Monday, January 11, 2010

Simplicity is Choice

Ultimately, Voluntary Simplicity is about choice. The word "voluntary" certainly suggests this. For something to be voluntary, you need to be making a choice. People think that Simplicity is about clearing out your clutter, but you must first define clutter. For instance, if you have too many clothes and want to get rid of some of them, you must make a choice, and you must develop criteria: you would want to keep things that fit, or things that you feel good in, or things that serve their purpose — like keep you warm.

We have to make choices in our everyday lives, of course, but these choices are becoming more and more narrow. It's the equivalent of choosing a brand of cereal — there are scads of choices, but the choices are essentially all the same.

In Simplicity, we are making choices in terms of their benefit to the well being of people and the planet. (What other criteria could there be?) In terms of the well being of people, you need a variety of experiences in order to make a choice. That's why we need the stories of people who have gone a different route. We need to know about the people who choose to live on less, who choose to live close to the land, who find enjoyment in community and creativity. If we don't know about them, they can't be part of our choice.

Tonight in our simplicity circle I thought of it another way. We were talking about technology and kids and how they text all the time, no matter what else they're doing. One man said that they don't allow a cell phone to be used in the house. No one can text. You can pick up the land line and call someone, but that's all.

What this father is giving his 12 year old son is a different experience.He can use his phone when he's away from the house, yes.The son is getting two kinds of experience in terms of his cell phone.

You could also say that he is broadening his experience. Essentially, he is giving his son the same experience he had as a boy. That was how most of us lived. We could only call someone on our phone so we probably spent more time with our families. Maybe by giving him the same experience, he is creating a stronger link between the two of them.

It's the same with television. There should be times when there is no television so that we have a different experience. If you don't know about the experience, you can't choose it!

I think we've lost a lot of our sense abilities that we once had. Like how the Polynesians found their way to Hawaii. Who has that navigational sense now? Or our ability to sing in tune or track animals. Or our ability to connect socially. If people don't see others faces or hear their voices (texting), they are missing out on learning to "read" people. They can't pick up the cues.

Or, perhaps texting is a more shallow method of communication. You aren't getting the voice or seeing the smile or hearing the laughter or anger. Will this mean that people's connection to each other is not as deep? Are young people making committments to have life time partners? Or will they stay on the surface. The person immersed in technology may always be looking for the new, new thing — they improved model, so they can never committ.

Maybe what we want is to give young people, actually all people, as many different kinds of experiences as possible so that they can make a richer choice. So, for instance, I wouldn't totally banish a television in the home, but have times when it's not on. For instance, the Sabbath: no interacting with technology. Do as low technology as can. Like orthodox Jews: don't drive, don't do any work, etc. This opens you to other experiences.

So it was a very interesting evening. We went from talking about knowing about the stories of people who choose an unconventional life style to actually giving people an unconventional life style. Our coming down to Palo Alto in the winter isn't really that unconventional, but it isn't exactly conventional, either. It all comes back to Thoreau: "And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow." How do you do that unless you have a variety of experiences?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Social Networks Bring More Simplicity

A new book Connected: The Surprising Poer of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009, Little, Brown, and Co) has some important ideas for social change organizations. Create networks! If you really want to bring about change, don't just send out information in the form of newsletters, web sites, or magazines, create networks! You've probably heard something about the ideas of Christakis and Fowler — the news stories announce the fact that if your friend loses weight, you are more likely to lose weight. If your friend's friend is happy, you are more likely to be happy. In other words, emotions and actions spread. As I've said for many years (I heard it from someone and I like it) we become like the people we hang around. When I was a community college administrator I was a much stuffier person than when I was hanging around with faculty. I always used this as cautionary advice to people, telling them to be careful who they hung around with.

But it's just as important for social groups to understand. If you want people to behave differently, form groups and work with the leaders of the groups. If you want people to be more altruistic, select an altristic person as leader and give him or her information about the importance of altruism. If you want people to act more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, form a group and encourage the members to bring about changes. They are more likely to do this when they talk about the changes in their group than if you just give them their information on an individual basis.

What this says to me is that simplicity circles are very important! People are much more likely to live simply if they are in a simplicity group. Further, the effect will be even wider because each of these people is a member of other groups and they will affect their members.

We've always known that there are certain things that happen more efficiently if people act together. The authors use the example of putting out a fire. If you have people running to a river and carrying back buckets of water to a burning house, they are not as effective as the group that forms a line and passes the water along.

Further, it's clear that cooeration is part of our nature and has resulted at least in part, from evolution. There are just certain things done better if done with others — like fighting wild animals or predatory groups.

But we have forgotten all of this in the US. Our ultra individualistic tendencies have made us ignore the importance of groups. Now happiness research is showing that people who have strong social ties are both happier and healthier. Again, it seems like common sense, but we don't seem to pay attention to things in this culture until the academic researchers pronounce that something is so. The true test is that we must begin to act on this knowldege by not only helping to form social networks but by creating a culture that brings people together. We need more public spaces and festivals as well as shorter working hours and less commuting in private cars. We need to quit encouraging competition and making rich people into celebrities. The best thing we can do is create wealth equality, because inequality encourages people to be out for themselves and to put greed ahead of caring

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Here are a few radio interviews that were very well done by the interviewers:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Savoring: The other side of gratitude

There's a lot of evidence that focusing on gratitude has positive effect on one's well being. And gratitude is important because it's part of reflection, an central ingredient in living life more deliberately. But part of happiness is living consciously, experiencing life deliberately with depth and enjoyment. In this case, savoring is our goal — moving slowly, noticing, and appreciating. One thing that helps is talking to yourself —you can do this silently!— describing to yourself all the positive things going on. So when you're on a walk, instead of being lost in thought, try saying things like "Wow! What a beautiful day! Those flowers are beautiful! That sun feels wonderful." It's even better to do this kind of talk when you're with others. There are so many problems these days that we can fall into the habit of complaining about everything. Sooner or later, this gets old.
So, for increased happiness and health, learn to "savor" your life.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The pain of status: the snotty columnist

The New York Times recently ran a column by a fashion columnist that shows why a country's wealth gap is so harmful. (It's the biggest predictor of longevity. The bigger the gap, the lower our life expectancy. It's not just because the poor bring down the average, the better off don't live as long because the gap destroys social ties. This column illustrates this:
The snotty columnist just drips with elitism as she asks why Penney's was moving into Manhattan instead of staying in the suburbs where it belonged.
Here are some of the quotes from the column:
"Why would this dowdy Middle American entity waddle into Midtown in its big old shorts and flip-flops..."
"A good 96 percent of the Penney’s inventory is made of polyester"
"It took me a long time to find a size 2 among the racks. There are, however, abundant size 10’s, 12’s and 16’s."
" has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on. It’s like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of “Roseanne.”
"The petites section features a bounty of items for women nearly as wide as they are tall;"

Being overweight is very strongly related to income: the lower the income, the more obese. Being obese is hard enough, but having to endure such feelings of disgust and disdain is almost as bad. Feeling respected, appreciated, and recognized is crucial for health and well being. As we can see from this column, you don't get this in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor keeps getting wider and wider.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New book is out! All about Less Is More...

My new book, co-edited with Wanda Urbanska, is now in bookstores and on As always, we'd prefer you buy from a local independent bookstore.

Less Is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, A Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness is a compilation of essays from the leading thinkers of Simplicity and Sustainability for our time, including Bill McKibben, Juliet Schor, Duane Elgin, John de Graaf, Theodore Roszak, David Korten, Jay Walljasper, Sarah Susanka, Bryan Welch and Ernest Callenbach (remember him from Ecotopia days?). It was an amazing experience to work with these brilliant author-philosophers and we feel privileged to be able to bring you their work.

We'll be doing readings on both coasts and I'll try to keep a calendar on this blog of upcoming events. For now, here's some early reviews and comments on Less Is More.

Winston-Salem Journal: "Here is a book with its roots in the earth that can move you to new places, stimulate ideas and encourage change..." Full review here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Simplicity Circle Guide

Simplicity Circle Guide
Assumptions: We think that if we’re rich, we’ll be happy. In truth, after a certain point, more money does not correlate with greater happiness. In fact, it could hinder it, particularly as the income gap grows. (The biggest predictor of the health of a nation, as measured in longevity, is the wealth gap. Even the rich person in this country does not live as long as the average person in Denmark, where the gap is small.)
The biggest contributor to happiness is connection with others, something that has continued to decline.
Our consumerism is destroying the planet: polluting, using up resources, and causing global warming/climate crisis.
Our goal is to create a belief system than moves from “every man for himself” to one in which “we’re all in this together.”
Defining Simplicity:
Simplicity as Clarity: Living an uncluttered life, reducing chaos in terms of things as well as emotions.
Simplicity as True Wealth: Reducing outer wealth so we can increase inner wealth.
Simplicity as the examined life: Making conscious choices about our behavior for the well being of people and the planet.
Simplicity Circles: An Approach to Personal and Social Change.
Assumptions: We learn and change best when we learn from each other and tell our stories. We learn best when we examine our own lives, with books and experts ideas used only as a catalyst. In Simplicity there are no experts; the wisdom is in the people.
Areas Affected:
Money: Simplicity helps people save money and stay out of debt.
Things: Simplicity helps reduce clutter and consumerism.
Work: Simplicity helps us find a way to do our true work and reduce our “false” work;
Time: We’re meant to be enjoying and savoring our lives. Simplicity helps us find more time for things that matter and learn to move in a leisurely fashion that allows us to feel and think deeply.
Connection with Others: Happiness comes from connection with others with empathy, community, and joie de vivre.
Connection with Nature: If we don’t love nature, we won’t save it; we’ll only love nature when we engage with it.
Connection with the Universe: Simplicity allows us to develop our contemplative skills and be open to the forces of life.
Circle Format: Meet weekly and discuss these points. (Periodically talk first in pairs.)
I. What did you do this week to simplify your life: ( What ways did you save money? What simple pleasures did you engage in? In what ways did you “live lightly” and reduce your impact on the planet? How did you incorporate reflection into your life? In what ways were you able to slow down? How did you participate in community or make connections with others? How did you pursue your particular passion? How did you contribute to the common good?)
II. What new insights did you have about simplicity? (From reading, self, and media) Keep a journal.
III. Bring a quotation to share. (In particular, find a Thoreau quote.)