The Power of Simplicity

Like many Americans, I grew up believing that more is more—especially during the holidays. Every December our living room was packed with piles of glittering packages, all beautifully prepared by my mother and unwrapped on Christmas morning to shrieks of delight.  When my own children were born, I wanted to make Christmas more about family than material gifts. My husband had grown up in Germany at the end of the war—when even food was scarce—so he enthusiastically supported my new, less-is-more credo. Our tree was lit with real candles, many of the ornaments were hand-crafted by our children, and each child typically received one main gift and a few smaller trinkets like marbles, a little chunk of amethyst, a hand-carved wooden animal, and a small, hand-embroidered sack of sweets.

While our Christmas tradition remained consistent, my more-is-more conditioning manifested in other ways. Seduced by the American dream, I convinced my husband to sell our “starter home” and buy a five bedroom house in an upscale Boston suburb. And as my husband’s income rose, so did our lifestyle and monthly expenses.

It was only when my marriage collapsed—along with my financial security—that I stopped the “keeping up with the Joneses” race. My children and I went from living in relative luxury as a doctor’s family, to struggling to pay the rent in a small apartment where I slept on a futon on the living room floor. For the first few years, I felt resentful of families living our old, more-is-more lifestyle, and I was wracked with guilt that I couldn’t give my children the nice home and material possessions of their peers.

Over time, I began to embrace our involuntary frugality as an opportunity. As someone who never learned how to manage money, our meager financial resources forced me to adhere to a strict monthly budget. Without the hottest video games and other electronic distractions, my children read voraciously and honed their artistic skills. Having experienced living with and without ample financial means, my children and I developed a more conscious relationship with money. And, most importantly, it taught us to place a higher value on one’s inner condition and character than on outward appearances.     

Although my financial circumstances improved, simplicity has continued as my fundamental way of life. My home, office, and assistant’s office are all within 850 square feet, I drive a small, gas-efficient car, and my material possessions are kept to a minimum. The concept of simplicity is not something new, but rooted in many world wisdoms and traditions. Lao-Tzu said, “He who knows he has enough is rich,” and both the Christians and Buddhists advocated for balance between relentless accumulation and destitution.

A lot has changed over the past 2,000 years. As we, the world, and the way we live have become more complex, we’ve moved further away from living in alignment with our human spirit and with the earth. I believe this failure to live in harmony with our true selves, each other, and the planet is the root of many of today’s epidemics of depression, addiction, greed, financial collapse, and life-threatening illnesses, as well as the increasing incidences of earthquakes, floods, and wildfires.  

The good news is that in response to the dismantling of life as we knew it, more people are choosing—or being forced—to forego the high stress and costs of a consumption-obsessed lifestyle, and live in a more simple and sustainable way. I know many people, including some of my clients, who have used the economic downturn as an opportunity to create a more satisfying life—one that may be more materially modest, but richer in family life, friends, and purpose.

In 1992, some 1,700 of the world's leading scientists signed an appeal titled, Warning to Humanity. Written by Henry Kendall, it stated, "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course . . . that may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” About ten years later a similar warning was issued from 100 Nobel Prize winners who claimed, “The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals, but from the legitimate demands of the world's dispossessed.”

It is total madness to think that we can continue to deplete our natural resources and keep living the way we do indefinitely, and a dramatic shift toward a simpler way of life is needed if we and our planet are to survive.

I, for one, will do my part this holiday season. Amidst the holiday clamor, glitz, and television commercials telling me that love equals a big, beautiful pile of glittering gifts, I will remind myself that less truly is more.

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© 2010 Lauren Mackler

Lauren Mackler is a world-renowned coach, host of the LIFE KEYS radio show, and author of the international bestseller, Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life.