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Self-Cultivation and the Art of Voluntary Simplicity

Consumption is a proper subject of ethical concern primarily for the following three reasons: (1) the planet’s resources are being consumed at an unsustainable rate, and this is placing in jeopardy the future of life as we know it, with potentially catastrophic consequences; (2) a small percentage of the world’s population live in relative comfort and luxury while great multitudes live in material destitution, and this raises the question of whether members of the global consumer class should be consuming less; and (3) there is mounting evidence suggesting that consumer societies are actually consuming in ways that do not maximize their own wellbeing, meaning that there could well be room for increasing quality of life by reducing consumption. For these reasons, this post proposes that transforming one’s practices of consumption is an increasingly important mode of self-cultivation, especially in overconsuming societies. The theory and practice of voluntary simplicity is the framework within which this ethics of sustainable consumption will be presented.

The following sections outline several ‘techniques of the self’ that may provide a useful starting point for actually practicing voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity, as readers of this website know very well, refers to an oppositional living strategy with which people seek an increased quality of life through a reduction and restraint of one’s level of consumption. This way of life generally involves providing for material needs as simply and self-sufficiently as possible, minimizing expenditure on consumer goods and services, and directing progressively more time and energy toward non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. In the context of overconsuming societies, adopting lifestyles of voluntary simplicity arguably provides a remarkably coherent philosophy of life with which to respond to the three problems stated above – ecological degradation, poverty amidst plenty, and consumer malaise.

Nevertheless, consumer societies are the very ones that relentlessly encourage ever-higher levels of consumption, and most of us probably internalize that message to some degree. If it is the case, however, that the escalation and expansion of consumer lifestyles is driving several of the world’s most pressing problems, then it may be that ethical activity today requires that we engage the self by the self for the purpose of refusing who are – so far as we have been socially conditioned to be uncritical consumers – and such a ‘refusal’ would be the first step toward creating new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity. This attempt to live simply in a consumer culture should not be conceived of as something that has a destination, however; instead, it should be conceived of as an ongoing creative process. From this perspective, resistance to consumerism begins within the self, not beyond it.

The following ten techniques have been developed to outline ways of overcoming aspects of our identities, behaviors, and perspectives that may have been shaped, deliberately or by accident, by contemporary consumer societies. The aim of these techniques is to transcend, through self-cultivation, the subjectivities that have been imposed upon us by consumer societies and to create something new. It is important to note, however, that voluntary simplicity does not have anything to say about what form that ‘new self’ will ultimately take; rather, the purpose is to help break the consumerist mould of the ‘existing self’ so that new, post-consumerist forms of subjectivity can emerge.

 

1. Read about Consumerism and Voluntary Simplicity

The importance of reading about consumerism, to begin with, lies in the fact that many of the mechanisms of consumer society are not obvious and, for that reason, can escape our notice. But if those mechanisms are not recognized or understood, they obviously cannot be resisted. Consequently, we can find ourselves shaped by those mechanisms in insidious ways. For example, the complex concept ‘hedonic adaptation’[1] holds that once human beings have their basic material needs satisfied, further increases in material wealth can have short-term influences on happiness (the so-called ‘consumer buzz,’ of which we may be all aware), but little or no long-term influence on happiness (a phenomenon which may be much less obvious). That is, once human beings attain a modest material standard of living, evidence suggests that we end up ‘adapting’ to further increases in material wealth, which means that people typically find themselves no better off than when they were less wealthy. If this is so, and there is considerable evidential support for this phenomenon,[2] then this should affect the way we shape our lives, especially with respect to our pursuit of consumption. We might decide, for example, that if the pursuit of increased material wealth is unlikely to provide long-term satisfaction then that pursuit should not be the focus of our lives. But if we do not know about the process of ‘hedonic adaptation,’ then we cannot plan our lives with the aim of avoiding consumption that is wasteful from the perspective of happiness.

A second example of the subtle workings of consumerism – from the many to choose from – is known as the ‘Diderot Effect’ (named after the philosopher Denniss Diderot who was the first to write about the phenomenon).[3] The ‘Diderot Effect’ refers to how one consumer purchase can induce the desire for other purchases, which can induce further desires, and so on. The purchase of some new shoes looks out of place without a new outfit to match; a new car looks out of place parked in front of a shabby old house; painting the lounge can make the kitchen look even older; and replacing the sofas tempts one to replace the chairs too. This striving for uniformity in our standards of consumption is known as ‘the Diderot Effect,’ and it can function to lock us onto a consumerist treadmill that has no end and attains no lasting satisfaction. But if we are aware of this phenomenon, we can take steps to resist it, by foregoing the initial upgrading and thereby stepping off the consumerist treadmill. We can then do something else with our lives – something more ambitious, perhaps, than making sure our carpet matches our walls.

The point of these two examples is to show how consumerism can often lock us into practices of consumption that are wasteful of our time and energy (to say nothing of the waste of resources they entail). By dedicating some of our attention to the study of consumerism, however, we may deepen our insight into the world, and our lives, and this may well assist us in escaping consumerism and in the planning and creation of new, post-consumerist forms of life. By deepening our understanding of consumption and its effects, that is, we may find ourselves better able to live lives of what David Shi called, ‘enlightened material restraint.’[4]

As well as reading about consumerism, it is suggested that there is also great value in reading widely about voluntary simplicity. For those of us who have been educated into a consumerist form of life, within a consumerist society, it can be very difficult indeed to imagine that alternative forms of life exist.[5] In fact, so entrenched can we become in the consumerist form of life that we can resemble the fish that does not know it is in water. That is, we may not even recognize consumerism as consumerism – as one form of life among others – but assume instead that it is ‘just the way the world is.’ By reading about alternatives like voluntary simplicity, however, we can unsettle this assumption and expand our imaginations, and hopefully come to see that we have a choice in the way we live. We can change our lives, and perhaps begin changing the world, by changing our minds. Not only that, reading about voluntary simplicity can be self-fulfilling in that it can affirm and support the transition to a post-consumerist life. This is but an inflection of the old adage that what we give our attention to, we become. The choice, it would seem, is ours.

 

2. Keep Precise Financial Accounts and Reflect on Them

Although practicing voluntary simplicity is much more than just being frugal with money and spending less – it is also a state of mind – spending wisely does play an important role. In Your Money or Your Life[6] – a prominent text in the literature on voluntary simplicity – Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin provide elaborate financial exercises for readers to undertake which seek to provoke reflection on the real value of money and the true cost of things. Such exercises may sound mundane and a bit pointless – everybody assumes they are careful, rational spenders – but if the exercises are carried out with precision the results may well surprise, even shock. One might find that seemingly little purchases add up to an inordinate amount over a whole year, or over ten years, which may raise new and important questions about whether the money might have been better spent elsewhere, not at all, or exchanged for more time by working less. The aim of such exercises is not to create tightwads, but smart consumers who are conscious of the full cost of their purchases, all things considered. After all, as Henry Thoreau insisted, ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.’[7] When exploring voluntary simplicity in this light, one might well find that some reductions and changes to spending habits, rather than inducing any sense of deprivation, will instead be life affirming. Furthermore, it is often said that how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world. Clearly, then, our relationship to money is an area that deserves close attention, for if we do not have a precise understanding of how we are spending our money, we can find ourselves misspending our money and thus our lives. Through the ‘technique’ of keeping precise accounts of our income and expenditure, however, we can bring this issue to the forefront of our attention and allow us to better negotiate a fulfilling and meaningful life in a market society.

 

3. Cultivate Non-Materialistic Sources of Satisfaction and Meaning

Voluntary simplicity, it could be said, is about progressively directing increasing amounts of one’s attention away from the materialistic side of life toward the non-materialistic side. But cultivating a deep appreciation of non-materialistic goods often requires a certain degree of training. This training can be conceived of as an investment, of sorts, in the sense that effort expended in the early stages of development are justified on the basis that they will have positive, long-term impacts on one’s life (and perhaps positive, short-term impacts also). Learning to play a musical instrument, for example – say, the cello – may require some investment in this sense before one can appreciate the joy of performance or the profound beauty that can emanate from a cello in the hands of a competent cellist. But once that degree of competency has been attained, the non-materialistic satisfaction that can flow from playing a musical instrument is essentially limitless, and perhaps, one might even say, infinite. Another example might be reading. The more one reads, the better one gets at reading (in the sense of reading more deeply). But once a certain degree of competency has been attained, books have the potential to provide us with an inexhaustible source of non-materialistic wealth, all the better for the fact that a book itself – which is, of course, a material object – can be shared or ‘consumed’ without limiting its non-materialistic re-consumption by oneself or another, again and again. The point of this technique, once more, is to deliberately cultivate satisfaction and meaning in life through non-materialistic pursuits, rather than materialistic ones.[8]

 

4. Work on Overcoming Status Anxiety

It is sometimes said that modern consumers spend their lives working jobs they do not like, to buy things they do not need, so that they can impress people they do not like. Whether this is an exaggeration or not is less important than the issue it raises about what motivates our consumption – in particular, the issue of whether or to what extent we consume for the purpose of seeking or maintaining social status.[9] There is in fact considerable evidence to suggest that status seeking and social positioning is highly relevant to consumption practices, especially in consumer societies.[10] But there are at least two problems with this approach to consumption: firstly, social positioning through consumption is a zero-sum game, in the sense that when one person’s social status is increased, someone else’s must have relatively decreased, meaning that overall social satisfaction is unlikely to change; secondly, a strong argument can be made that, ultimately, it is much more important that we have the respect of ourselves rather than the respect of others, especially since the former is within our control, and the latter is much less so. Accordingly, if we choose to care about what others think of us – and it is a choice, although it may sometimes be a difficult choice – we are giving up some of our freedom to define our lives on our own terms. It can be argued, therefore, that practicing voluntary simplicity implies cultivating an indifference to social status, which would involve constantly thinking about what is truly valuable in life and recognizing, perhaps, that it is more important to shape one’s life for the purposes of gaining self-respect than for the purpose of seeking the respect of others. After all, if one merely seeks the respect of others, one might come to the end of life and have succeeded in attaining that respect, but have little respect for oneself. A case can be made that such a life would not be a successful life.

 

5. Regularly Undertake the ‘Deathbed Experiment’

The ‘Deathbed Experiment,’ so-called, is a technique of the self (popular among the Stoics) that can assist in the evaluation of what is most important in life, including how important money, possessions, and status are to a well-lived life. The thought experiment can be expressed in the following terms: Imagine you are on your deathbed and someone asks you about which attitudes defined your life. What would you want to be able to say? The Stoics argued that this type of thought experiment is important for at least two reasons: first, because the technique of trying to look back on life from the vantage point of our life’s end can help us prioritize our time and attention today as effectively as possible; and second, it can help us accept without complaint those things we cannot change and prompt us to set about changing those things we can.

Taken seriously – and it ought to be taken seriously or not at all – the Deathbed Experiment can provoke us to reflect on life’s ‘big picture’ and what role our attitudes have in shaping it. In particular, the experiment potentially has great relevance to the idea of voluntary simplicity because it has implications on how we value money, possessions, and status. That is, it raises the question of what attitudes we will have toward these things on our deathbed. The purpose of considering this issue prior to lying on one’s deathbed is so that our conclusions shape our thoughts and actions today in the hope of avoiding regrets in the future.

One might suppose, for example, that a person on their actual deathbed rarely says, ‘I wish I had spent more of my life working to pay for more consumer goods.’ More likely, perhaps, at least in consumer societies, is that a person might come to the end of their life and have some regrets about dedicating too much of their time and energy toward materialistic pursuits, at the expense of various non-materialistic goods, such as time with friends and family, or time to engage in creative activity or community engagement. In short, the Deathbed Experiment is a tool or technique that can be used (repeatedly) to avoid the regrets of overconsumption. To paraphrase Henry Thoreau, we should aim to live what is life, so that we do not, when we come to die, discover that we had not really lived.[11]

 

6. Acknowledge Freedom by Imagining Hypothetical Lives

Freedom, as the existentialists often insisted, can be terrifying. Freedom can be so terrifying, in fact, that we can sometimes pretend that we are bound by circumstances to live the life we are currently living when, in fact, we are really just avoiding having to deal with the reality of our own freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre called this living in ‘bad faith.’[12] For those brave enough to face their own freedom, however, the technique of imagining hypothetical lives can be a useful means, not only of highlighting one’s freedom, but also of actually expanding it. This technique involves imagining various alternative futures for your life, futures that depend merely on an act of will to initiate. Imagine, for example, radically changing careers, or deciding to dedicate your life to this or that burning passion – imagine it seriously. Imagine also, perhaps, living a radically simpler life. What would life be like? What could life be like? How could we get there?

It may be, of course, that the life one is currently living is the best life, the freest life, the most fulfilling life – in which case the alternative lives imagined need not be pursued. But by imagining alternative lives, we can become more aware of the nature and extent of our own freedom. Perhaps, as Michel Foucault suggested, we may discover that we are freer than we think we are.

 

7. Practice Negative Visualisation

Negative visualization refers to imagining bad things happening in your life for the purpose of preparing yourself emotionally when, as inevitably happens, something bad does actually happen. Of course, negative visualization may also help us avoid those bad things happening in the first place, which provides further justification for this technique. But human life is such that bad things sometimes occur that are entirely out of our control. If we are mentally prepared for such occurrences, they will never be as bad as when they strike us out of the blue.

With respect to voluntary simplicity, it can be helpful to imagine losing our entire life savings, or losing our home in a fire, or coming home one day and discovering we have been robbed of our most prized possession. By imagining such events and considering the various ways we could respond to them, we are more likely to respond effectively should they ever occur. We would be more likely, for example, to say to ourselves, ‘how best can I live my life from now on, given these circumstances?’

Negative visualization is a central ‘technique’ of Stoicism.[13] The Stoics argued that it is not events that hurt us; rather, we are hurt by the interpretations we give to those events. This is important because, while we are not always in control of the events in our life, we are in control of the interpretations we give those events. For example, continuing the above hypothetical, suppose we arrive home one day and discover we have been robbed of our most prized possession. This event can be ‘dealt with,’ from an interpretive perspective, in various ways. One response is to become angry, sad, or spiteful, but they are not pleasant or desirable emotions, so responding with anger, sadness, or spite generally makes a bad situation worse. Another way to respond, however, would be to show gratitude that our prized possession enriched our life for as long as it did; another response again would be recognize that there are many people around the world who have almost nothing, and this can make it seem rather perverse to bemoan the loss of our prized, but superfluous, possession. The point is that the same ‘event’ can impact on one’s life in various ways depending the ‘attitude’ with which we choose to deal with it. Again, the event is out of our control, but the attitude is not. To draw once more upon Nietzsche – a Stoic in his own way – we should live in the spirit of amor fati and ‘love thy fate.’[14]

 

8. Anticipate and Avoid Consumer Temptations and Seductions

Everybody in consumer societies has probably had the experience of walking though a mall, or watching a television advertisement, only to discover that such experiences can give birth to new, artificially imposed, consumer desires. We may not have even known that some product existed, but after being exposed to it through sophisticated marketing techniques, we find ourselves wanting it – needing it. Not only that, just knowing about the new product can make the things we currently own seem a bit old and dated, even though, prior to discovering the new product, our current possessions were a source of satisfaction. Those same possessions can become a source of dissatisfaction.

Within consumer societies people can be exposed to as many as 3,000 adverts each day,[15] and the message implicit to every ad is that our lives are not good enough as they are, and that our lives can be improved if only we buy this or that product. It seems we are easily persuaded. But we need not be passive pawns in this game. If we come to accept that marketing and advertisements can seduce us ever-deeper into consumerist practices, then one ‘technique’ for escaping those practices is simply to anticipate and avoid as many consumer temptations and seductions as possible. For example: do not go to the mall; do not read unsolicited junk mail or glossy magazines filled with ads; watch as little television as possible, etc. By regulating as far as possible what our minds are exposed to, we can change the nature of our socially constructed minds and thus our lives. If we give too much of our attention to consumer products, however, we, ourselves, might become the product.

 

9. Keep a Journal

As noted above, one of the greatest legacies of Stoicism is the idea that, while we may not always be in control of the events that happen in our lives, we are ultimately in control of the ways in which we respond to those events. But although we may be in ultimate control our responses, sometimes we do not always respond how we would have liked, and sometimes our responses can become habitual rather than considered or deliberate, at which time our freedom, our power, to respond as we wish seemingly diminishes. Keeping a journal is a good way of having a conversation with oneself about the happenings of the day. By reflecting on one’s actions and taking a few moments to reflect upon one’s responses to events, one becomes better able to negotiate life in the future and respond in the most fruitful ways. If one does not reflect in this way, the same mistakes can occur over and over again, and self-development essentially comes to a halt. Having a regular conversation with oneself through the keeping of journal is likely to help us in all areas of life, but in consumer societies, it may be a particularly useful practice with respect to consumption. By critically reflecting on a regular basis upon our consumer purchases, consumer motivations, consumer insecurities, consumer expectations, consumer desires, etc. we are likely to become more conscious of the forces external to ourselves that conspire to turn us into mindless dupes who dutifully turn the cogs of the consumerist machine.

 

10. Ask Yourself, ‘How Much is Enough?’

This question is perhaps the central question of voluntary simplicity, and it is suggested that any attempt to practice voluntary simplicity must involve meditating upon it with exceptional dedication. As it happens, however, ‘How much is enough?,’ is an extremely unpopular question within consumer societies, as it is widely assumed that ‘more is always better.’[16] But it is a question that is arguably of revolutionary import, for it has the potential to provide the fertile soil for growing a post-consumerist form of life.

This question, however, leads to an unexpected twist in the exploration of voluntary simplicity. We discover that it is impossible to answer the question ‘How much is enough?’ until will have first answered a prior and perhaps even more important question, ‘Enough for what?’ This ‘prior’ question challenges us to specify the point of our consumption, for if we cannot identify its purpose we cannot know if our economic efforts have succeeded. Without some ‘chief end’ in mind to guide and justify our labor, we would merely be running in the ruts or acting for no conscious purpose, like the Brahmin who chained himself for life to the foot of the tree, but could not explain why he did it. The warning here, in effect, is that if we do not have a clear sense of what we are doing with our lives, or why we are heading in one direction rather than another, we will not be able to tell if our attitudes toward material things are keeping us on the right path or leading us astray.

Voluntary simplicity, however, can offer no guidance on the question, ‘Enough for what?’ – which is to say, we must each create as an aesthetic project the meaning of our own lives. The ethics of consumption explored herein merely insists that we must face this question when shaping our attitudes toward money and material things. Once we have developed some answer to that question, however, then we are in a much better position to answer the question, ‘How much is enough?’[17] Many participants in the Voluntary Simplicity Movement are discovering that much less is needed than was previously thought, and perhaps, one might hope, others will come to realize that they, too, are freer than they think they are.[18] By needing less, people may come to realize that they would not need to work so much to provide for themselves, and it is hoped that the ten ‘techniques of the self’ presented above, if practiced seriously, might assist in that realization. Liberated from the limitless pursuit of more consumption and the endless labor that it demands, post-consumers are then free to set about doing something else with their lives.

Trying to understand what that ‘something else’ should be may well be the most exhilarating struggle we ever find ourselves engaged in.

 



[1] See, e.g., Shane Frederick and George Lowaenstein, ‘Hedonic Adaptation,’ in Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener and Norbert Schwarz, Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (1999).

[2] Rafael Di Tella and Robert MaCulloch, ‘Happiness Adaptation to Income Beyond “Basic Needs”‘ in Ed Diener, Daniel Kahneman and John Helliwell (eds), International Differences in Well-Being (2010) 217.

[3] Denniss Diderot, ‘Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown,’ available http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/diderot/1769/regrets.htm.

[4] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (2nd ed, 2007) 131.

[5] See Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (2nd ed, 2002 [1964]).

[6] Joseph Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence (New ed, 1999).

[7] Henry Thoreau, Walden, in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 286.

[8] For an interesting discussion of ‘non-materialistic’ conceptions of the good life, see Kate Soper, ‘Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning’ (2008) 22(5) Cultural Studies 567.

[9] See Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety (2004).

[10] See Richard Layard et al, ‘Does Relative Income Matter? Are the Critics Right?’ in Ed Diener, Daniel Kahneman and John Helliwell (eds), International Differences in Well-Being (2010).

[11] Thoreau, Walden, above n 41, 343.

[12] For a discussion, see David Detmer, Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity (2008).

[13] See William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life (2009) Ch 4.

[14] For a discussion, see Beatrice Han-Pile, ‘Nietzsche and Amor Fati’ 19(2) Journal of European Philosophy, 224.  

[15] John De Graaf et al, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2nd ed, 2005) 160.

[16] See generally, Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005).

[17] See Samuel Alexander, ‘Just Enough is Plenty: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics’ (2011), available for download at www.simplicityinstitute.org/publications.

[18] See Samuel Alexander and Simon Ussher, ‘The Voluntary Simplicity Movement: A Multi-National Survey Analysis in Theoretical Context’ Simplicity Institute Report 2011a, available at www.simplicityinstitute.org/publications.

2 Responses to “Self-Cultivation and the Art of Voluntary Simplicity”

  1. Megan says:

    Wonderfully inspirational advice for our current circumstances Samuel – Thoreau would thoroughly approve! He has been my hero and source of inspiration for many years and I loved your whole section devoted to him. Are there any other members of the Thoreau Society living in Sydney?

  2. Lee says:

    This is an excellent post that I hope to share with many others. Thanks for posting it! It is filled with wonderful insight into how to stand firm while being bombarded with pressure from consumer culture.

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