I just wrapped up the book Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. I think I took more notes from this book than any other book I’ve read this year. Due to the sheer quantity of notes, I’m going to split them up into at least three different posts on the topic of voluntary simplicity.
Believe it or not, I was first introduced to voluntary simplicity when I read a random college thesis that I found online a few years ago. It was a great intro to the concept, and I wrote a summary of it here: Voluntary Simplicity: “Listening to the Quiet Revolution” (Thesis Summary).
This first post on Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity focuses on:
- What Duane calls “the most common reasons given for choosing to live more lightly”
- The common characteristics he sees in many who choose a simpler life based on decades of his research, and
- Memorable responses and results from the Voluntary Simplicity Survey
Top 10 Most Common Reasons for Choosing Simple Living
This list comes directly from the book. I’ve added emphasis in bold.
- To find a healthy balance between one’s inner experience and its outer expression in work, consumption, relationships, and community.
- To search for a workable and meaningful alternative to the emptiness of a society obsessed with material consumption and display.
- To provide one’s children with more humane value systems and life experiences that are appropriate to the emerging world they will have to live in.
- To find a much higher degree of independence and self-determination in a mass society of alienating scale and complexity.
- To establish more cooperative and caring relationships.
- To acknowledge and, in small but personally meaningful ways, begin to reduce the vast inequities between the rich and the poor around the world.
- To cope in a personal manner with environmental pollution and resource scarcity.
- To foster nonsexist ways of relating.
- To develop the personal skills and know-how to survive a time of severe economic and social disruption.
- To create the personal circumstances of life in which one’s feelings, thoughts, and actions can come into alignment.
Common Characteristics of a Simpler Life
Duane Elgin has been studying simplicity for decades. Here are the common things he sees in those who choose a simpler life:
- Tend to invest the time and energy freed up by simpler living in activities with their partner, children, and friends, or volunteering to help others, or getting involved in civic affairs to improve the life of the community.
- Tend to work on developing the full spectrum of their potentials: physical (running, biking, hiking, and so on), emotional (learning the skills of intimacy and sharing feelings in important relationships), mental (engaging in lifelong learning by reading, taking classes, and the like), spiritual (learning to move through life with a quiet mind and compassionate heart).
- Tend to feel an intimate connection with Earth and a reverential concern for nature. When people understand that the ecology of the Earth is a part of our extended “body,” we tend to act in ways that express great care for its well-being.
- Tend to feel a compassionate concern for the world’s poor; a simpler life fosters a sense of kinship with people around the world and thus a concern for social justice and equity in the use of the world’s resources.
- Tend to lower their overall level of personal consumption—buy less clothing (paying more attention to what is functional, durable, and aesthetic and showing less concern with passing fads, fashions, and seasonal styles), buy less jewelry and other forms of personal ornamentation, buy fewer cosmetic products, and observe holidays in a less commercialized manner.
- Tend to alter their patterns of consumption in favor of products that are durable, easy to repair, nonpolluting in their manufacture and use, energy-efficient, functional, and aesthetic.
- Tend to shift their diets away from highly processed foods, meat, and sugar toward foods that are more natural, healthier, simpler, and appropriate for sustaining the inhabitants of a small planet.
- Tend to reduce undue clutter and complexity in their personal lives by giving away or selling those possessions that are seldom used and could be used productively by others (clothing, books, furniture, appliances, tools, and so on).
- Tend to use their consumption politically by boycotting goods and services of companies whose actions or policies they consider unethical.
- Tend to recycle metal, glass, and paper and to cut back on consumption of items that are wasteful of nonrenewable resources.
- Tend to pursue livelihoods that directly contribute to the well-being of the world and enables them to use their creative capacities in ways that are personally fulfilling.
- Tend the develop personal skills that contribute to greater self-reliance and reduce dependence upon experts to handle life’s ordinary demands (for example, basic carpentry, plumbing, appliance repair, gardening, and crafts).
- Tend to prefer smaller-scale, more human-size living and working environments that foster a sense of community, face-to-face contact, and mutual caring.
- Tend fo alter male-female roles in favor of nonsexist patterns of relationship.
- Tend to appreciate the simplicity of nonverbal forms of communication—the eloquence of silence, hugging and touching, the language of the eyes.
- Tend to participate in holistic health-care practices that emphasize preventive medicine and the healing powers of the body when assisted by the mind.
- Tend to involve themselves with compassionate causes, such as protecting rain forests and saving animals from extinction, and tend to use nonviolent means in their efforts.
- Tend to change transportation modes in favor of using public transit, carpooling, purchasing smaller and more fuel-efficient autos, living closer to work, riding a bike, and walking.
Voluntary Simplicity Survey Results
The simplicity survey was developed in 1977 when Duane was working as a social scientist and futurist at SRI International. It was included as a questionnaire in Co-Evolution Quarterly. He received more than a thousand pages of responses over the course of 18 months. It’s amazing how relevant these still are today.
- “Overall, this survey revealed an important insight: The single most common factor among respondents was an emphasis on inner growth and being awake to the miracle of life.”
- “According to the Voluntary Simplicity Survey…it was clear that people were not looking for more stuff but for more happiness, satisfaction…and life. In turn, it is life—in all its vastness, subtlety, and preciousness—that is the context within which simpler living acquires its compelling meaning and significance. People are reclaiming the subtle aliveness that has been bleached out of everyday existence by the obsessive materialism of the industrial era.”
- Some memorable survey responses:
- “More aware of the spiritual path before me; less nonsense in the way.”
- “I don’t think of it as voluntary simplicity. I am simply going through a process of self-knowledge and self-realization, attempting to better the world for myself, my children, my grandchildren, and so on.”
- One survey respondent described it not as a movement, but as “the People’s University.”
- “Commercialism is making people live on only the periphery of their whole beings.”
- “I am doing what Bucky Fuller calls doing more with less. He also speaks of education as the process of ‘eliminating the irrelevant,’ dismissing all that is not furthering our chosen articulation of value.”
- “You gain access to parts of life that are otherwise inaccessible.”
- “As desires become fewer, frustration diminishes. As life becomes less ego-centered, it comes more enjoyable.”
Have you read Voluntary Simplicity, or are you familiar with the concept? Please share in the comments what you’ve learned or incorporated into your life.
Also published on Medium.