This is a lifestyle with a broad range of expression and practices, all with the goal of simplifying one’s life. To some that means getting rid of most of what they own and living the life of a minimalist; others, however, may focus on developing self-sufficiency and growing their own food on a homestead. I seek a simpler life in order to find a better sense of balance in my life.
Simple living is sometimes taken up as a spiritual endeavor, for health or financial reasons, and for many other purposes. The various ways of pursuing a simpler life may not all be the same, but generally, there are some universal ideas about where to start when someone decides to begin simplifying their life.
To begin with, it’s best to take a look at what you may consider to be essential in your life—your relationships, wealth, goals, possessions—and then reevaluate your relationship with those things. That is the simple living mindset, and it’s all about the essentials.
The ancient Greek philosophy of the Stoics put much emphasis on the importance of simplicity and had many practices that kept Stoic philosophers mindful of what is essential to living a good life. Let’s take a look at what Stoicism has to offer in cultivating that mindset essential for simple living.
The Dichotomy of Control
“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former includes our judgments, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion I
The most fundamental of Stoic principles, the Dichotomy of Control teaches us that, of the various things which we ought to hold ourselves responsible for, none reside outside of our own minds. It teaches us that we must be able to differentiate between that which is within our control and that which is not.
While being such a simple teaching, it is also one of the hardest principles to practice consistently. The mind is the source of all judgments, of all impulses, and of all desires, and can easily lead us to misjudge things, avoid that which is good, and desire what we can’t have; the mind can easily mislead us into stressing out over things that we shouldn’t waste our energy on.
So how can the Dichotomy of Control help with developing the right mindset for a simple life?
A simpler life doesn’t necessarily equate to an easier life, and it sometimes can lead to more, albeit simpler difficulties. Plans fall through, possessions can be broken or stolen, relationships change—putting this principle into practice allows us to examine these events and decide what is worthy of our attention. Consistent use of this principle leads to decreases in stress and easier decision-making; it helps us to better understand our emotions and why we feel what we feel in any situation and then allows us to decide whether or not we really need to worry about whatever it is that is causing so much distress.
Take relationships, for instance, and how a change in your lifestyle can cause some pushback or tension from friends, relatives, and even strangers who don’t understand or agree with the changes that you choose to make in your life. Perhaps you tell a relative that you have decided to pursue a simpler lifestyle and forgo living a life of consumerism most commonly seen in American society today, and they offer criticism:
“You’re getting rid of your things? What a silly thing to do. You’re going to regret you did that before long!”
Using the Dichotomy of Control to examine this situation, we see and understand that the judgments of this relative cannot be controlled by anything other than their own mind. Likewise, all we can control are our own thoughts, so why bother allowing ourselves to be upset by their criticism when we clearly can see that it is not something we are responsible for? Life becomes a little simpler when we’re worrying less about the judgments of others and focusing instead on the things within our control.
Reevaluating our Relationships
“In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion 3
In order to develop a simple living mindset, we must reevaluate our relationships with the things we own and the people around us. While people and objects can bring us joy, it is not a lasting joy as it is subject to decay. Nothing temporary can be a source of lasting happiness, and when these things inevitably leave us we must understand that nothing was really ours to begin with.
We must own our possessions and relationships, and not let them own us. Consumerism is the antithesis of simple living and is the exact mentality that we should strive to break free from. So, when something you own breaks, or a friend or loved one passes away, employ the Dichotomy of Control to determine if such an event was within your control. If it was not within your control, do not dwell too long on the loss—instead, try to view the loss as a returning of something you only borrowed for a while.
Remember, simple living isn’t only about getting rid of possessions, growing your own food, or pursuing a better work/life balance. It is also about developing a mindset that will support your goals and lead to a simpler life.
Gratitude and Detachment
“Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in them habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7:27
In this line from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (which was his own personal journal not intended to be read by others) he urges himself to practice gratitude and detachment and to develop these qualities within himself. It is said that Marcus, despite being the most powerful man in Europe with every luxury available to him, would sleep on the floor so as to avoid becoming dependent on the luxury of a bed.
Detachment and gratitude are like the two wings of a bird: both are needed in order for our spirits to soar. Should our sense of detachment from what is transitory and outside of ourselves grow, then our feelings of gratitude for what we have will grow as well.
Practicing gratitude and detachment both help in cultivating a simple living mindset because they are two qualities which directly challenge consumerism—if your sense of happiness is not connected to the consumption of products and services, and you are grateful for and content with what you already have, then you will not desire to consume more.
This then leads to a decrease in the desire to consume, greater frugality, a greater appreciation for the little things, and higher overall satisfaction with life.
These principles that I have drawn from Stoic philosophy have been a boon to my search for a simpler life and have helped me to understand what is essential to me and what is not. I have also found myself spending less time worrying about things that I can’t control, accepting problems as they occur, and directing my energy to more productive purposes.
While Stoic philosophy may not be for everyone, it is a very practical philosophy that focuses on how one should live a good life. I hope that you are able to find such a life with the help of this philosophy!