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The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” [Hans Hoffman].

Recently MSNBC has begun a “Back to Basics” series outlining a material conservatism paralleling the fiscal conservatism that we currently see in our economy. Websites such as “Cult of Less,” blogs like Leo Babauta’s mnmlist, and posts on his Zen Habits blog point to a movement underway, a pendulum shift from the more is better mentality that led in part to the financial crisis in which we’re now embroiled. A parallel to this shift in consciousness has manifested in the “tiny” movement, in small houses that are under 500 square feet built only to house what we truly need. Less space mandates by force that we reexamine what is important, as in the case of an apartment owner in HongKong, who ingeniously crafted his cramped quarters into a multifunctional living space. Despite this trend however, the nightly news reported that one in ten people rents storage.

Is greater material success simply a road to more that goes nowhere? It’s at the point where we no longer have to struggle financially, when money is no longer an issue that we are confronted with who we are, and when we have time to contemplate the composition of our character. For the majority, this watershed doesn’t happen until we have reached retirement age, when we have both the wisdom and maturity to reflect on our lives in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us. Those who have attained a life time of riches at a tender age are faced with self-examination at a time when they are neither prepared nor capable of processing the information in their soul’s core. This may be why some who presumably have everything self-destruct, because they have peered into the reaches of their personality and they are unhappy with what they see. We witness their attempts to self medicate through alcohol, drugs, deviant behavior (e.g., petty crime), and in some cases errors of morality. 

If winning the lottery is presumed to be such a positive, consider speeches on why winning is bad luck, and, how some lottery recipients either squandered or were cheated out of their winnings (only to return to the same base level of happiness that they possessed before their windfall). They learn the hard way that things, no matter how grandiose, tasty, or expensive do not nourish our spirit, and that they may in fact lead to consumptive errors (gluttony), excess, and to a feeling that is 180 degrees away from where they wished to be. Todd Chappell, author of “The Soul of a Business,” notes this same feeling of emptiness when he looked at his large house, his thriving business, and his so-called “perfect” life. It was at this point when he enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, incorporating many of the spiritual principles he learned back into the way he subsequently ran his business – Tom’s of Maine.

Interestingly, “New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences” as opposed to material wealth. Studies have indeed shown that it’s social support (and not material things) that acts as a buffer against stress. Individuals who give away most of what they have to regroup and lead simpler lives report more free time to devote to volunteer work, to helping others, and to other activities that provide true meaning in their lives. Perhaps living with less then enables us to have more, and to better appreciate our role in connection with nature, our family, and with other people. Today, consider the following:

  1. Does the support of your current lifestyle have you on a treadmill of achievement that provides time for little else?
  2. Do you find yourself buying aimlessly (because you can), and deriving diminishing returns from your purchases?  

  3. Is going out to eat high on your agenda, when you could eat less expensively at home?  

  4. Do you feel impounded by your possessions, and does the thought of accounting for them overwhelm you?
  5. Does time with your family and friends suffer because you are busy working, rather than enjoying their company?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, perhaps a focus on family (as opposed to what is outside of yourself) is warranted. In the final analysis, we are left with only two things: the heirloom of those who loved us, and the legacy of those who benefitted from the love we shared.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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