In Love with Stuff – Philosophies of Simplicity

By Jennifer Clark –

Downsizing and living a simple life is part of many different philosophies, and can be traced back decades, if not centuries. In what is probably one of the first (or at least the best-known) rejections of modern working life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a small home next to Walden Pond in 1845. There, he experimented with working as little as possible and living frugally. This was his attempt to avoid the misery he saw in the world at the time. He felt “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.

Thoreau’s Cabin. Re-cropped photo: Anne Meadows, flikr.com

Thoreau’s Cabin. Re-cropped photo: Anne Meadows, flikr.com

It’s impossible to know if this approach made Thoreau happier than he would have been if he had lived conventionally, working six days a week as was standard then. From my experience, it certainly might have. I have been happier since I left my office job of “quiet desperation.” I’ve been poorer, sure, but happier. I’m still trying to define my new life and adopt a different profession that will keep me out of the office, but that’s another story altogether.

Modern advocates of a simple life can be loosely grouped into a couple different camps. There are those, like Thoreau (a Transcendentalist), who ascribe to “voluntary simplicity”. This generally involves an element of spiritual inquiry (as opposed to religious) and rejection of attachment to material possessions. At times, I’ve felt I veer into that terrain in my search for happiness, even though I do not in any way consider myself religious or even very spiritual. The search for happiness seems always to veer in the direction of self-exploration at some point. I suspect this is a necessary aspect of the process—identifying what really matters in your life.

The second camp I notice in the simple living movement is more pragmatic. This includes minimalists and downsizers. These folks see simple living as a means of reducing their costs of living to eliminate debt from their lives (much like the initial adopters of the tiny house movement) or find a way to work less and live more. They may also adopt a simple life to reject modern-day consumerism. This school of thought frequently has an environmentally conscious aspect to it, often with the goal of reducing your “ecological footprint”. Ecological footprints will be discussed further in a future installment, but a great book to guide you through identifying and reducing your footprint is Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel.

For the most part, I think minimalism and reducing my ecological footprint are the categories into which I lump myself. But why categorize it at all? Regardless of which school of thought you follow, or what your reasons are for adopting a simpler life, there are many resources out there for you. You do not have to figure out everything for yourself. Talk to people, find allies, and learn from their experiences and knowledge.

Although people sometimes associate minimalism and voluntary simplicity with scarcity, neither approach necessarily involves deprivation or living in poverty.

Rather, the idea is to enable you to have a better quality of life by reducing your expenses. Voluntary simplicity adds the extra dimension of an inward journey, exploring your relationship to the world and your values. If you want to explore this type of simplicity, there are countless websites and several books that cover the topic (or you can just find your own way into as I did.) A good place to start is www.choosingvoluntarysimplicity.com.

In the winter installment of this column, I briefly discussed minimalism: a rapidly-growing philosophy that is connected to simplicity. The rationalizations for undertaking a minimalist lifestyle are many. Individual debt in Canada has never been greater. Buying a home of one’s own has never seemed farther out of the reach of ordinary citizens. Reducing one’s cost of living is increasingly a means to get out of debt sooner, or to afford home ownership. Each person will experience downsizing, voluntary simplicity, or minimalism differently; however, all of these philosophies are better for the planet as well as for our bank accounts.

Voluntary simplicity, downsizing, and minimalism are not for everyone. My partner may best be described as an “acquisitionist” (ahem, hoarder!). This difference is one of our challenges. I think I rub off on him in positive ways though, by always asking “Do we really need this?” “Is there something we already have at home that can be used for this purpose?” Even if you don’t want to get rid of all your stuff, these questions are useful. On their website, the Minimalists describe a process to sift through possessions. They call it “Need, Want, Like.” Ask, do you need the thing, want it, or just like it? Next time you’re tempted to buy something, give these questions a thought. You might find you don’t need that item after all.

Jennifer Clark grew up on her family’s horse and cattle ranch in the East Kootenays. She has studied sustainability issues and urban planning at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is a wildland firefighter, a fanatical gardener, and has worked and taught urban gardening at garden nurseries in Metro Vancouver. Jennifer is also a talented potter, who occasionally teaches classes. On a nice day, she can be found outside, gardening, hiking, skiing, or if she’s lucky, kayaking in a borrowed kayak.

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