The many reasons why less is more for the people choosing modest lives

Simply happy

Perhaps a more realistic hope is for a steady rise in the number of people who discover that pursuing non-material riches brings greater happiness than the getting and spending of money. In fact, significant numbers of “voluntary simplifiers” have been choosing and enjoying lives of material simplicity for decades.

In researching my book Happier People Healthier Planet, I investigated the lives and histories of people who had actively chosen modest consumption. They included a wide range of annual incomes, from welfare benefits of £9,000 to the salary of a civil service lawyer. While diverse in character, many had developed habits for growing food and cooking from scratch, choosing UK holidays, buying second-hand, recycling and repairing, walking or taking public transport. And, of course, they had a lack of interest in acquiring “stuff”.

Concern for the environment was predictably the most common motivation. In the words of one woman, Joan, 62:

We have only one planet, it is beautiful and I want the future generations to enjoy it. My assessment (via the Women’s Institute) said I used resources at the rate of 2.4 planets. I am trying to change this.

But the environment was by no means the only motivation. Some people looked at the gross inequalities in the world: “When many people live on less than $1 a day it is immoral to consume just because you can,” said Alison, a 42-year-old mother of three who found pleasure in using skill and ingenuity to make things.

There was also a more general abhorrence of waste, and several people I spoke to had been struck by the greater happiness evident in communities they encountered in materially impoverished parts of the world.

Spend all you want … the world keeps turning. Oleksandr Berezko/Shutterstock

The needs of others was also a common concern among the 94 participants in the study, as was their marked desire to make a difference, with frequent involvement in campaigning and volunteering. Many conveyed a sense of being a tiny part of a huge human and natural world in which they had a part to play. Ruth, 63, who lived with her partner in a hut on a large smallholding, told me:

I believe in personal responsibility, so I must live according to my moral code. Also it’s fun, life is good when I remember I am part of a wonderful whole, I don’t fill the universe.

She relished the wildlife which shared her land.

Books, films and education were influential for others, such as 38-year-old Michael who changed his London lifestyle after hearing Helena Norberg-Hodge, the founder of Local Futures, speaking on localism in Ladakh, India. It prompted Michael to start work with a nearby environmental charity and introduce new leisure activities close to home, including beekeeping, winemaking and a choir.

Personal reasons

For most, it was not formal education but personal experience that shaped their life choices, most often through other people. For many, it came from loving, supportive families with similar values; for others, it sprang from unhappy childhoods, or inspiring friends or acquaintances who showed a different way of being. Bereavement, accident, illness or other personal crises had led quite a number to rethink their priorities.

Half had always lived like this, attributing their choice to personality, or to having been brought up in the war or in a household with a make-do-and-mend outlook. Half had deliberately changed their ways in adulthood, some due to a growing environmental awareness, but others because they discovered that a simpler life made them more contented or less stressed, or that non-materialistic goals were more fulfilling. Overall, the modest consumers’ life satisfaction was unusually high.

It was common to opt for time over money. Clive, a self-employed decorator and floor-sander, for instance, said:

The more creative and resourceful I am the less I have to work. I love it. I am surrounded by interesting people and have time to do the things that give life meaning.

For him, such things were meditation, playing the violin, cooking for friends and helping Palestinian olive farmers with their harvest.

Religion was an occasional influence. Luzie, a Quaker scientist, explained that peace was her motivation as conflicts arise over control of resources. Some put up resistance to the pressures of advertising and fashion. But for many, modesty was a very personal inclination, developed out of direct experience of the joys to be found in all sorts of non-materialistic sources, such as contact with the natural world. Many had first experienced in childhood the enjoyment to be found in the creativity, nature, music, gardening and so on that they now valued so highly.

The variety and abundance of the modest consumers’ everyday lives leaves the dominant focus on money, shopping, luxury, ease and image-enhancement looking futile. Individuals whose lifestyles are shaped instead by improvement of themselves and society and by a close affinity with their environment do seem to offer a more rewarding, more sustainable vision of how life can be lived, and the diversity of their motivations and backgrounds should encourage others to join them.

First published by The Conversation 6th April 2017

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Your serious pursuit of happiness is key to protecting the planet

Michelle McGagh is a bold woman. A personal finance journalist, she has just completed a year in which she vowed to spend no money at all except on essential bills, simple food, and charitable donations. It was a tall order and a tough experience but her perseverance rewarded her with new confidence, skills and insights.

McGagh’s experiment is telling in a society in which each household owes an average of about £2,400 on credit cards. Consumer debt causes great distress to many people, and is closely associated with mental ill health, so any advice on how to reduce spending is welcome.

But debt is not the only serious consequence of consumerism. Our collective demand for energy, water, land, meat, palm oil, timber, and much else besides is rapidly and irreversibly depleting and polluting the resources and eco-systems on which everyone depends. Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film Before the Flood brings this vividly into focus.

Positive spending

Spending per se, though, does not necessarily result in material consumption. One could spend a fortune on the environmentally benign business of buying antiques, planting trees, or commissioning music. But spending money can be used to better benefit the environment if used to buy a train ticket rather than a cheap flight, or better quality, longer-lasting goods, or solar panels.

But generally speaking, spending does translate directly into material consumption. Clothes exemplify prevailing attitudes and behaviours. The average UK household spends about £1,700 a year on clothes. About 30% of these garments remains in wardrobes unworn and an estimated £140m worth are sent to landfill every year.

Such casual consumption and waste creation is highly problematic, given the research that suggests three of the nine planetary boundaries essential for avoiding unacceptable environmental change have already been crossed. It’s time to recognise that every manufactured item or service we buy is at several environmental costs. As well as asking ourselves whether we can afford a particular purchase or experience, we also need to ask whether the Earth can really afford to provide it?

Climate change is the greatest threat we face. It’s reckoned that the world can absorb 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per person each year, but the average Briton currently emits around 15 tonnes (compared with 20 tonnes for the average American and 1.5 in India). The affluent of the world urgently need to curb personal consumption if the global temperature is to be kept to a liveable limit.

Money is not happiness

The prospect of changing our buying habits and expectations may be uninviting, but it helps to remember that personal well-being is not about material wealth (once basic needs are met). Powerful evidence can be found in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. The HPI logs measures of life-expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint for 89 nations, and produces an overall score for each country.

Costa Rica comes out top. Although its GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European countries and North America, and its per capita ecological footprint is just one third of the size of the USA’s, people living in Costa Rica enjoy higher well-being than the residents of many rich nations, and live longer than people in the US. American research suggests that there is no increase in well-being with an income above US$75,000.

We may know deep down that you can’t buy happiness but this intuition often gets lost under the many pressures to consume. A much happier future can be ours, though, if we concentrate on cultivating non-material assets such as good relationships, appreciating what we’ve got, a sense of meaning, and new skills, instead of on making and spending money.

About time

Standard of living has much less bearing on happiness than the attitudes, values and expectations we bring to the way we live. I learnt this repeatedly from the participants in a study I undertook of people who actively choose material modesty, while writing my book Happier People Healthier Planet. They were a diverse collection of 94 individuals aged 18 to 83. There were three whose finances were at subsistence level, two who could be described as “well-heeled”, and everything else in-between. Critically, they viewed time as more valuable than money. This often shaped their working lives and level of income. It was important to them to be independent, useful and responsible.

But these people did not consider their choices as self-denial. Their non-essential expenditure went on cultural events, books and CDs, alcohol and eating out with friends or inviting them round for home-cooked meals. They spent their time on being creative, community, volunteering, meditation, gardening, contact with nature – just the kinds of enrichment which research finds generates well-being. Indeed, the “modest consumers’” satisfaction with their lives was unusually high. Their stories raise pertinent questions.

Essential for well-being are a warm dry home, decent food and reasonable income. It’s shameful that the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy, sees increasing numbers going without, and that national wealth depends partly on worker exploitation. The global economic system, fixated on growth and profit, and resulting in environmental destruction, is deeply flawed.

Radically different frameworks exist, based on real human needs and environmental limits. One is set out by economist Tim Jackson in his just republished book Prosperity without Growth, and the new Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is developing such thinking.

It’s time to get real. The Earth’s environmental limits are the ultimate bottom line. Slowing the rapid trend towards disastrous higher temperatures demands economic transformation. This will be complex to achieve, but the guiding principle is simple: life offers rich possibilities far more satisfying than constant consumption. All of us who have more than enough, need to learn to become happily modest consumers.


First published by The Conversation 9th December 2016



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3. Habits that Cultivate Happiness are Kind to the Earth: the reciprocal relationship between personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability

Research tells us that non-materialistic people are more satisfied with their lives than materialistically-orientated individuals.  And it is clear that those who put a high value on material consumption, or who look primarily to material things for emotional consolation or expression of identity or social status will take a heavier toll on the environment than those who don’t.

There are other, more subtle reasons, too, why happier people are likely to do less ecological harm in the course of everyday life than the less satisfied.  One aspect of this relationship is that those who enjoy a high level of wellbeing have been found to be better able to see the big picture: they will therefore be more likely to be able to put their own behaviour and choices and the effects of these into a wider social and environmental context; happier people also have a better grasp of reality, the negative as well as the positive; they are better at creative problem-solving and at self-control and emotional self-regulation; and are more co-operative, pro-social, open-minded, charitable and autonomous.  All these tendencies add up to the likelihood of a greater inclination towards ethical decisions of all kinds.

Looking at the relationship between personal wellbeing and environmental sustainability from a third perspective, one can see the reciprocity in another light.  Because those aspects of experience which most benefit wellbeing have little or nothing to do with material consumption it seems logical to suggest that those people with relatively high wellbeing are likely to live in ways that prioritise the non-material.  I will explain.

The most important underpinning of wellbeing is having dependable, responsive, supportive, nourishing relationships.  Good relationships, contrary to many people’s conscious or unconscious view, do not rely on the (possibly lavish) expenditure of money in order to convey or illicit regard or affection, but on the willingness and ability to listen, to empathise, to be attuned and to recognise boundaries, as well as qualities such as humour, forbearance, co-operativeness, patience, and so on.  People with healthy, mutually beneficial relationships are likely to spend time and thought on each other rather than money.

Another important contributor to feeling good and functioning well is the exercise of one’s creativity and the enjoyment of the creativity of others.  Many forms of creativity require little in the way of raw materials or energy, or none at all.  One has only to think of writing, singing, dancing, dramatic improvisation, collage, mime, papier mache, drumming, weaving.  Exploring one’s creativity, whatever form it might take, provides unlimited potential for finding satisfaction, experiencing flow, and developing practical skills and those other precious non-material assets of purpose and identity.  Creativity can help us to lose ourselves and our egos on the one hand, or to experience the exhilaration of collaborative endeavour on the other.  And a capacity for thinking imaginatively is crucial to the shaping of better ways of living that both meet human needs and protect the environment.

Similarly, time spent in natural surroundings has been shown beyond doubt to exert a major benefit on individual wellbeing and functioning.  This is sufficient reason in itself to promote opportunities for children and adults to spend time out of doors, in woods, hills and meadows, and on beaches, up mountains and by rivers and lakes.  But not only would the enjoyment of such places by more people boost general emotional health, and reverse the development of the alarming condition of alienation from the natural world known as “nature deficit disorder”, it would also help to cultivate more individuals’ love of the natural world.   This in itself would help to promote environmental sustainability, for a personal relationship with and affection for nature is an essential complement to intellectual knowledge in the cause of arresting the current destruction of irreplaceable natural habitats, eco-systems and landscapes.  Only first-hand experience of the relaxation, wonder and inspiration to be gained from time spent in natural surroundings can engender the kind of love and respect that is required if we are to act in ways that will rescue the integrity of global ecology.

It is the deliberate and joyful engagement in creativity and learning, loss of self in nature and art, and pursuit of a sense of belonging, meaning, and contributing to the good of others, that has the potential power to trump the mindless pursuit of economic growth of material wealth and acquisition that is now discredited as a proxy for wellbeing.

It is high time that human beings recognised that on the one hand material overconsumption is destroying the planet yet, on the other, consuming much more than we need does not give us the lasting fulfilment to be gained from many non-material pursuits.  Those many of us who consume more than our sustainable share, or aspire to live such a life-style, can learn how to get more out of life while consuming more modestly; there are plenty of people who point the way.  I made a study of some of them for my new book Happier People Healthier Planet.  Many of the people I researched took particular delight in their friendships, in voluntary work, in creative activities of many kinds, and in feeling themselves to be a tiny part of a huge human and natural world, yet able to make some positive difference. Many actively preferred the simple life of few possessions for its lesser stressfulness.

As long as we have secure shelter, food, warmth and water, greater wellbeing goes hand-in-hand, it seems, with a non-material focus and a refusal to be possessed by material possessions.

Guest blog first published by Network of Wellbeing 4th December 2014

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2. Capitalism vs Climate = Mindless Consumption vs Real Wellbeing

Naomi Klein is right in looking to capitalism, the slave-master of paid-up members of consumer society, to identify the true culprit of climate change and environmental decline. But capitalism, and the hugely excessive consumption of material goods on which it depends for fulfilling its primary motive of maximising profit just for the sake of maximising profit, has taken on the monstrous proportions and almost ubiquitous reach that it has because it taps into and exploits a common human inclination. This is our tendency to be attracted to material possessions, to comfort, convenience and the hollow social status accorded to wealth and possessions. Even among the still tiny proportion of people who recognise the direct relationship between their own personal purchasing choices and global ecological destruction and therefore consciously try and avoid over-consumption, there are those who feel the attraction of acquisition, as I found when I made a study of people happily living lifestyles of modest material consumption.While capitalism can surely be regarded as the fundamental cause of climate change, the perpetuation of capitalism requires us all to play its game. We do have the option of dropping the ball and walking away. The happily modest consumers in my study, like all voluntary simplifiers, provide plentiful evidence that we need not buy into lifestyles of mindless consumption, that are so much the norm or common aspiration, in order to live happily; indeed cultivating the non-material possibilities of life generally results in higher wellbeing. For the sake of the climate and of personal wellbeing, now is the time for human beings en masse to turn to more satisfying, less damaging ways of living.We need to learn to resist the undoubtedly powerful pull on us of things that we don’t actually need in order to live satisfying lives. This will be a great deal easier if we come fully to realise the greater degree of true and lasting wellbeing to be gained from the non-material assets of good relationships, a sense of belonging, of meaning and purpose, of creativity, of making a contribution, and of time spent in natural surroundings, than from shopping or an overflowing bank balance.

Hopefully there is a growing recognition that the kick we get as we take possession of yet one more pair of shoes, or a DVD that we may watch only once, or a shiny replacement for the still working but tired-looking gadget, is but short-lived. The satisfaction of handing over cash or completing an online card payment in return for the promise of ownership of what is likely to be the product of a complex and ecologically damaging process of extraction, manufacture, packaging and transportation is fleeting; the thrill of actual possession usually fades quickly as the new object of desire is absorbed into our stock of belongings.  Neither can the sum of all those feelings of gratification at acquisition begin to compare in value with the accumulated moments of joy at the smiles given to or received from friends or strangers, of hand-holding or hugs with children or grand-parents, or a song sung; nor with the satisfaction felt at a problem solved, a worthwhile task accomplished, a skill mastered, a nesting bird sighted, or the other innumerable potential moments of emotional nourishment to be found in everyday life. While our collective pursuit of yet more instants of acquisition, multiplied inordinately, is destroying the planet with gathering speed, it is the moments of non-material fulfillment that accumulate and aggregate to generate personal wellbeing.

First published on the Huffington Post 13th November 2014

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1. Relating personal wellbeing to environmental sustainability – how to shape a nutshell?

When I chose Happier People Healthier Planet as the main title for my book I wondered whether there should be a punctuation mark in the middle. I decided against the insertion of a comma or a colon between the two halves, as I didn’t want subtly to convey the sense that creating a healthier planet should be the sole reason for enhancing happiness; happiness is, after all, a worthwhile and legitimate pursuit in its own right – as is recognised in the US Declaration of Independence. The subtitle gave me much more pause for thought, however. I needed succinctly to communicate the core proposition of the book, that optimising genuine personal wellbeing is key to achieving the essential changes in prevalent, environmentally-damaging values and behaviours; for only by doing so will we be able to reduce the scale of depletion and pollution sufficiently to enable the Earth’s systems to continue to support human life and that of countless other species. I decided to do a little crowd-sourcing of opinions in order to try and generate a more detached perspective, and sought the views of a number of people who have contributed to the development of the book. I gave them some alternative words and phrases and asked them to tell me which they favoured. How Cultivating Wellbeing will Help us to Save the Earth; How Putting Wellbeing First could Help us Rescue the Earth; How Cultivating Wellbeing would Help us Protect the Earth. The choices to be made were thus between:

  • cultivating wellbeing / putting wellbeing first
  • can /will /would help
  • save the Earth / rescue the Earth /protect the Earth

This exercise was helpful – two people rightly pointed out that the Earth will carry on regardless, it’s life on Earth we have to worry about. However, few opinions out of the twenty-six were in complete agreement on the best combination. This was also helpful as the variety of likes and reasoning made me think more deeply about what I really wished to communicate and which words would work best to do so. More people liked “save” than “rescue”, but some found “save” hackneyed; “protect” was least popular. Some did not think “help” should be used at all, but I remained certain that “help” had to figure in the title as technological innovation clearly also has a crucial role to play in reducing the environmental toll of human activities. Views varied, too, on the best form of the verb. Some favoured the conditional “could” or “would”; but more advocated the present, active form of “can” or “will”. As for the options for the first part of the phrase, “cultivating wellbeing” was slightly more popular than “putting wellbeing first”. While I personally love the idea of cultivation, it is perfectly possible that some people would argue that we already do cultivate wellbeing – but they haven’t read the perspective in the book! Much more importantly, my whole point is that attending to all the many and complex sources of genuine wellbeing should be the principal purpose and rationale of policy. This, rather than the manufacture of financial profit for its own sake, which is the current prime motivator, should drive policy decisions. Wealth-creation of a real and enduring kind is about the nurture and maintenance of individual and social wellbeing. Of course money, both private and public, is necessary, indeed essential, in the service of health and lasting happiness, both in the present and for the future; but pursuing money for its own sake, chasing and accumulating sums much greater than can be deployed to this end, is highly corrosive of personal, social, institutional and political life – as well as the environment. I wanted the subtitle of the book to encapsulate this recognition. I agreed in principle with the small “crowd” I consulted that an active, present verb would be preferable to a conditional one. And it is true on an individual level that putting wellbeing first does benefit the environment, on an individual scale. Their responses made me realise that they seemed to be considering the question from an individual point of view, whereas what I wished to emphasise in particular was the collective, societal priority we should be giving to wellbeing. When public policy is determined pre-eminently by the joint demands of maximising private profit and minimising public expenditure, it is clear that there is scant understanding in government of the nature of and fundamental importance of wellbeing or of the conditions required for its nurture and maintenance. Existing public policies and practices tend to reduce the capacity of many individuals for fostering their own and others’ wellbeing, and severely limit the potential activity of supportive organisations. In the light of all of this, “putting wellbeing first would help”, although conditional, seemed to me to be a more definite and positive and less uncertain statement than “could” or “can” help. What, exactly, would be helped by prioritising wellbeing? It clearly had to be life on Earth, rather than the Earth itself. Second-verb-wise, “save” is a little clichéd by now; “rescue”, while heroic, might perhaps suggest a one-off endeavour to be accomplished and left behind – while what is needed is a permanent change of mindset and behaviour; and protect sounds somewhat soft and defensive. While all these approaches are perfectly valid, I decided in the end to go for a different word altogether: sustain. For this carries a sense of proactively nourishing, and of ongoing activity. Thus, having been born, the book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth, was named.

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