Less can be More

Greetings all, several people have asked me to write a short ‘press release’ summarising the key findings of the recent Simplicity Institute Report. The aim is to make it easy for those people who wish to post a link to the study on their websites, etc. I hope the following statement is of some use. Please feel free to amend it as you see fit.


We live in an age that faces many great problems, ranging from ecological overshoot, poverty, overpopulation, limits to economic growth, peak oil, and widespread consumer dissatisfaction. Promisingly, however, there is a quietly emerging social movement that provides a remarkably coherent and attractive lifestyle response to these and other contemporary challenges.

The Voluntary Simplicity Movement is a diverse social movement made up of people who are resisting high consumption lifestyles and who are seeking, in various ways, a lower consumption but higher quality of life alternative. By limiting their working hours, spending their money frugally and conscientiously, growing their own vegetables, riding bikes, rejecting high-fashion, and generally celebrating life outside the shopping mall, these people are new pioneers transitioning to a way of life beyond consumer culture.

The Simplicity Institute recently launched a multi-national online survey for the purpose of gaining empirical insight into this ‘post-consumerist’ social movement. Presently 1748 participants in the movement have completed the 50-question survey and that makes it the most extensive sociological examination of the movement available.

The results of the study are both fascinating and potentially important, as they offer a deep empirical insight into a social movement that is rethinking the question of how much money and how much stuff is ‘enough’ to live well. Some of the central findings of the study include:

  • In the developed world the Voluntary Simplicity Movement is comprised of approximately 200 million people exploring ‘simpler lifestyles’ of reduced or restrained income and consumption.
  • 87% of those who voluntarily choose to live more simply are happier for making the change, despite having less income. This suggests that reducing the environmental impact of our consumption habits may be in our own immediate self-interest as well as the planet’s interest. It also shows that there is a viable and desirable alternative to high consumption lifestyles.
  • There is an emerging ‘group consciousness’ and political sensibility within the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, with 89% of participants stating that they would vote for a political party dedicated to promoting ‘simpler lifestyles.’ This suggests that the movement may become an important political force in the future.

The Simplicity Institute Report looks deeply into these and other research findings. The results of the study are freely available for download here.

4 Responses to “Less can be More”

  1. Mike Yates says:

    Having just now stumbled on your website, I am impressed with the numbers of people who belong to this movement.
    I have been voluntarily living a simple life for over thirty years. There are many benefits and joys to simplicity as well as the knowlege that you are contributing very little to an ecological footprint. Since I installed a satelite internet system four years ago,I have been closely following the peak oil and climate change situations. Simple life styles are going to be “all the rage” very soon, but i’m afraid it is not going to be voluntary for most folks. There is much to (re)learn about what is today a lost art – simple living.
    Not many years ago, within my lifetime, it was called “simply living”, as in those days, here in the (developed?) western world, most of us were country folk. Those “old fasioned” skills are going to not only be in demand – but quite necessary for our survival!
    carpe diem,
    Mike(griz) Yates

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree entirely that there is going to come a time, sooner than most people think, when living simpler lives of reduced consumption is going to be a biophysical necessity. Already the ecological limits of the planet are being pushed to breaking point, and by 2050 there are going to be another 2 billion people on the planet. On top of this, nations like China, India, and Brazil are growing at incredible rates, meaning that the global consumer class is expanding fast. And then there is peak oil and climate change, perhaps the two greatest challenges humankind has ever faced. (Last night I drafted a post on peak oil which I will publish online in a couple of days).

    So yes, simpler lifestyles are indeed going to become a necessity. But clearly, when we look around the developed regions of the world today, simpler lifestyles have not been mainstreamed, yet. Therefore, there is still time to choose simpler lifestyles, before it is imposed upon us. In pessimistic moments, I feel that the transition toward simplicity will never occur until it is enforced by biophysical limits. In more optimistic moments, I feel that if more people broaden their imaginations and take the idea of simplicity seriously, then there is still time for a voluntary transition to take place. What is perfectly clear is that a voluntary transition is the preferable path to follow. And since it is in people’s interest to embrace simplicity, I hold onto some glimmer of hope that a voluntary transition is still possible, if not probable.

  3. Dash says:

    Hi Again,

    Well done on getting some data from your survey. Putting numbers around an issues is always a starting point for good analysis. Personally I’m not crazy about surveys, because they based on untested statements but have to start some place.

    I think there are a couple of issues that I think should be pointed out. It is not totally kosher to represent a figure of 200 million people supporting voluntary simplicity as finding of the survey. You come up with this number using information independent of your survey so it is not right to represent it as a finding of the survey.

    I don’t have access to the surveys you have used to come up with this so I can’t comment intelligently on them. I will unintelligently say that the number seems a little bit high. Even more so if you want to pair it with the 89% who responded they would vote for a simplicity politician which would equate to 17% of a vote.

    Your figure of 87% say people who downshift are happy that they did is a bit misleading. Asking if people are happy about their current choice, one which they can change any time they wish, won’t lead to much insight. It would be like a restaurant owner asking a regular customer if they are happy with the food. Since the customer keeps coming back it should come as no surprise if most if not all are happy.

    This is the biggest issue with not so much the numbers in your survey, but what claims those numbers are capable of supporting. You are only surveying those that have chosen to and continue to live simply. You have induced what is called sample bias. You can talk about simple livers and how they feel about things, but you can’t make inferences of the population as a whole.

    Best of Luck.

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Dash,

    Thanks for your comments. There are certainly limits to survey analyses, but I feel that if we want to learn about human beings, asking them about their lives is one way, among others, for gaining knowledge and insight.

    Your comments on the survey are well made, but they have responses. I feel the main problem is that you seem to have expected nuanced and detailed expressions in a one-page press release. But since not everyone will read the study, I should respond to your comments here:

    First, the estimate of 200 million was not represented in the survey itself as a finding of the survey, but an extrapolation of other studies in various countries (U.S., U.K, and Australia). No one, as far as I know, had attempted to estimate, on empirical grounds, the size of the movement globally. Therefore, it was an original and, in my view, interesting analytical finding of the study. The studies upon which we based that estimate used samples of population wide data. The results may surprise, but that’s where the data led us.

    Second, in the study we make it very clear that the 87% of those who are happier with their choice to downshift was limited to those who had taken the survey. Nevertheless, the results are still suggestive for a wider population. Part of our reason for undertaking the survey was to show people that there is an alternative to mainstream consumption habits.

    As for your comment about the ‘sample bias,’ we anticipated this in the study in several places and responded to it. Again, our study only makes claims about the sample we studied, but we used that sample to make inferences about the Simplicity Movement more generally. This is what social scientists do. No one can ‘prove’ anything applying the methods of social science, but that would be to set too high a standard.

    There is more to say on these matters, but for now I’m late for work. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  5. […] happier – According to studies, around 87 percent of those who own less stuff than before report themselves as feeling […]

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