For most people in the Western world today, seeking out some degree of happiness in life is a major life goal. For those seeking happiness, simple living is often promoted as a way to achieve happiness, or at least to achieve a level of contentment from which happiness and joy can bubble up.
Why is that leap made, though? Why is simple living considered to be a path to happiness?
Simple Living Allows One to Work Less and Thus Enjoy More Leisure
This one’s simple: If you’re frugal, you have less need for money. If you have less need for money, you have less need for work (particularly stressful work). The less you have to work, the more time you have for leisure. This, of course, assumes that leisure brings more happiness than work, but obviously a person can choose to work if they don’t need money. If you’re financially set, you can choose to work if that’s what you enjoy doing the most.
The reason this idea is so satisfying is that almost everyone inherently understands and agrees that, at the very least, leisure in moderation is enjoyable and brings happiness, while the connection between work and joy is much more debatable. A compulsion to work is seen as a bad thing by many, though hard work itself is usually seen as a virtue because someone is doing something that they might not enjoy in order to reap rewards of some kind.
Over at nj.com they tend to think of leisure as a “recharging of my batteries” or, sometimes, a way to reflect. Good leisure (for me) involves some sort of mental or physical challenge of my own choosing, like solving a puzzle of some kind or doing something that requires energy. To me, this is a vital component of life, one that I make time for, and one that I wish I could make more time for, though I would not want it to be all of my life.
Individuals often have little choice in how hard they work, as it is dictated by other needs and goals and circumstances. While this is undoubtedly true, a lot of our sense as to whether work is enjoyable or miserable comes down to what we choose to feel about it and what we choose to look for, which is one of the most valuable lessons of stoicism. Additionally, work is much less of a curse than it once was, especially in industrial societies. Many of us are able to work in information economy jobs, which do not involve back-breaking labor in the least.
Merely Satisfying Basic Needs Suffices for Happiness
Another principle behind the connection between simple living and happiness is the idea that merely satisfying one’s basic needs is all that’s needed for happiness. As long as your true basic needs are met – food, water, basic clothing, basic shelter — you have all you need to be happy.
This is an argument often used by Stoics and Epicureans, as well as Henry David Thoreau and (to a lesser extent) Ralph Waldo Emerson. They all argue that core necessary elements for a satisfactory life, one that can offer significant happiness, are quite minimal.
How minimal, though? What is the minimal satisfaction of one’s needs that can provide for personal happiness? It’s a question debated throughout history and one that’s of particular interest today, as most of modern society seems to be based on the idea that one needs quite a lot of things in order to be happy. Can one achieve happiness without a cell phone? Without electricity? Without a car? Without running water?
Living Frugally Prepares One for Tough Times
Another reason that frugality and simple living can make us happier is that it helps us handle tough times much easier, for several reasons pointed out here. For starters, it requires much less to maintain a simple life — you don’t need the resources of an high-salary stressful job to keep the ball rolling. At the same time, living simply and frugally often goes hand in hand with building a financial safety net — if you’re spending less than you earn, you’ve got to be doing something with that excess, and almost anything you might do secures whatever may come in your life.
Boethius, a Roman philosopher, argued that happiness depends almost entirely on one’s inner state not their external circumstances. A happy person can find happiness with almost nothing. An unhappy person can be unhappy with everything they might ever desire. In other words, it’s about what’s inside of you rather than what’s outside of you.
Still, it remains a good idea to prepare for adversity, and living a simpler life is just one route to that. Other tactics that work include having a 401(k)/Roth IRA, having insurance, having an emergency fund, and having a strong social network. Of course, when adversity strikes, dealing with it cheerfully is almost always a good approach, one that can be practiced by handling minor setbacks with good cheer rather than anger and resentment.
Simple Living Promotes Good Health
Another argument that simple living makes us happier comes from the connection between simple living and good health. Many of the elements defined as “simple living” in the West correlate well with elements of health: fresh clean air, fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of outdoor exercise, and so on. At the same time, many of the elements of modern life that are far from simple living tend to be emblematic of poor health: pollution, excessive noise, fast food, extreme stress, tight schedules, and so on.
It’s worth noting that until very recent history, living in a rural setting away from communities was fairly dangerous. Humans had to be very careful around the natural world because we didn’t have remedies or easy medical treatment for things like snake bites and couldn’t rescue people from falling into a ravine, for example.
Today, healthy options for living are available to both the rich and the poor. Virtually everyone in the West has access to clean water and healthy food options and access to nature and so on. The biggest difference is in education and whether people choose to access the options available to them or take an easier road, such as the choice between convenient food or inexpensive and healthy options.
Simple Living Promotes Serenity Through Detachment
The choice to intentionally live your life in a simpler fashion with fewer possessions means that you have fewer things to worry about, and happiness is found in your peace of mind and low stress.
The thing is, serenity actually isn’t a common life goal in the modern world. There’s undoubtedly a good connection between simple living and serenity, but serenity isn’t something that people commonly aim for in their life.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist. Many groups and philosophies and religious traditions view a quiet mind as part of the path to enlightenment and happiness. I’m particularly reminded here of Buddhism’s four noble truths and the eight-fold path, a concept I discussed and applied to personal finance and modern life a while back. It centers around the idea that things in life are impermanent, particularly distressing and painful things, and that one can find clarity on the journey and on the other side.
Simple Living Enhances One’s Capacity for Pleasure
People tend to appreciate luxuries more when they are fairly rare, as in the idea of keeping trips to the ice cream shop as a “treat” rather than as the norm. This doesn’t have to mean expensive luxuries — think about how good your ordinary bed feels after a long, hard day. You appreciate your bed more after a long hard day than after an ordinary day, right? That’s because the exceptionally hard days are rare, and those are the ones that create more appreciation for a comfortable bed.
Of course, there are times when “rough living” is enjoyable. I enjoy camping — it’s a wonderful experience, but it unquestionably takes away a lot of the conveniences of being at home. Why? To an extent, this is because camping makes “rough living” into a novelty, one that I know I can leave when I want.
The thing is, such an attitude naturally encourages appreciation of the infinite wonders of everyday life. If you’re not constantly chasing the “ultimate” experience in some narrow niche and throwing a lot of money at it, you leave yourself a lot of mental room to appreciate simple things like a cold glass of water with lemon in it or soft grass under your feet or sunshine on your shoulders or a well-timed joke from your wife or a good book from the library.