Simple Living Where Did It Go? by Bob Lowry

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Simple Living Where Did It Go? by Bob Lowry

A few years ago blogs about simple living, voluntary simplicity, and cutting back were all the rage. The topic was always showing up on Google. Books, videos, and consultants were eager to help us simplify our lives. I remember one fellow who had his moment of fame after writing about his total wardrobe: 15 items.  I got caught up in the trend apparently: over the years I have written about the subject in one form or another dozens of times. Two of the most read posts on this blog are about this subject.

Maybe all the attention was because of the lingering effects of the serious recession that had peaked a few years earlier. We were looking for ways to stay afloat in tough times. Cutting back and simplifying was a way to live less expensively. We were also waking up to the effect our lifestyle was having on the environment, our stress level, and our relationships.

Maybe I am just out of touch, but the buzz over simple living seems to be much less a topic of conversation now. Yes, I am aware of the tiny house movement. However, living by choice in a 150-250 square foot home strikes me as somewhat extreme. 

Selling over 3 million copies, Marie Kondo’s  book about the life-changing magic of tidying up is not really about simple living, rather keeping things organized and properly stored away. Yes, she does preach that throwing out much of what someone owns is good. But, the goal seems more about neatness than fewer possessions. After all, she admits she loves to shop for new things.

The subject of simple living isn’t constantly in front of me anymore. I have been trying to decide why. It can’t be that we have all cut back and reduced the clutter in our life. It can’t be that we have figured out how to be happy without much stuff. Our economy goes into a serious funk if we stop buying more..whatever. Maybe we tried simple living and decided we don’t like it that much.

I don’t think so. I have a theory and it goes like this: simple living was a new idea for many in the modern day developed world. Raised on a diet of more is better we had forgotten that life didn’t need to be that way. We thought doing without more stuff, cutting back on the unnecessary, and delayed gratification was different. Maybe it was better, maybe it wasn’t. But, new and fresh are powerful concepts.

Early adopters were attracted to the promise of less clutter and a simpler life. It gave folks a way to step off the constant consumer merry-go-round. It seemed noble, maybe even virtuous as a way to live. The desire for how-to information, or the validation of the choice to live more simply spawned all the blogs, books, and other material. Simple Living was hot, it was top-of-mind. I still have almost 30 books about voluntary simplicity. Yes, I get the irony.

What has happened over the past decade or so is a growing awareness of the futility of looking for happiness in possessions. What I think many folks have learned is that enough is never enough, if money or stuff are the measures. Satisfaction is always another …something….away. Frankly, I find this shift to be very encouraging. If my theory is right, then the goals behind simple living have become more a part of our collective mindset.

Of course, there are millions of our fellow citizens who would claim I am nuts. They are convinced that money does buy happiness in the form of fancy cars, nicer homes, better schools for their kids, a condo on Maui, or a satisfying retirement. The American Dream demands a constant striving upward.

Several years before retirement I was caught up in that bigger-is-better game. My income supported a very nice lifestyle. Maybe not coincidentally my marriage was not the best and my kids were not happy that dad was always away on business. I bought clothes and cars that “fit” my station in life. And, I was unhappy. I had no friends, no spiritual life to speak off, nothing but work to define me.

15 years of retirement and six years of writing this blog have taught me to get my priorities straight. Forced to leave that life rather suddenly, I discovered a crucial fact: there is nothing wrong with possessions as long as they make you happy and bring you joy. Otherwise, they are meaningless. They are just things.

Now, I enjoy my house very much for what it brings me: a place where family can gather for memory-making and shared love. It is much smaller than where we lived when I was riding high, without the pool and spa, but it makes me very happy when I sit on the back porch and watch our dog play, or enjoy a cup of tea and a good book. I find joy when sitting on our living room sofa, next to my wife, watching a favorite movie or show.

I own two older cars, both a bit banged up with lots of miles. I hate to shop. I buy very few books anymore; I have my own parking spot at the library. I gave away close to 30% of my clothes and at least 60% of my books and music CDs. When something breaks or wears out, Betty and I discuss whether it needs to be replaced. The answer isn’t always, Yes.

So, I guess I have accepted the basic premise behind simple living. I didn’t actively decide to live that way. It just happened over time as retirement gave me the opportunity to reassess and readjust how I live. I wonder if my experience is rather typical for many of us. If so, that would explain why simple living has left the headlines and just moved in with us.

I am very interested in your reaction to this topic. Do you remember all the simple living/voluntary simplicity blogs or books of just a few years ago? Would you consider yourself as living a simple life, or at least simpler than it once was? Do you feel a little unhappy that you have had to cut back during retirement instead of enjoying the fruits of years of work but have made peace with the situation?

Living a simple live in 21st century America, or any developed country, is not easy. It actually takes work to live more simply.

Strange but true.

By Bob Lowry

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