Voluntary Simplicity: THe Cure for Affluenza

Modernity is the age of stuff.  Industrial capitalism, in all its varied and changing forms, has produced an enormous amounts of things–toasters, toilets, cars and computers and many other objects. To observe everyday life in modern America, sociologists must be attuned to patterns and modes of consumption.  We need a science of human consumption in everyday life examining the processes through which all of this stuff gets used, or not used, or stored, or disguarded, or….  Consumptionis the selection, purchase or adoption, use, disposal and recycling of goods and services.

Many social observers have noted that we, at least in wealthier nations, have entered an era of overconsumption.  That is, the amount of goods and services we consume is not sustainable.  Our ecological footprint is so large that it is stamping out living creatures throughout the rest of the world. Affluenza is a name given to the epidemic of overconsumption. Affluenza is also the title of a 1996 PBS special on this topic.  According to their web page, this is a definition of affluenza:

Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth. 4. A television program that could change your life.

We live in a age in which many people consume and consume.  There are wide-spread lifestyles in which people choose to maximize the “more-is-better” pursuit of wealth and consumption.  Consumerism is the equating of personal happiness with the purchasing and use of material possession.  Not only does this not necessarily bring people happiness, it is ecologically ruinous.  The culture of consumption has drained the earth of many valued resources and has greatly polluted our ecosystem.
The Affluenza website above has lots of good information on this topic.

Many people now focus all of their energies on getting and having stuff.  It has become a substitute for a meaningful life.
We are, in so many ways, a much wealthier country than we were fifty years ago.  But has all this increased stuff made people happier?  Not much.  In fact, surveys state that the amount of people who describe themselves as “very happy” reached its peak in 1957.  Check out the great book,Affluenza: An All-Consuming Epidemicby John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor (2005, Second Edition) based on the PBS show.

Voluntary simplicity is a movement of people away from overconsumption, away from consumerism as a way of life and away from materialist attitudes about the good life. Also referred to as “simple living”, this lifestyle is choosen by people for a variety of reasons, including spirituality, health, increase in ‘quality time’, stress reduction, conservation, social justice or anti-consumerism.  According to Duane Elgin in his pioneering book Voluntary Simplicity (1993), it is “a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living”.
Try these handy tips for beating Affluenza (from the PBS website)!
1. Before you buy, ask yourself:
Do I need it? Do I want to dust (dry-clean or otherwise maintain) it? Could I borrow it from a friend, neighbor or family member? Is there anything I already own that I could substitute for it? Are the resources that went into it renewable, or non-renewable? How many hours will I have to work to pay for it? (Note: Before you do this, you may find it useful to figure your real hourly wage. Take your annual net income and subtract your work-related costs like clothing, transportation, child care, parking and lunches out.
2. Avoid the mall. Go hiking or play ball with the kids instead.
3. Figure out what public transportation can save you (time, money for gas and parking, peace of mind).
4. Become an advertising critic. Don’t be sucked in by efforts to make you feel inadequate so you’ll buy more stuff you don’t need.
5. Volunteer for a school or community group.
6. Splurge consciously. A few luxuries can be delightful, and they don’t have to be expensive.
7. Stay in — have a potluck, play a game, bake bread, write a letter, cuddle a loved one.
8. Make a budget — know how much you are earning and spending. Each dollar represents precious time in your life that you worked. Are you spending money in ways that fulfill you?
9. Pretend the Joneses are the thriftiest, least wasteful people on the block. Then try to keep up with them.
10. For even more ideas, watch Affluenza.

Living on a limited income for a number of years, I learned to embrace voluntary simplicity.  To live and teach in coastal California in the Santa Barbara-Ventura area, I accepted a part-time positon at Ventura College, where I taught from 1995-2005.  While I taught eight class per year, my salary was about $30,000.  But I loved being by the coast with a lot of free time.  I unplugged my television in 1999. I gave up having a car in 2001.  I learned to shop exclusively at thrift stores.  I rarely went out to eat.  I spent a lot of time hiking in nature, playing at the beach, and doing other no-cost leisure activities. I have brought much of that lifestyle to my new life in Santa Barbara.  Working with the homeless the last two years has helped me to “keep it simple”.  I still use my bicycle as my main means of transportation, still do not watch television and truly enjoy a simple life.  It works!

Center for a New American Dream
Wayne Martin Mellinger 6-19-08