I start this article embracing the simple living philosophy – lying in a warm bed on a Saturday morning, a cup of hot tea by my side.
The day is dawning and I’ll soon rise, meditate and perhaps run outside in the sun. I know I’ll feel good afterwards.
The schedule looks uncluttered, life admin turned down as near to zero as it goes.
I’ll enjoy a simple, healthy lunch and perhaps a stroll in the afternoon, accompanied by coffee.
The simple delight of unencumbered days is living at its best.
So if you’re looking for your own simplification, you’re in the right place.
What is simple living?
Simple living embraces a less = more mindset.
It’s a philosophy which emphasises the ability to lead a good life, independent of external factors, such as material wealth or experience.
From this perspective, happiness comes not from the pursuit of more, but rather, being content with less.
The chase for more
In a world that’s obsessed with more, it’s tough to scale back expectations and be satisfied with the small things.
But life is made of small things. And the big things, that we think will make us feel good, are fleeting and ephemeral.
The sought-after promotion, the wedding day. They’re here and gone, better in our imagination than reality.
So to pin our hopes on such sporadic events is foolish.
When we constantly scan the distant horizon we miss the scenery at our side.
Small things seem inconsequential, and they are. But they’re also where simple pleasures reside.
So why are they so often overlooked?
Simple living has its roots in many cultures and traditions, both religious and philosophical.
From Buddhism to Epicureanism, the importance of leading a simple life and the dangers of becoming mesmerised by prestige, wealth and status are emphasised.
Becoming attached to such objects, according to the Buddha, is central to our life of suffering.
And yet, it seems that the world, to a large extent, fails to heed such wisdom, society obfuscating basic human truths.
Society demands more
It’s easy to become stuck in this quest for more, chasing all that’s bigger and better.
It’s almost socioculturally bred into us.
Consumerism is predicated on amplifying our desire for objects and experiences. It drives growth, boosts GDP.
So companies extend to ever extreme limits to excite our neurochemical brain pathways, pouring millions of dollars into creating the perfect cereal crunch or most addictive mobile phone app.
Their very existence hinges on how successfully they keep us hooked. And it works.
Through popular media and our own psychological makeup, like Pavlov’s dog, we’ve trained our brains to expect the big things; to demand them.
It’s a zero-sum game between the economic growth machine and personal wellbeing. Much to our detriment.
Every popular media input we receive is magnified into hyper normal stimuli.
The adverts of beautiful beaches and million-dollar smiles become our new baseline.
When these companies peddle their wares, they simultaneously reprogram our brains.
We begin to believe we can only be happy with the biggest and best product, event or experience.
And when we do experience the fine things in life we get quite the dopamine hit, a potent neurochemical cocktail of reward, our primitive yearnings temporarily satisfied.
But it’s like giving candy to a sugar-free child. The hit is so intense that we demand more. Indeed, crave more.
Eventually though, like any addiction, it becomes unsustainable:
- Eventually, we experience diminishing returns for the rewards we seek. Buying the 100th designer jumper doesn’t feel as good as the first.
- In response to number one, you have two choices – renounce your addiction or strive for more. Initially, people do the latter, trying desperately to rediscover that initial feeling, chasing the imaginary dragon. But there’s only so much more juice you can squeeze.
- Persist for long enough and you (metaphorically) fry your brain pathways. Repeated dopamine hits programs your brain for constant expectation, like an addict searching for the next fix. This makes you completely unable to experience simple pleasures and enjoy the everyday normalcy that life offers.
But like a millionaire who finally sees through the illusion of money, so a person chasing extravagant pleasures is often left dissatisfied.
Perhaps this is why there is a general awakening around material wealth and happiness.
Research suggests that earning above a certain dollar threshold ($70k) doesn’t improve wellbeing.
In response to the psychological cravings we exhibit in response to modern marketing, there are even proponents of dopamine fasting, who contend that we should rest our neurogenic reward pathways through abstaining from activities that excite such feedback mechanisms.
Although dopamine is an essential neurochemical that we rely on for other functions and inhibiting its release isn’t the answer, it is a catchy moniker for a new approach to life that’s less reliant on ephemeral highs and more symbiotic with simple living.
By reducing our reliance on externals and the expectation that happiness depends on what we have, we learn more about who we are.
Cynics might point out the hypocrisy of rich Instagram elites peddling a new source of consumerism, simply with a pared-down aesthetic, while much of the world is forced to live this way through simple economic hardship.
But comparing a forced adoption of the lifestyle or a voluntary advocate matters little.
Simplicity contains within it benefits that are practitioner agnostic, undiscriminating over socioeconomic status.
The benefits of simplicity
The benefits of simple living are manifold. Here, we’ll list but a few:
Frugal living is an important component of living a simple life.
As we begin to break our attachment to external objects, so too we lose our desire to physically and mentally collect as much as we can.
We’re happy with the simple pleasures in life, which often cost nothing.
A natural byproduct of being happier with less, is that we can cut costs and save more.
Work less and work differently
A large portion of the world do what they do to survive. Another portion of the world don’t.
But they feel tied to their jobs, which they complain about. This is mostly through psychological subservience to money and status.
Think of the desperately unhappy lawyer who dreams of opening a bakery, but can’t leave his sizeable paycheck behind.
Embracing simple living, by cutting our dependence on modern societal trappings, allows us to live and work differently.
Rather than slogging through a horrible work week, we could drop down to part-time work or change careers entirely, redefining our relationship to work altogether.
Invest in passions
A corollary of reclaiming time from traditional work and responsibility is the liberation of resources to invest in our passions, hobbies and skills.
If you’ve always wanted to learn woodwork, for example, living a simple life, devoid of distraction, allows you to focus on learning this new craft.
Life, in this way, becomes more about following a path of happiness rather than conforming to society’s economic expectations.
Simple living isn’t all about paid work, in that it aims to redefine our relationship with responsibility entirely.
If you’re the type of person who’s always busy and tired, though self-inflicted social engagements and gatherings, you might benefit from simple living schedule shaping to reclaim your lost energy and invest it in more nourishing pursuits.
Simple living isn’t about removing oneself from life, but rather redefining what’s important.
Many adoptees of this lifestyle might decide to invest in deeper relationships rather than persisting with superficial connections.
In this way, simple living’s about choosing fewer, better things and nurturing them, such as the wife who wants more time for her husband or the father who can finally pick his daughter up from school.
A natural byproduct of simple living is a calmer, more restful mind.
When you consciously prune your life and eliminate the smoke and mirrors of distraction, you find that beneath all the anxiety lies a relaxed and attentive mind, free from significant overthinking and stress.
Along with this psychic decluttering, techniques like meditation are a nice adjunct to the philosophy and can facilitate this process.
Simple living vs minimalism
Simple living, minimalism and indeed, intentional living, have much in common.
However, whereas minimalism is more concerned with shedding material possessions, simple living is more of a lifestyle term which encompasses a broader philosophical landscape, including relationships, career, and spending.
But the two are very much interdependent and used somewhat interchangeably in terms of lifestyle design.
Lifestyle ideas and tips
Many of us swan through life without deciding what, if anything, is important to us.
This can be fun for a while. But it can also be exciting to choose something and invest in it, making more progress.
For you, this could mean making a life plan or following what you consider to be your life purpose and then adopting a simple living lifestyle to make room for commitment.
For many practitioners, meditation and mindfulness seem to be an avenue towards simple living. That is to say, it’s a natural byproduct.
As we become more aware of our minds and the processes driving our actions, we begin to question our natural impulses, the subconscious routines programmed by our surroundings.
When we test these assumptions and desires, we find them lacking and the transition towards simplification mirrors that our of our internal mindscape.
Learning to notice life’s simple pleasures is the fast track to living a simple life.
The more joy you take in the seemingly mundane stuff that everyone else takes for granted, the less you require to be happy.
I’ll list a few of my simple pleasures to get the ball rolling:
- Cold, frosty mornings – I don’t know what it is, but this is a simple pleasure for me. Waking up to a cold, crisp, sunny morning provides an inspiration hit like no other.
- Exercise – I know this isn’t the same for everyone. Maybe it’s because I played a lot of sport as a small human, but I love getting a sweat on.
- Coffee – A massive cliche I know, but coffee is currently my most regular indulgence. Putting fresh beans into a grinder and making a frothy oat latte? Yes please.
- Reading – There’s just nothing like transporting yourself to an imaginary world, exploring other realms of possibility.
If you notice, the examples above all have one thing in common. They’re inexpensive and can be enjoyed by most people, especially if you have the means to read this article.
Associated with simple pleasures is gratitude.
The more grateful you are for what you have the less inclined you’ll be to strive needlessly for more.
Plus, it’s supported by science. So yay for that.
I’m pretty terrible with keeping a gratitude journal and all that jazz, so instead, I often employ the Kurt Vonnegut trick of saying,
“If this isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is”
You might be thinking that, along with minimalism, simple living is just another Instagram fad, with beautiful people in tiny houses banging on about Marie Kondo-ing their lives.
And to be fair, there is a lot of that.
However, don’t let the drum banging put you off. There are plenty of benefits to be had for us normal folk too, even if you don’t plan on photographing every inch of your underpants drawer for the socials.
Just like pruning a bush, removing inessentials from life allows the remainder to flourish.
The more you cut back, the more you grow in areas of life important to you.
So get pruning.