How to Live the Simple Life

Author explains why he, and most people, are happier with less.

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During a recent interview with Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College and author of The High Price of Materialism, I found myself wanting to ask him questions beyond the scope of our discussion on the connection between materialism and happiness. Specifically, I wanted to get more personal. He ascribes to a lifestyle known as "voluntary simplicity," which essentially means opting for a less materialistic life. Instead of spending the evening in front of a plasma-screen television, a voluntary simplifier might cook a meal with the vegetables he grew in his garden. Instead of splurging on two lattes a day, he might bring his home-brewed beverage of choice to work in a reusable mug.

Because I love the idea of voluntary simplicity but often find myself involuntarily making life complicated, I wanted to ask him: Don't you ever have the urge to go on a shopping spree or crave a material indulgence? Kasser agreed to share his thoughts on those questions and more. Please add your own ideas about voluntary simplicity below—do you like the idea of giving up purchases, or are you doing it already? One commenter will be randomly selected to receive a copy of David E. Shi's The Simple Life.

Excerpts from my discussion with Kasser:

How did you first get interested in the study of materialism and values?


When I was a psychology graduate student at the University of Rochester, I was very interested in how people actively create their lives, and so this led me to become interested in people's goals, strivings, and values, for these are partially the means by which we consciously and actively try to "become" a certain kind of person and have a certain kind of life. There are lots of goals and values that people can pursue in life, and initially I was exploring a variety of them. I then sort of stumbled onto the finding that when people were especially focused on goals that pertained to money and possessions and wealth, they were less happy. This really struck me as fascinating, as it is the opposite of what our consumer, capitalistic society tells us. So, I kept studying it and trying to understand materialism better. Why do you think that is the case, that people who are less materialistic are also more likely to be happier?


Our perspective on people's well-being is that it depends in large part on whether or not they have their psychological needs well satisfied. That is, just like a plant needs to have a certain amount of water, a certain amount of light, and certain nutrients from the soil and air in order to survive and thrive, people have certain psychological needs that must be satisfied if they are to be healthy and thrive.

We propose four psychological needs. The first is safety/security, which is the need to feel like you'll survive, like you are not in danger, like you will have enough food and water and shelter to make it another day. The second is competence or efficacy, which is the need to feel like you are skillful and able to do the things that you set out to do: I need to feel like a good psychologist, you might need to feel like a good journalist, etc. The third is connection or relatedness, which concerns having close, intimate relationships with other people. The fourth need is for freedom or autonomy, which is feeling like you do what you do because you choose it and want to do it rather than feeling compelled or forced to do it.

As I lay out in my book, The High Price of Materialism, people who put a strong focus on materialism in their lives tend to have poor satisfaction of each of these four needs. In part this is because of their development, but it also is because materialism creates a lifestyle that does a poor job of satisfying these needs. That is, a materialistic lifestyle tends to perpetuate feelings of insecurity, to lead people to hinge their competence on pretty fleeting, external sources, to damage relationships, and to distract people from the more fun, more meaningful, and freer ways of living life.

How would you describe your own lifestyle? Where did it come from, your parents? Or is it something you developed later in life?


Our lifestyle is something that my wife and I have developed over the last 15 years. We live on 10 acres of land about 8 miles south of the small liberal arts college where I teach and where she works as a psychotherapist. We are vegetarian and have a big garden, a fruit orchard, and several animals for eggs and milk. We both work at reduced loads at the college so we can be at home more for our two sons, and so we can be involved in different community and activist groups. We don't watch television but find plenty of other things to keep us amused and occupied and interested. Neither of us grew up this way, and our lifestyle has really evolved over the years. The way we live has its challenges, but it works for us. What are your favorite things about it?


I guess for me the main thing is that I try to live a balanced life. I like working as a professor and teaching and writing and speaking and the rest, but I also think that there is a lot more to life than work. So, I like to have time to be with my boys so I can help them build a treehouse this summer or go to their sports events. I like having time to play the piano and draw and read for fun and take vacations. I like following the seasons with what I'm eating, at least to some extent; there is nothing like corn on the cob cooked only 10 minutes after it has been picked.

Do you ever find yourself wanting to buy materialistic things, like an iPhone or $4 latte? Is there a middle ground for people like me who really enjoy certain material things but embrace the goals of voluntary simplicity?


There is a story about a man who approached Gandhi and said that he'd been thinking about living a simpler life, but he didn't feel like he could give up his collection of books. Gandhi is said to have replied, "As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you." My take on this, and on your question, is that simplicity is not an endstate that is achieved but a path that one is walking. I find all kinds of ways in my life that I'm not living quite like I wish, and then I try to see if there is a way to change my life. So, to me, a simple lifestyle is always in the middle ground.

What I would encourage people to do is to ask themselves why they really want whatever thing it is they think they want and then to ask themselves two questions. First, is it really worth all the work and effort and such that it takes to get that thing? Is a $4 latte worth the effort it took to make the money to buy it? Second, what are the social and ecological costs of this thing I want? Does buying this fit with my values, with what I think is really good for the world?

If people ask these questions, then I think they can answer your questions for themselves.

Stay tuned for the upcoming Alpha Consumer podcast featuring Kasser.