Voluntary Simplicity: Finding Appreciation and Making Conscious Choices

Betty Shelley during last fall's NWEI EcoChallenge, showing the minimal garbage she accumulated in 2 weeks (Photo: Portland Tribune)
Betty Shelley during NWEI’s EcoChallenge, showing the minimal waste she accumulated (Photo: Portland Tribune)

Earlier this year, long time NW Earth Institute volunteer and discussion course organizer Betty Shelley wrote an article on Voluntary Simplicity for Green Living: A Practical Journal for Mindful Living. We’ve featured Betty’s efforts at generating one garbage can of waste each year in the past and are happy to share her story here on the joys of living simply. You can also learn more about Betty’s efforts and read about her advice for other changemakers here.

In 1995, my husband Jon and I signed up to take the Northwest Earth Institute’s discussion course, Voluntary Simplicity. When you read the words “voluntary simplicity”, what comes to mind? For me, it was “Oh no! I’ll have to get rid of all my things!”

Of course that wasn’t true. We learned through the readings and discussion that voluntary simplicity is a lens through which one can examine how the consumer culture society we live in interferes with caring for the natural world that sustains us by encouraging us to keep wanting more and more. But the more we consume, the more we use up those natural resources. We learned that all of our decisions have an impact on everything around us. Seeing this bigger picture helps one have the willpower to forego impulsive throwaway purchases, and to invest in fewer, longer-lasting goods.

It is important to note that the voluntary part of voluntary simplicity is to emphasize that some of us have the luxury of choice in the practice of simplicity, as opposed to people who have no choice because they live in poverty.

In our modern-day society people often seek to buy happiness, but find that materialism just fails to satisfy. We keep buying stuff, but somehow it isn’t truly making us happy in the long term. According to Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff, peak happiness was reached in the 1950s, just at the same time that “consumption mania” was being introduced…

We had an “Aha!” realization when we looked at what we really need. For us it’s the basics like food, clothing, shelter, but not so much stuff that we have to spend all our life energy scrambling to get it. We learned that we don’t need to work so hard if we don’t have to have all the latest gadgets, cars, clothing, etc. We down-sized from four cars to one because we didn’t want to pay for insurance, maintenance and gas for that many vehicles (and we’re lucky to live close to our workplaces, so this was possible.)

I am fortunate to work twenty hours a week, which gives me the time to cook from scratch most of the time (which I think keeps us healthier too), and to have time to do my own housekeeping and gardening. That would all be different if I had to work full-time to pay for more stuff, and pay people to do that work for me.

Don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that one has to live like an ascetic. Our house looks pretty normal. We just spend our money carefully in order to live more simply. Think about it this way: if you buy a $4 coffee every workday, that’s approximately $1,000 a year spent on coffee. If you make $10 an hour, that equates to 100 hours of work just to buy coffee. Voluntary Simplicity is about making conscious choices.

Perhaps the very best lesson we’ve learned is appreciation and gratitude for the things we do have, and for the time we have to spend with friends and family, and knowing that we are actively trying to live in alignment with Nature. Living simply is much like living the way people used to live – more collaboratively and interdependently, helping each other and sharing resources. I can honestly say that I feel such a sense of freedom by not having to be part of the constant rush after more and more and more. It is freeing to pull back and realize life is about much more than things you can buy.

To read Betty’s full article, click here. You can also check out NWEI’s course book on Voluntary Simplicity here, and stay tuned because we’ll have a new course on simplicity launching later this year!

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