Embracing Simplicity

"Mental Health and Simple Living" was the title for the world’s first such symposium, held on January 31, 2004 at the prestigious Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California in Los Angeles, USA.

It is not surprising that the symposium, subtitled "Countering the Compulsion to Consume," should be held in the most excessive city of the most excessive country on the planet. A cure is often found just where and when a sickness is at its worst, and in Los Angeles the compulsion to consume has reached epidemic proportions. The shops and restaurants are continually packed with consumers whose appetites apparently know no end. But at the same time, mental health workers are seeing more and more patients who simply can no longer cope. Add to these a group of people who seem to be coping just fine but are diagnosed as having "compulsive buying and shopping disorders," and you see the fault lines in a society straining under the weight of its own material success.

The symposium asked: "What is going on here? How did we get this way? And what can be done about it?"

Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of the Neuropsychiatric Institute, opened the proceedings by saying: "This is a story about all of us." He pointed out that humanity evolved in frugal circumstances, and that only very recently have some societies developed such material affluence. In these countries "an ongoing experiment" is taking place. We are finding out to what extend our genetically-based physiology can adapt to a social environment whose complexity is increasing faster than ever in history.

The theme of our long evolutionary past was later picked up by Dr. Roderic Gorney who pointed to the development of agriculture as the turning point in our social evolution. He argued that prior to that, for 3 million years, cooperation had been the keynote of human existence. He said that at the level of the small group we are predisposed to help one another because survival depends upon it. Darwin’s later writings apparently dwelt on this theme. Our nomadic hunting-and-gathering ancestors survived by cooperation and had no means of storing wealth.

All that changed, according to Dr. Gorney, just 12,000 years ago when agriculture made it possible both to remain in one location for extended periods of time and to generate more vital supplies than one could actually use in the short term. With this change other human beings, who had once been our partners in the cooperative struggle for survival, came to be seen as merely "cheap labor."

In his work as a therapist Dr. Gorney now treats those whose constant pursuit of tangible things exceeds the norms of this affluent society. One such person at the conference acknowledged having recently bought a third car, a Volvo station wagon. "I told myself I would use it to haul around my dog and my family. Except, I don’t have a family and the dog died." Transparent as this rationalization may be, Dr. Gorney reported numerous cases employing only slightly less outlandish reasons for excessive buying.

Though Dr. Gorney voiced some thoughts about why one person might become more compelled that the next to shop endlessly, his diagnosis ultimately pertained more to the society as a whole than to individuals: in affluent consumer-driven societies, people simply want more than is good for them. He concluded, "In treating this disorder we have stumbled on what is wrong with the world."

The antidote to all this, as advocated by the remaining speakers, is voluntary simplicity. They were quick to assure the audience that the kind of simplicity they advocate is not just the painful renunciation of desired objects but rather a matter of "liberation from working too much, spending too much, and rushing too much." Dr. Cecile Andrews defined simplicity as a critical thinking process, a life in which one reflects upon the consequences of behaviors on oneself, society and the planet. She argued that such awareness — and the simplicity it engenders — produces an entirely new notion of happiness.

The voluntary organization Seeds of Simplicity (http://www.seedsofsimplicity.org) works to connect people to "simplicity circles" and provides support through various publications. Evidence that the movement is gaining momentum is found in its efforts to reach out to a broader circle of participants. In the summer of 2004, PBS, the only non-commercial television network in the US, will air a seven-part series, "Simple Living with Wanda Urbansky." Then on October 24, the movement will celebrate "Take-Back-Your-Time Day." This is the day when, if Americans were to stop working for the rest of the year, they would have worked an average the same amount as their European counterparts do in an entire year. The point is to emphasize how overwork — in the form of minimal vacations and routine overtime — has become the norm for Americans. On this day the public will be invited to reflect on the toll of such excess and the possibility of simplifying.

One person whose life was transformed by adopting a simpler lifestyle was an emergency-room doctor attending the conference. Six months ago she realized her life was not working out as she had once hoped; she saw that she was saving nothing for the future and not actually having any real fun in the present. Gradually she began to reorient her priorities towards simplicity and stopped working double shifts to pay for the extravagant lifestyle she had developed. Now she has a garden behind her more modest apartment and is getting back to playing the musical instrument that gave her great pleasure as a child. In her words, "Embracing simplicity is a move away from external, superficial to internal, essential…Enough is better than more."

Reprinted with permission from Share International, Vol. 23 No. 3, April 2004. Contact www.share-international.org for more information.