Finding Joy in Simple Things
Two questions to ask yourself for leading a simpler life.
Can living with less bring more joy into our lives? As I look around for the answer, I find conflicting messages. TV and internet ads tell me that having a Buick or a boat will magically transport me to a place of adventure, freedom, and joy. If I buy new windows or patio furniture for the home, we’ll have a happier family life. I get a different message as I watch people playing in the park. I hear laughter; I see excitement; I see joy. Some people are playing fetch with their dogs, some are having a picnic with their family or friends, and some are just sitting in the shade. These people don’t need to be transported anywhere to enjoy what they’re doing.
So what will make our lives happier? Research tells us that happiness can’t be bought and that true joy is found in “the simple things of life.” Perhaps the poem “Tis a gift to be simple” says it best. Many poets, preachers, and essayists share this same idea. They encourage us to focus on what is really important in life and to let go of the non-essentials. Henry David Thoreau tells us, “It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.” To me, this suggests that a lot of stuff has to be picked away before you can reach that sweet place “near the bone.” Thoreau’s advice on how to live the good life includes an exhortation to choose simplicity and not fritter away our lives on unnecessary details. He was happy living in a cabin on Walden Pond.
Another essayist, Annie Dillard, describes herself as a pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her pilgrimage took her on an inner journey, where her observations of life in and near the creek gave her insights into how to let our spirits soar. “It would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.” Grasping the “one necessity,” she suggests, requires one to cultivate “a healthy poverty and simplicity.” We hear from other sources, too, that the “one necessity” isn’t found in money or possessions. It resides in the soul, which you might envision as being “near the bone.”
Of course, not having the basic material essentials of life – such as food, a safe place to live, health care, and proper clothing – is debilitating and not an acceptable way to live. That form of poverty is destructive. So is a poverty of spirit – a condition where one feels that life has little to offer or that one’s own life is meaningless. But, as many people are discovering, once our basic needs are met, accumulating a host of non-essentials becomes more of a burden than a blessing. Voluntary simplicity is a welcome option.
While some people may think of voluntary simplicity as a rejection of a materialistic lifestyle, I see it as an affirmation of simple joys. As I think about living simply, I focus on what it adds to my life, not in terms of what I give up. For me, it is indeed a gift to be simple. Simplicity helps me focus on what’s really important. It also frees up time, space and energy for enjoying life. There are two practices I find helpful in living a more simple life. Both practices take the form of questions.
My first question relates to decisions about what I might buy or bring into my life: “Will this add joy to my life?" It's a simple question, but it causes me to pause and think before making a purchase. If I can’t answer in the affirmative, chances are the item or service I’m considering will only lead to more clutter or require more energy or maintenance than what it’s worth.
My second question relates to tapping into the simple joys of life. I ask, “What did I enjoy as a child?” I then look for ways to re-visit the sources of those simple joys. Some of my favorite memories from childhood include planting potatoes and peas in the garden in the early days of spring, making ice cream on a hot summer day, walking in the woods looking for wildflowers, and sitting on the roof of our chicken coop at night waiting for a falling star. Other joys from childhood relate to rich sensory experiences: feeling the wind blow through my hair, smelling the lilacs in our yard, walking barefoot through the grass, listening to the rain patter on the tin roof of our barn, eating a tomato freshly picked from the field, and listening to the chirping of newly-hatched baby chicks. I no longer live on a farm where baby chicks and field tomatoes are readily available. Yet, I still find great joy each spring as the daffodils and lilacs come into bloom. I enjoy watching and listening to the birds that splash around in the bird bath in our yard. I take frequent walks to the park near our home and occasionally hike the trails in a nearby forest. I still love the feel of wind blowing through my hair and the taste of a tomato grown in a pot on our patio. Relishing these simple joys are what gives my life meaning and direction. I don’t need to travel far; I don’t need fancy clothes; and I don’t need a vacation home. Loving the life I have and being present to the simple joys it brings fills my cup to overflowing.
I rely on my two questions to keep me focused. You, however, may be interested in more information and other ideas about simple living and voluntary simplicity. With this in mind, I offer the following resources:
The More of Less, by Joshua Becker
Less is More, by Domonique Bertolucci