Voluntary simplicity as hedonism

by Philip Brewer on 24 July 2007 12 comments

Bench in herb garden

When people talk about voluntary simplicity (or living a frugal lifestyle under any of its many names), they often do so in terms of deprivation. The descriptions are all about doing without stuff. To me, that's completely wrong. Voluntary simplicity is fundamentally a hedonistic lifestyle.

What do hedonists do? They do what ordinary people seem only to do when they're on vacation. They go places that are interesting or beautiful and they linger in them. They go dancing and go to parties. They read good books. They hang out with cool people. They hike in the mountains and swim in the ocean and go sailing. They play golf or tennis. They eat good food and drink good wine. They listen to music or play music. They go to museums and theaters. They do whatever gives them pleasure until they're tired, and then they lie in the shade and take a nap.

To me, voluntary simplicity is exactly the same thing. You think about what gives you the most pleasure and then arrange your life so you can do exactly that.

I saw a poster once that said, "My tastes are simple: I like to have the best." It's a sentiment that probably resonates with everyone. But you can't have the best of everything--where would you keep it? So, you have the best of only a few things, the things that matter the most to you. And, if you get rid of the other stuff--stuff that doesn't matter as much to you--then your whole life gets easier. With less stuff you can live in a smaller house, or an apartment instead of a house, or a smaller apartment.

But a small apartment doesn't mean a small life. A small apartment is a means to an end. The end is a life doing whatever you want.

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Guest's picture
Eric

I had an interesting conversation with a good friend last fall (he's a general contractor who builds houses for a living). He said he has started to see a trend of people wanting to build smaller houses, after Americans have gotten to the point where our houses are outrageously large. One major motivation is to reduce the cost of upkeep, and for some people, to reduce your carbon footprint. This idea of voluntary simplicity as a lifestyle fits right into that, and I think it would be appealing to a lot of people.

It'll be interesting to see the day when the mansions of Beverly Hills are bulldozed to make room for small simple houses that are "cool", instead of the other way around, as has been the case.

Guest's picture
David

My wife and our 4 children live in a small renovated mobile home in less than 600 square feet, with only one bedroom, and no septic system. (We use a composting toilet) We are debt free.

Our home is small, but it is a nice upgrade from the army tent we all shared for 18 months, when we first bought our land, in the Ozark mountains on NW Arkansas.
My wife and I have a small bedroom, with a door for privacy--the children love sharing our living room that converts to sleeping space at night. They are homeschooled by day for a few hours, then are released to enjoy the rest of their day, reading, drawing, playing music,or just playing. I read to them in the evening, or we play card games, and they go to bed each night laughing, giggling, happy and content.

A decade ago, I was a financial planner in suburban Chicago, making a six figure living, but we traded it all in, and now live on less than $20k a year, which I earn working in internet marketing part time.

We drive old cars, but they get us into town to shop or to an occasional meal out or movie. We have the internet, and a phone and electricity, and free spring water piped directly into our house.

We have a imperfectly wonderful life, watching our beautiful children grow, and living life on our terms.
Why wait until you are old to enjoy life? Retire now while you're still able to enjoy it! Blessings!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Thanks so much for your posts, Philip. While some feel that living large is about all the stuff, I think it's important to remember that living large for some is having the time to devote to other interests, health or even family. For some people, these seem like pipe dreams they will never be able to accomplish. I think it's important to let people know there are ways to achieve their goals.

 Loved your line about "where would you keep it". Good one.

Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you! Tell that to all the pesky realtors trying to convince me to buy a darned house. I love my $13 (home) gas bill, my $15 water bill and my $38 electric bill. Life is good in my miniscule apartment. Going to France next year
:-) I love articles like this. Thanks!

Guest's picture
mapgirl

Hear hear! I live in 500sq ft and I love my life. I get to do what I want, when I want. Having a small home means I have resources to do other stuff that I think is cool or fun, or save for retirement so I can still have fun later on in life.

Philip Brewer's picture

I have to admit that I understand the impulse toward a large house. It would be cool to have a "media room" with a big screen TV and a number of chairs and sofas all facing toward the screen, and then a separate "living room" with the chairs and sofas all facing in toward the center for conversation. But when I let myself think in those directions I start adding more rooms. I'd really like a "map room" with a big table with huge drawers underneath, big enough to store maps spread out flat. "Wouldn't it be cool," I say to myself, "to be able to pull out a huge topo map of the area around Arches Nation Park and Canyonlands--or anywhere--and put it on the map table where people could gather around and look at it?" About at that point (just before I start wishing for a screened-in room for sitting in when it's nice out and a glassed-in room for sitting in when it's cold-but-sunny out), I start thinking about all the trade-offs involved in having a huge house. And I realize that my little apartment is perfect. A bit cluttered, because I have too much stuff, but perfect.

Guest's picture
Ann at Howcross Castle

OK, yes, I just got up and my brain is a bit sleepy still, but how about this: build/buy/salvage/steal the following items and use them to create virtual rooms in your existing space for all (well, almost all) those rooms you daydream about:

- one very cool table (see my fantasy description below)
- several light, easy-to-move, stackable chairs that rotate 360 degrees
- blackout curtains or shades for all your windows (DIY or cheap)
- Whiteboard the same size as the table-top, with Velcro(tm) straps to hold it securely to the table-top. There was a DIY whiteboard in a couple of lifehacker posts(Lifehacker instant whiteboards, DIY whiteboard, Twin Supply)

The Fantasy Table
I'm picturing a large coffee table-sized square item smack in the middle of your existing living/entertainment space. It has one of those cool hinged, cantilevered tops so the flat surface raises up to dining table height easily. Another set of hinges on one side allows the table-top to tilt to true vertical. The table-top has a very light raised edge all the way around (quarter-round maybe, or a more decorative molding; very low and subtle). The base of this fantasy table is a stack of of two (or three, or four, whatever you need) large shallow drawers with very sturdy handles of each exposed side (for removing and lifting the drawers). They might all be the same depth, or they might have various depths. The drawers pull open from either of two opposite sides (not the side with the hinges for the vertical option). The drawers can be removed totally (sturdy handles) and placed on the table-top—they won't slide off because of the molding around the edge of the table-top. Drop-in inserts customize the drawers: shadow boxes with one large transparent lid across the whole drawer; and divided organizers with no lids are the first two I can think of. Some of the divided organizers are the exact size of your favorite containers that hold food, ice, etc for parties. Some drawers use these drop-ins and some don't. Use the drawers plus/minus inserts to hold maps, travel ephemera, party supplies, DVDs, remotes, and so on. Oh, and there are lockable wheels on the table base for easy re-positioning. Now, on to the virtual rooms...

The Map Room
Pull the table-top up to a good horizontal viewing height (or maybe leave it flat), arrange and rotate the chairs to face the table (or push them away and stack them for standing viewing), open a map drawer, and... what was it you said, "... pull out a huge topo map of the area around Arches Nation Park and Canyonlands--or anywhere--and put it on the map table where people could gather around and look at it."

The Media Room
Tilt the table-top to vertical, attach your whiteboard to the vertical surface, arrange and rotate the chairs to face the whiteboard, make some popcorn, and draw the blackout shades/curtains. Using the inexpensive projector you got from Woot!, or borrowed from the university for the evening, or rented from an audio store, or borrowed from a friend ... use your laptop/desktop computer to project a movie.

The Living Room
Select a shadowbox drawer of cool stuff and put it on the table-top to stimulate conversation. Or select a divided-organizer drawer full of party supplies, add some hors d'oeuvre, and arrange/rotate the chairs in dyads and triads for entertaining.

The Dining Room
Pull the table-top up to a good horizontal eating height (or maybe leave it flat). Arrange/rotate the chairs around the table. Set the table... or maybe you have a custom drawer with plates, plastic/silverware, dividers for serving-pieces, that you keep stocked all the time and can pull out at a moment's notice for entertaining. Add food and friends.

The Screened Room
Open all your windows; put the screens in. :-)

The Glass Room
Close all your windows. :-)

Well, it all sounds silly perhaps, but you get the idea. It's kind of the little black dress of coffee tables: add the appropriate accessories and it works for any occasion.

Ann

Oh, and just so you don't think i made up all this stuff, here are some photos of existing furniture:
- Brookstone lift top coffee table
- Brayden Convertible Cocktail-Game-Dining Table Set w/hydraulic lift
- The Meal Box
- Shadow Box Coffee Table

Philip Brewer's picture

Lots of cool stuff. And, of course, that's exactly what I do (albeit with only a modest amount of the cool furniture). I have one living room and a couple of chairs that are easy to move so that they can face in for conversation with people in the hard-to-move chairs or forward for watching a movie. I'm really happy with my choices, but that doesn't prevent these odd spells of wanting another 8 special-purpose rooms. Fortunately, those spells are brief.

Guest's picture
Nebula

That is my ideal: a small house on a big lot. I know big lots take maintenance too but it would be nice to have some space around--for privacy and silence. And we do have seven cats.
As it is, we bought what is deemed a "starter home" from a couple who were moving up to a custom-built bigger house and anxious to get rid of it, and we just stayed in it. It's 1500 sq ft. (the smallest model in our neighborhood, can you believe it?) and turned out to be perfect for us. We have small bills and only one floor which really simplifies things (like putting hurricane shutters on and cleaning windows) and best of all--limited storage and no garage! I can't tell how many times we haven't bought something because we can't store it. This decision alone has simplified our life beyond measure.

Guest's picture
Guest

I enjoy the piece very much and I like the concept that voluntary simplicity is a tool to a better life rather deliberate self deprivation.

Guest's picture
Guest

Phillip you are a brilliant writer. The more simple I've made my life the more happy I have become.

Less clutter, less distraction, less stuff. What I have is good stuff that I take great pleasure from. Stuff just for the stake of stuff is bad!

I went to a poor country on vacation. The people had almost nothing and were MUCH happier then in the United States. Interesting huh?

I foolishly left myself with only $40.00 left in my pocket when I jumped on the plane to come home (I was half way around the world in Asia.) I had so little money left because I was thrilled to meet happy people that didn't have a 70 pound double chin from shopping QVC. I was buying food for poor people until I only had $40 left on the way to the airport.

Regarding lifestyle, I don't live in the woods or some hell hole. I live near one of the greatest orchestras in the USA and almost every amenity I can dream of is within walking distance. The trick is simplicity. Simplicity doesn't make my problems go away it just makes life seem much more human.

Guest's picture
Guest

There's a country song, popular in the mid-90's (and still one of my favorites)... here's the chorus:

"Love grows best in little houses,
With fewer walls to separate;
Where you eat and sleep so close together,
You can't help but communicate...
And if we had more room between us,
Think of all we'd miss...
Love grows best in houses just like this."