Simple living is a term that means different things to different people. It’s often described as a movement, a philosophy, or a lifestyle. It’s a way of life that some people have chosen all through the ages, for a whole variety of reasons. Some people are choosing it today as a response to our unsustainable lifestyles, and that’s something I’ve recommended plenty of times on this blog and aim to do myself. If our way of life is unsustainable, then we have to learn to live with less. Inevitably, that means that reducing our consumption and simplifying our lives has to become a part of mainstream culture in the coming years.
Pursuing simplicity as a solution to our global problems is fraught with difficulties however. Simple living is such a broad term, relative and personal and hard to define. People choose to simplify their lives for all sorts of reasons and it is hard to generalise. And then there’s the issue of poverty, and the risk of idealising lower-consumption ways of life.
To investigate some of these questions, The Simplicity Institute recently undertook what they reckon is the biggest ever empirical study of the subject, which they define as “a diverse social movement made up of people who are resisting high consumption lifestyles and who are seeking, in various ways, a lower consumption but higher quality of life alternative.” They reckon that there are 200 million people around the developed world who could be considered to be part of the movement.
The results were recently published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, and having written about some myths around simple living earlier this year, I was interested to see if the survey confirms them. Here are some things the survey reveals:
- Just 21% of those who describe themselves as living simply are in rural areas. The rest are in cities or towns, proving that the popular association between simple living and ‘back to the earth’ pastoralism is somewhat misguided.
- 67% said they had reduced their incomes deliberately. 85% said that reducing expenditure and living frugally was part of simple living, to one degree or another.
- Many people had reduced working hours – almost half of those surveyed, while 38% had changed job or career.
- 83% grow some of their own food, but only 17% are halfway to self-sufficiency or more. (This is a pre-conception I’ve encountered a few times with friends, who think I’m self-sufficient or aiming for it, when I currently grow less than 10% of what we eat.)
- 13% are vegetarian, 9% pescetarian and 4% are vegan. Most, 63%, say they eat normally but with an emphasis on fresh and unprocessed foods.
- Most haven’t given up their cars, and 37% say they would drive if travelling locally, suggesting car culture remains a significant problem even among those seeking to live more sustainably.
- They are living differently when it comes to TV though. 19% watch none at all, 12% watch about an hour a week, and 28% see 1 t0 4 hours a week. That’s a big contrast to the average Briton or American who manages five hours a day.
- The idea that simplicity is anti-technology gets short shrift, with 80% saying advanced technology can play a role in simple living.
- 87% said they were happier than they were previously, and 13% felt about the same. Only 0.3% said they were less happy living simply, which I find interesting, since so many people associate simplicity with misery and hair-shirted self-denial.
To read the results in full, with lots of comment on them, see this pdf from the Simplicity Institute.