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Living Simply as a Path to Genuine Wealth

Money provides power in the market – power to purchase and consume desired commodities, whether goods or services. Consumption, by satisfying market preferences, is supposed to lead to well-being. In essence, this is the economic foundation of consumer culture.[1] Its fundamental prescription is that people should seek well-being in higher incomes and more consumption.[2] The problem, however, as Juliet Schor and others have argued, is that the pursuit of income and consumption can easily distract people from what is best in their lives, functioning to lock people into a ‘work-and-spend’ cycle that has no end and attains no lasting satisfaction.[3] Many simplicity theorists argue that if people in affluent societies are prepared to rethink their relationships with money and possessions, they just might be able to free up more time and energy for the pursuit of what truly inspires them and makes them happy, whatever that may be. As Richard Gregg put it, living simply means ‘an ordering and guiding of our energy and desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure a greater abundance of life in other directions.’[4] In this way voluntary simplicity can be seen to offer enhanced meaning and satisfaction in people’s lives. The message, in more technical terms, is that lowering ‘standard of living’ (measured by income/consumption) can actually lead to increased ‘quality of life’ (measured by subjective well-being).[5] It is important to emphasize, however, that this is not just about living a happier or more pleasurable life; it can also be about living more deeply and meaningfully in some existentialist, even spiritual, sense.[6]

I begin with the personal incentives for living simply not because they are the most important, necessarily, but because I believe that if the Simplicity Movement is to expand, it must be shown that living simply does not tend to generate any sense of deprivation, but actually frees people from an insidiously addictive consumerism and an unhealthy relation with money and possessions.[7] Rather than dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of ever-higher levels of income and consumption, simple livers are more likely to have a balanced working life or even work part-time,[8] and they are more likely to seek fulfilling employment and accept a modest income, rather than get too hung about securing the highest income possible.[9] With less time devoted to acquiring expensive commodities, simple livers tend to have more time to spend with friends and family, and more time to spend pursuing their private passions.[10] The point here is that disciplined and enlightened moderation with respect to one’s material life does not tend to give rise to any sense of deprivation or sacrifice, but ultimately gives rise to a happiness, a contentment, and even a freedom significantly greater than that which is ordinarily known in the ‘work-and-spend’ cycle of consumer culture.[11] In short, many people are drawn to voluntary simplicity because they want to escape the vapidity of the rat race and live more with less.[12]


[1] For a critical discussion of the economic theory underpinning consumer culture, see Neva Goodwin, Frank Ackerman and David Kiron (eds), The Consumer Society (1997) 149-228.

[2] The prophet of consumerism, Victor Lebow, once stated: ‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate,’ quoted in Vance Packard, The Waste Makers (1963) 11.

[3] See Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Rev. ed, 1993). See also, Tim Kasser and Allen Kanner (eds), Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World (2003).

[4] See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009), 111-126, 112.

[5] See Philip Cafaro, ‘Less is More’ (2001) 14(1) Global Bioethics 45.

[6] On the spiritual significance of simplicity, see Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? (1st ed, 1976).

[7] See Amitai Etzioni, ‘Voluntary Simplicity: A New Social Movement?’ in William Halal and Kenneth Taylor, Twenty-First Century Economics: Perspectives of Socioeconomics for a Changing World (1999).

[8] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) 156 (reporting that 29 per cent of downshifters surveyed practise voluntary simplicity by reducing their working hours).

[9] Ibid (reporting that 19 percent of downshifters practise voluntary simplicity by changing careers).

[10] Ibid 153 (reporting that 35 percent of downshifters do so because they want to spend more time with family).

[11] Ibid (reporting that 90 per cent of downshifters are happier with their changed lifestyle, despite having reduced income).

[12] See Hélène Cherrier, ‘Drifting away from Excessive Consumption: A New Social Movement based on Identity Construction’ (2002) 29 Advances in Consumer Research 245.

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  1. […] – none of which need to rely on money, or much money.[4] Variously defended by its advocates on personal, social, humanitarian, and ecological grounds, voluntary simplicity is predicated on the assumption […]

  2. […] widely celebrated today in advanced capitalist societies (and increasingly elsewhere). Given the personal, social, humanitarian, and ecological benefits that voluntary simplicity promises, it should be of […]

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