Thoreau extolled the virtues of a simple lifestyle, and his impassioned plea to ‘simplify, simplify’ in Walden, is echoed by many other proponents of the simple life. Leo Tolstoy’s vision of a simple, self-sustaining lifestyle after a life of indulgence and decadence in turn influenced Gandhi’s teachings of spiritual and material austerity. Buddha taught the importance of the “Middle Way”, a life of moderation and meditation. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment, loved spending time in nature and lived an extreme version of a simplified life. Confucius believed that ‘life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated’.
A quick internet search throws up a plethora of books and blogs with ‘how to’ suggestions on ‘decluttering your life’, ‘simplifying your life’, or reducing stress through ‘frugality’. There’s a Tiny House Movement, an International Downshifting Week and the Voluntary Simplicity Collective. A simple lifestyle can be different for everyone in its details: perhaps it is going ‘to the woods’ or maybe it brings up visions of relaxing in front of a fire with a glass of wine, running by the beach, digging in the garden, cooking and eating a good meal or spending time with loved ones. And if you turn the focus of your attention onto a balanced lifestyle, it may well lead you away from unnecessary stress onto the path of a healthier life.
To get a better sense of what a simple life is, I questioned a diverse group of friends on their interpretation of a simplified lifestyle. Interestingly varied responses came back: one questioned the veracity of the causal effects of a simple lifestyle being healthier in the first place. In his words he prefers ‘more Ritz than Ritz crackers’. Another maintained that everything was ‘as it should be’, which precluded any need to simplify. Others variously welcomed the ‘opportunity to seize the moment’, ‘ to live and play in nature’, to ‘have as much fun as I can’, to have a ‘life free from clutter’, ‘freedom from technology and consumerism’ and something I could well relate to: to pare it down to ‘a tent, bike, panniers, baguette and a glass of rosé’.
Throughout it all, what overwhelmingly bubbled to the surface was the yearning for that most precious of commodities, Time. Time to eat well, to exercise, to enjoy nature, less time spent working and more time spent with others, and the chance to pursue a life free of debilitating and stressful debt. In other words, time to take care of ourselves and others. Whilst it does seem there’s a real yearning to live simply, the question becomes: how real are those benefits? What are the potential pluses from instigating a few simple changes in your life?
1) Buy Less, Owe Less, Stress Less
At the very least there is a proven moderate connection(i) between decreased mental health and indebtedness, including anxiety and depression; common sense would seem to dictate the obvious link between overspending and stress. Just think of that last ‘had to have’ purchase, the feeling of euphoria often followed by guilt, fear and panic. Controlling that knee-jerk reaction to spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need is one way to tackle that stress. Making a genuine effort to take control of our spending whilst we’re climbing out of that debt hole can provide the added bonus of less extraneous stuff to clutter up our space.
Instead, we can now choose to spend some of our hard-earned cash not on objects but on experiencesthat bring us greater happiness(ii), time spent with others watching a movie, or chatting over a coffee. Perhaps we don’t spend anything at all and instead go for a walk, pick up a pencil to draw, listen to music or read a great book.
“All who have lived much out of doors, whether Indian or otherwise, know that there is a magnetic and powerful force that accumulates in solitude but is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd.” ~ Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman)
2) Exercise Your Way to Health
Once we’re spending less time buying and maintaining our stuff, we can fit in more exercise instead of putting it off until we ‘have time’. We might go for a walk, to the gym, a bike ride or go to a yoga class. Once we start to exercise more, we start to feel healthier. It’s a fabulous feed-back loop – stress decreases, blood pressure comes down, weight can shift – and exercise becomes easier. It can have positive effects not only on diabetes, osteoporosis and depression but also certain cancers(iii). It’s valuable time spent on yourself but also can be another wonderful way to connect with friends and family. There’s a financial benefit too; if we choose to jump on the bike, go for a run or swim or walk in the woods we avoid exorbitant gym fees. As our health improves as a community, the medical system becomes less overburdened — a win win situation.
3) Whole Foods, Whole Health.
Carefully choosing and preparing whole foods often leads to an increased appreciation of the quality of produce and how it nourishes us. As we edit overly processed and packaged food out of our lives we become more educated about nutrient rich foods, how they’re produced and where our fruit and veggies come. We initiate a chain reaction of knowledge. . . locally grown food as opposed to foods that have been flown in from thousands of miles away, how to source local farmers and how that can directly support the local economy. Perhaps we now choose to grow some of our own food, with the inherent freshness and quality that implies. Eat whole food and the nutrition takes care of itself(iv). Meals become more of a pleasure, an experience rather than a rushed and unconscious sidebar to our daily lives. And avoiding processed and packaged food saves an awful lot of time reading labels.
4) Nurturing Nature.
A life made up of deliberate choices, of focusing on what’s important to us, can free up valuable time, time we might choose to spend outdoors – a free resource on our doorsteps. As we source whole foods, exercise more and have more time to spend with others, our appreciation exponentially grows for our surroundings. What is termed our ‘ecological literacy’ or ecological education grows. We become more invested in our environment and its protection. We notice which farms avoid fertilizers and pesticides; if the woods we walk in are slated for development; if the water on the beach looks clear. We start to notice the inhabitants of the forests and mountains, if the birds are present, if we can hear frogs, if there’s evidence of that fox, deer or bear (depending on where you live). Our health is inextricably linked to that of the health of our environment and its biodiversity (v) and now we perhaps have the time to notice the subtle interactions that we may have once ignored along the way.
As Thoreau so poetically wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:
(i) ‘Debt and Mental Health, what do we know? what should we do?’ Chris Fitch, Sarah Hamilton, Paul Bassett, Ryan Davey. Royal College of Psychiatrists, London 2009.
(ii) ‘To Do or To Have? That Is the Question’ Leaf van Boven, Thomas Gilovich. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003.
(iii) Health Benefits of Physical Activity: the evidence. Darren E.R. Warburton, Crystal Whitney Nicol, Shannon S.D. Bredin. Canadian Medical Association Journal 2006.
(iv) Can We Say What Diet is Best for Health? D.L.Katz, S.Meller. Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Public Health. 2014
(v) Exploring Connections Among Nature, Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Human Health and Well-being. Opportunities to Enhance Health and Biodiversity Conservation. Paul A. Sandifer, Ariana E. Sutton-Grier, Bethney P. Ward. Ecosystem Services 2015.