Defining “simple living”: In the 21st century, does it exist?

photo from istockphoto.com.

In the complicated, super-speed era of the 21st century, does such a thing as “simple living” still exist? I recently stumbled across a quote from Henry David Thoreau, transcendentalist and spokesman for the simple living, “Walden Pond” lifestyle. Thoreau said, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

As we cross the street without glancing up from our iPhones and spend most of our evenings staring at one or more “glowing boxes” (TVs, laptops, iPads, cell phones, iPods, etc.), Thoreau must be rolling over in his grave.

I’m not advocating for people to sell their worldly possessions and move to a small cabin in the Massachusetts countryside, idyllic as though it may sound. The 20th century brought us hot-water heaters, dishwashers, washers and dryers, and air conditioners, among many other creature comforts. And I certainly think a number of these inventions do improve people’s lives. Think how much more time we have thanks to washing machines. Think how many more books are written and connections made through computers and the Internet. (I’m still not sure how smart phones are improving our lives, but I’m open to suggestions.)

So, how do we simplify our lives? If, as Thoreau also said, our lives are “frittered away by details” and we must “simplify, simplify!” how do we go about that? In short, in an era of Twitter, when we have dogs to walk, bills to pay, doctors appointments to make, “House” reruns to watch, and kids to chauffeur off to gymnastics or soccer, where’s the simple in living?

I think today’s take on simple living has several main aspects: one, work-life balance; two, sustainability; three, paring away the excess to focus on the true heart of our lives.

I work two jobs, and my husband works full time in IT and goes to school part-time. Much of the time, work-life balance doesn’t seem to be in the cards for us. We work hard to carve out time for our relationship, though I’m not sure how we would do it if we had children. I think we’d have to sacrifice some of the work (one job, not two, for example) for more of the life.

So, is work-life balance imaginary? In some ways, perhaps it’s a privilege to even discuss seeking balance in our lives, but balance is a key ingredient in simple living. When we “pare away the excess,” it’s easier to achieve balance. This can mean saying no to yet another project, having a yard sale or donating unused items to charity, or paying down debts so we can live a life more in line with our values. I guess I would say that work-life balance could begin at work, but it also begins at home, by “clearing out clutter” whether mental, financial, or physical. And when we buy fewer items, waste less food, need less space to store that excess stuff, and use the items we have until they’re worn out, we ask less of the earth, allowing us to live more sustainably. That sustainability isn’t just good for the planet, but for our fellow human beings and ourselves. It saves us time, money, and energy.

For example, a key value for my husband and me is travel. We travel for pleasure, but also for knowledge and self-improvement, because seeing new places helps challenge our preconceived notions in ways both small and large. Yet we’ve cut back on our traveling to focus on saving and paying down debts. Most of our debt is education related and, while it’s not stifling, we’d sleep better at night knowing it was paid off. By living debt free, we could not only travel more, but also start saving for one of life’s biggest adventures: homeownership. We’re both pushing 30, and our wanderlust is starting to yield to the urge to put down some roots (even if we’re not sure where).

Simple living is simple when our actions and energy are dedicated to the things that matter most to us. That’s what Thoreau meant. The Internet is a great place to waste both time and money. Think of all those collective hours spent staring at cute pictures of cats or fantasy shopping on Zappos. But the Internet connects us to like minds, provides new ways to access endless reams of information, and creates new avenues for sharing art and knowledge.

So, what is distracting you from your core values? Do you wish you had more time to spend with family, more money to pay for travel in cash instead of wasting dollars on credit card interest, more time to dedicate to a hobby or career path? What’s the “excess” getting in your way?

Here are a few ways we can simplify our lives:

  • Identify your big time-wasters. Is it online shopping, video games, or reality TV? What would you rather be doing? Make your alternative specific. The next time you catch yourself watching the cooking channel, why not turn off the TV and try to whip up a healthy dish?
  • Practice gratitude. Our lives so often get lost in the business of acquiring, to the detriment of our values, our wallets, and our planet. Shop in your own closet and try to pull together an outfit from what you already have instead of buying a new one. Start a small garden and find a sense of contentment in the fact that you’ve grown healthy food for your family from the earth. Enjoy what you already have instead of grasping for more.
  • Clear the clutter. Go through one drawer, box, closet, or shelf per week and get rid of the excess. It’s less to clean, less to haul when you move, less to worry about all around. Not only will you make space for new, but you’ll make your home feel more open.
  • Find little ways to give back. With a newfound sense of gratitude and plenty of open space in your life (both physical and mental), serve your community. Volunteer one Saturday a month, or donate to a local nonprofit. Consider your values. Are you an animal lover or a fan of the arts? You’ll connect with like-minded people and experience the rewards of giving your time or money to others who have less—offering yet another opportunity to practice gratitude.

How would you define “simple living?” What steps are you taking to simplify your life and pare away the excess?

Writer’s note: This post is part of the “Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways” blog hop over at Frugally Sustainable. Click here for more posts about living a simple, frugal, and sustainable lifestyle.

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