The lure of the simple life has been around for decades. For those old enough to remember, we’ve had the Goods trying to make a go of self-sufficiency in suburban London and, more recently, Paris and Nicole donning gumboots, trying to get back to nature in their own special way.
But, as attractive, or amusing, as the simple life might have been presented on TV, the real appeal was never all that widespread, until quite recently, it seems.
In the past few years, simplicity as an organising principle or ‘lifestyle’ seems to have taken off with a bang. In part evidenced by achieving the ‘movement’ tag but, perhaps, more ironically by the industry that has sprung up to support those looking for guidance on taking the simple path.
Which is not to say that following a simple life is without its complications. There seem to be as many definitions or explanations for living simply as there are people attempting to do so. This can prove confusing for those intrinsically attracted to the idea of simplifying their lives, but unsure on what this actually means.
My interest is in exploring the intersection where simplicity and wellbeing meet to consider what we can learn from keeping things simple that will support our efforts towards a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life. There’s a lot of good stuff to choose from but these are just a few of the ideas I think really offer a lot to support wellbeing.
One strand of simplicity that seems to come through quite strongly is to do with minimising material goods aka owning less stuff. Often aligned with environmental goals or, promoted as a way to undermine consumerist culture, examples of minimising materialism include – creating a capsule wardrobe, living in a tiny house or micro apartment or restricting your total possessions to 100 items or less.
In this strand, it doesn’t really matter how much you have, the question is how attached you are to any of it? Liberation comes from being able to like, appreciate and enjoy the material possessions you acquire, secure in the knowledge that you would be largely unaffected, in emotional terms, if it all went away the very next day.
What these first two strands have in common is that both require a mindful approach to consciously deciding how to live in a different way. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of your possessions or, the pressure to always acquire more, consciously choosing to live with less may well free you up in all kinds of physical, emotional and financial ways. This process can, in turn, liberate your thoughts to consider ways of living which you might not have previously thought were available to you.
For example, selling possessions to clear debt may mean you can consider non-financial factors more strongly when deciding what to do for work. Simply having fewer clothes to choose from can free up a surprising amount of time otherwise spent deciding what to wear today.
And, let’s not forget the flow on effect that having fewer possessions can have on freeing up time and energy you can redirect to other aspects of your life. Having fewer items to insure, clean or worry about upgrading or replacing may well mean more time and energy for socialising, relaxing and enjoying the day to day.
Likewise, keeping all your stuff but changing your relationship to your possessions can create a sense of unburdening that frees the mind in unexpected ways.
Suddenly the skinny pre-pregnancy jeans you kept for when you get back to being the ‘you’ become just a pair of old jeans – simultaneously freeing you from the self-imposed pressure to get ‘back into shape’ as quickly as possible and, providing you the opportunity to truly inhabit the current you in a way that reflects and honours the changes you’re going through.
I own, therefore I am?
Consciously un-attaching yourself from possessions may also help you un-attach from other beliefs, expectations or habits that are inhibiting your efforts at living a happier, healthier and more fulfilled life.
For example, many people ascribe certain characteristics or value to particular possessions which they believe then transfer to themselves. The classic examples being of a person buying a particular make or model of car to signify that they’ve ‘made it’ or, the executive who moves from house to bigger house as he or she moves up the rungs in the corporate world.
The underpinning rationale for this behaviour is that the person believes their worth as a human is tied to the stuff that they own. So they believe that owning a more expensive car gives them status in society and that owning a huge house signals their importance to the world.
So deeply ingrained, in some cultures, is this belief that your value as a person can be inferred by what you own, that many people who actually can’t afford to, will buy the things they reflect a more affluent lifestyle, just so they can enjoy the kudos they perceive this brings.
And they will do this even if it means they get horribly into debt and have to stay at a job they hate just to make the repayments. Voluntarily taking on financial insecurity and job dependency just so they can portray themselves as the rich, successful, important people they believe their stuff represents.
Needless to say, living this way does not do wonders for wellbeing. The constant stress of living with financial insecurity and, the inability to stop earning at the same level for fear the material mirage will implode, can put strain on personal relationships and physical and mental health.
And, the saddest thing is, that it doesn’t work. People who truly believe that their worth as a person is directly correlated to what they own, never feel like they have enough. So they are always striving for the next thing – the newer model of car, the bigger house, the latest phone – without ever enjoying these things for their own sake and still somehow feeling that, whatever they have, is not enough.
Deciding enough IS enough
Well, I’m exhausted just writing this so I can only imagine how debilitating it must be to live this way. But imagine if those people just stopped imbuing stuff with all that importance and set themselves mentally and physically free from the need to constantly upgrade. If they could just enjoy what they have without feeling that their sense of self-worth is in any way linked to what they own.
Because in the letting go, the decoupling, the conscious un-attaching from your possessions you simultaneously do something else. You create a world in which your possessions are just things and you stay you, whether you own them or not. Change becomes less daunting because the possibility of ‘losing it all’ goes away. Decisions on how and, with whom, you spend your time get made according to different criteria, opening up the possibility of having a much deeper and more fulfilling experience life.
Simplicity and wellbeing?
So is simplicity good for wellbeing? For the most part, I think it is – whether it’s physically owning less, or just simplifying your relationship with things so they go back to being inert objects rather than markers of ‘success’. Adopting a simpler approach to how you interact with the material world seems to offer a good way to diminish the value of the things in your life, freeing up more mental space and physical time for you to spend with the people you love and, on the things you enjoy.
But with all things there can be a tendency to take things too far, to turn the principles of simplicity into another form of dogma or set of ‘shoulds’ that only serve to put more pressure on yourself. So if you find yourself lying awake mentally checking off your list of possessions or feeling guilty that you’re still so attached to a really expensive pair of shoes, just ease up and remember this is meant to help you.
To me the essence of a simple life is one in which there are fewer complications and a greater sense of ease. How you get there will be a largely individual pursuit – one person’s complicated is another person’s ease. So apply the principles of shedding or detaching to any area of your life where you feel you need a little simplicity salve – stuff, food, work, people – and see what happens.
Because when you think about it, nothing should really be simpler than simplifying our lives, unless we make it so.
Tricia Alach is an author, work-life coach and wellbeing professional who specialises in helping busy people create more balance, joy and fulfilment in life! To learn more about what she offers visit www.flowmindandbody.com or connect via facebook or @triciaalach