An (as yet unfinished) collection of essays exploring the question of how to get the most out of life.
As you read these essays keep in mind they are just that -- essays. They reflect my personal views derived from what I have experienced, observed, and read. I have strived for accuracy but, since this is not a scholarly or academic endeavor, felt no need to footnote. My objective is only to express my opinion and stimulate thought.
When I first came up with the idea for this collection of essays, I tentatively titled it “The Zen of Living Simply.” That title reflected my personal bias. As an adult I have always tried to lead a simple and balanced life and feel that approach has worked well for me. But it was impossible not to notice others regarded some of my lifestyle choices as a bit unusual. Not bizarre or unique. Just sufficiently outside the norm to raise the occasional eyebrow. Several examples: Why do I continue to drive a 13 year old car with well over 200,000 miles on it when I could easily afford a new one? How can I tolerate, much less enjoy, extended periods of cruising and living aboard a 27 foot boat which lacks the space, convenience, and creature comforts of even a studio apartment? Why, when I was teaching, did I always turn down offers to supplement my income by picking up a summer class? Why do I refuse to get a cell phone?
Of course, I am not exempt from questioning others’ choices. Why would anyone borrow $20,000+ to purchase a new four-wheel drive gas guzzling SUV when it is not necessary for the type of driving they do and their current vehicle is perfectly adequate? Why would a woman with a C-cup spend thousands of dollars for a breast enlargement? Why drive around in circles looking for a parking spot right next to the door of the gym (no less!) when it would be quicker to pull into an open space 100 feet distant and walk? Why are so many people renting space at mini-storage facilities to keep stuff they aren’t using?
Obviously we are on different wavelengths. I knew I was happy. They seemed to be happy. But were they really? Even if they were, could they become happier by simplifying their life? (Or could I become happier by complexifying or luxurifying mine?) I was aware that, during the past 20 years, there had been a surge of scholarly research into the subject of happiness (which academics now refer to as “subjective well-being”). I did a cursory review of the literature looking for connections between types of lifestyles and happiness. Although I did not find precisely what I was looking for, I did discover enough to realize my focus was misplaced.
“Living simply” is only a means to an end. If the end is increasing subjective well-being (which I am not suggesting is the only or most important end), living simply certainly looks like one way to get there. Many of the values, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize a “simple lifestyle” are factors which correlate with happiness. However, these factors are not unique to the simple life. For example, people who are married (both male and female) are happier than those who are single. Marriage is not restricted to those who live simply.
More interesting, perhaps, is that proponents of the simple life reject at least one factor that correlates with happiness. Repeated studies have established a direct linear relationship between wealth and subjective well-being. It’s not a huge relationship (except at the extremes). But the bottom-line is that the more money people have, the happier they are. Yet those who advocate living simply take the position that the accumulation of material wealth is an impediment to happiness.
So if living simply is not the Rosetta stone of happiness, what is? The answer I arrived at was -- “living deliberately.” To be fair, proponents of simple living state this is the ultimate purpose of their lifestyle. Reducing life to the essentials, they assert, forces one to make a conscious determination of what really matters and provides greater opportunity to enjoy what matters most. But there are other, sometimes better (from an individual standpoint), ways of accomplishing this. Furthermore, “simple living,” no less than “complex living,” can limit options. For example, lack of money can be as limiting as lack of time. It is certainly worth examining simplicity as a way of life for the light it can shed on living deliberately. But living deliberately is all about options and living simply is only one of them.
In the process of working out my thoughts I also came to appreciate how subjective the concept of “simple” is. Mention “the simple life” and some people will smile and shake their heads as they recall the trials and tribulations of two poor rich girls on the FOX television program of that name. Some will conjure up the image of an ascetic treehugger tightwad dressed in unfashionable clothes eking out a living and enduring the deprivation and discomfort of rustic, spartan accommodations furnished in Salvation Army melange and sparsely decorated with items that can only charitably be described as “folk art.” Some will envision the “good life” unconstrained by obligations and brimming with the freedom to do what they want when they want. Some will imagine a dreary, boring existence devoid of aspirations and lacking opportunities to achieve success and enjoy the finer things in life. And some will scoff, arguing the whole idea of a simple life is, at best, an illusion and, at worst, merely a rationalization which allows the “have-nots” to feel better about their station in life.
Those who espouse the simple life recognize it means different things to different people. But my sense is they are only referring to differences in details, not fundamental values. In the materials I reviewed, there seemed to be a consensus that “living simply” means:
Personally, I share this philosophy of life to a considerable degree. I also have no doubt there are people who could enhance their quality of life by embracing it. Intellectually, however, I question some of the underlying assumptions and conclusions as well as the scope of its applicability. People are just too different. They have different needs, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, perspectives, and circumstances. This diversity among individuals rules out a “one size fits all” approach to life. What is best for one person is not necessarily best for another.
Nor is it necessarily best for the world as a whole. I believe that, in the grand scheme of things, diversity is more beneficial than homogeneity. If I am correct, a variety of lifestyles among the peoples of the world will produce greater overall global benefits.
My intent is not to promote a particular lifestyle or provide a “how to” guide. Rather, writing these essays is, for me, just a philosophical exercise, the purpose of which is to explore the value of structuring one’s life in a manner that maximizes freedom of choice and to identify some factors that may be worth considering when making a choice. The choices you make will, of course, depend upon your specific goals and circumstances. Your goals and circumstances will change over time. Some of your goals will always be in conflict. Yet, at any given moment, there is an optimum balance that will provide the greatest personal rewards. The more freedom of choice you possess, the greater your capacity to live deliberately, to consciously make the choices that will enable you to attain balance and get the most of what you want out of life.
As Henry David Thoreau so eloquently put it:
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