“After a ten-year bender of gaudy dreams and godless consumerism, Americans are starting to trade down….Upscale is out; downscale is in…Flaunting money is considered gauche….In place of materialism, many Americans are embracing simpler pleasures and homier values. ‘I think that people (says one theologian) are going to look back at today as a hinge period in the country’s history.’”
Sound familiar? That assessment is as up-to-date as today’s headlines, but as dated as the week it appeared, in the April 8, 1991 issue of Time Magazine. It was written at the tail end of an eight-month recession and the beginning of a long period of borrowing and spending. If the trend to the simple life had a lasting impact, it escaped my attention, and, I suspect, yours as well.
Maybe it’s time to rethink the simple life, but with a new sense of purpose. Many of us face two alternatives: increase our income or reduce our spending. With millions of jobs lost and retirement savings cut in half, increasing our income may be a pipe dream. The only realistic alternative may be to downshift to a more appropriate lifestyle.
The economic downturn is testing the resiliency of America’s families. There is no greater source of family conflict than money. A survey by Citibank once found that 57 percent of divorces “stem from arguments over money.” Simple living gives us the chance to shift our focus from money and possessions to happiness and a sense of purpose.
But to avoid repeating the 1991 “trend” that wasn’t, it’s important to start small and maintain a sense of balance. Cutting the family budget is like cutting back on eating. Crash diets don’t work. That’s why they are often called “yoyo diets.” They are so extreme, we can’t sustain them. So our weight goes up and down, up and down, just like a yoyo. In the same way, paring our budgets should start small and continue to build. The objective is balance, a reasonable compromise between what we want and what we really need.
One way to think about balancing our “needs” and our “wants” is the concept of “superfluous income.” The concept provides a good rule of thumb for measuring the amount of possessions we need for a decent life. Albino Barrera, O.P., an economist and theologian at Providence College, mentions two ways of thinking about superfluous income. On the one hand, we can think of it as an amount of income that’s more than we need to maintain what’s required by what was once called “our station in life.” On the other hand, we can measure our income and our possessions against the needs of others.
This second way of thinking about superfluous income is what drives so many people to give substantial amounts of time and money to others. Economists use a term called “opportunity costs.” We can spend Wednesday night at the mall, or we can spend it teaching the less fortunate. But we can’t do both at the same time. The decisions we make determine the kinds of lives we lead. One benefit of living simply is that it frees us up to do things we find fulfilling.
Doing things that we find fulfilling is the positive side of what is essentially making a sacrifice. When a sacrifice frees us up to do what we believe is important, we’re far more likely to make it voluntarily. And making the sacrifice voluntarily will make it lasting.
Time Magazine reported that in the 1991 trend to simplicity, people were “making a virtue out of necessity.” That explains why the trend didn’t last. As soon as the recession was over, people started a new cycle of borrowing and spending. Without the necessity of living simply, people saw no virtue in it.
Desire for Simplicity Comes From Within
The desire to live simply must come from within, which may be why the book that has been called the “sacred text” of simple living is titled Voluntary Simplicity. Its author, Duane Elgin, makes a distinction between what we “want” and what we “need.” We may want a McMansion, when all we really need is a two-bedroom Cape. The trick is to downshift what we want to what we really need. And that has to come from within; it has to be voluntary.
Most of us, I suspect, believe deep down that the more we possess, the happier we are. But somehow that formula never works out. Philosophers and theologians have been telling us just the opposite for centuries. Now science is reinforcing their insights. When a Washington Post reporter studied a number of scientific studies in 2006, he found that “once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction.”
What may have been even more surprising is the result of a 2006 survey on happiness by the London School of Economics. It found that the nation with the happiest people in the world was Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries. It has an annual income of roughly $500 per person. By contrast, the U.S. has an annual income of $37,000 per person, but ranked just 46th in the survey.
So science is confirming what we probably know deep in our hearts. We shouldn’t let the nation’s advertisers, or our wealthier next door neighbors, convince us otherwise: Wealth and possessions don’t bring happiness for individuals or for families. If we can internalize the desire to live a balanced life, if the choice rises from our own self-determination, if we believe that the simple life is its own best reward – then we stand a chance of making simplicity a lasting and fulfilling way to live.