Food, Voluntary Simplicity, and Happiness
Watching wildlife is a big element of spending time in the San Juan Islands. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the birds and how each one has evolved within a specialized niche. For instance, Robins are extremely sensitive to noises and visual cues made by earthworms – their main food source. Kingfishers evolved in the same area as Peregrine Falcons, which prey on smaller birds. As a result, the Kingfisher is not only a superior diving and fishing bird, it’s also extremely paranoid and prefers to watch shallow pools of water while hidden from above by a tree branch.
Food is life. We are the only animals on the planet that don’t spend the majority of our time looking for food. We are strange creatures. From that perspective, it’s fascinating how obsessed we become with activities outside the basic necessities, like food. But beyond food, what do we really need in life? In his book, Happier, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches at Harvard and is a leading authority in the field of positive psychology, makes the argument that the pursuit of happiness is right up there with food, water, and shelter.
|He emphasizes that happiness should be treated like money, but more important. In our modern society, we are used to considering the financial impact of decisions in our lives. He argues that happiness should be treated as the ultimate currency. That any action we take should be carefully weighed in regard to its impact on the happiness of our lives.
The book teaches that in order to achieve happiness we must receive pleasure (present benefit) and meaning (future benefit) from our activities. All activities should be viewed through this lens. We need to ask ourselves, “Will this activity give me pleasure and meaning?” In fact, the book goes on to define that any activity which brings us happiness must contain the elements of pleasure, meaning, and engagement; with meaning and engagement being the most important factors.
If happiness is the ultimate currency, then the enlightened person will focus all his efforts (not engaged in basic necessities) to pursue happiness in his life. I think that is why I am so attracted to the voluntary simplicity movement. Its proponents seem to have found a genuine happiness that I would like to achieve in my life. By simplifying their lives, removing the distractions of ‘stuff’, and not having to work so hard, they are able to focus on food and happiness – whatever it is that happiness means to them.
The voluntary simplicity movement is repellent to definition. A main tenant is that it is up to the practitioners to define what simplicity means to them. However, common expressions include minimizing the amount of ‘stuff’ in our lives, living in smaller, more efficient homes, and focusing more of your time on your family, community, and health; even at the detriment of activities that may improve your life financially.
In my mind, these actions bring people closer to happiness. The pursuit of money does not bring happiness to most people. Certainly not myself. At the same time, the need for money in our lives cannot be ignored. However, by consciously choosing to focus our lives on those things that bring us happiness – our health, our family, our community, meaningful work – and by reducing the things in our life that distract us from this focus on happiness – ‘stuff’, large homes, stressful or meaningless jobs – it is possible to achieve and maintain happiness in our lives.