Whitehead

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity. – Walt Whitman

Simple pleasures are the last healthy refuge in a complex world. — Oscar Wilde

I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things in life which are the real ones after all. — Laura Ingalls Wilder

I believe we would be happier to have a personal revolution in our individual lives and go back to simpler living and more direct thinking. It is the simple things of life that make living worthwhile, the sweet fundamental things such as love and duty, work and rest, and living close to nature. — Laura Ingalls Wilder

Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art. – Frank Lloyd Wright