Learning to be happy while living within limits

Back in the 1990s, when I was still working as a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to write a feature article on people who had embraced “voluntary simplicity” as a way of life.

I thought that, given the state of the local economy then, there might be larger numbers of people who were experiencing involuntary simplicity.

I had the same thought when I listened to an excellent talk by Emrys Westacott last November as part of the annual UNESCO World Philosophy Day lectures at St. John Fisher College here in Rochester, N.Y., and later read his book, THE WISDOM OF FRUGALITY: Why Less Is More—More or Less  (2016).

He pointed out that the great majority of philosophers in both the Western and Eastern traditions endorse frugality as a way of life.

Be content with what you have, they say; don’t expect happiness from material goods. Instead you should seek simplicity, or self-sufficiency, or purity, or closeness to nature.

There’s a difference between a frugal person, and a poor person.  Frugal people live the way they do out of choice.  Poor people may or may not be have a worse material standard of living than frugal people, but they are worse off in either case because they are forced to make sacrifices they didn’t choose.

Philosophers have had different reasons for advocating frugality, not all of them compatible with each other.

Benjamin Franklin said thrift is necessary to get ahead in life.  Henry Thoreau said caring about stuff separates you from nature.  Epicurus said that the less you think you need, the happier you can be.  The ancient Spartans said needing a lot of stuff makes you weak.   Jesus of Nazareth said you should not seek riches, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven. The Buddha said something similar.

Westacott, with great clarity, examined these arguments, and more, and also the counter-arguments.

Aristotle, for example, rejected frugality as an ideal.  He said that one one of the virtues, or excellences, was “magnificence”—living up to your means. In his philosophy, a rich person should not live like Ebenezer Scrooge. The rich person should sponsor plays, contribute to public buildings and give parties with good food and drink.

We owe many good things to the ideal of magnificence, Westacott noted.  The world could have gotten along all right without a Taj Mahal, a Sistine Chapel or an Apollo space program, but he is glad these things exist, and so do I.

Another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, believed in “living dangerously.” In his own case, that meant living dangerously in the realm of ideas. He lived an austere life on a limited income.

But he spoke for many people who reject the idea of minimizing  wants. Some try to live a life rich in experiences, whatever the cost. Some pursue a dream or a goal, such as starting a business or performing as an actor or musician. Some devote themselves to a religious, social or political cause, regardless of cost or risk.

I think that just as a frugal person is different from a poor person, an adventurous person or a “magnificent” person is different from an extravagant person.

It is one thing to choose to spend money on something that is important to you. It is one thing to choose to risk poverty or failure for something that is important to you.  It is another to spend your money, and also your time and attention, on things that aren’t necessary, don’t make you happy or even may be bad for you just because you lack the will and discernment to choose.

I don’t think of myself as an extravagant person, and I am not a “magnificent” or adventurous person, but I would be unhappy without electricity, a flush toilet, central heating, running water, telephone service and many other things that previous generations lived quite happily without.

Electric power, telephone and water and sewerage systems would not have come into being if the mass of people hadn’t been unhappy with things as they are.

Westacott pointed out that our capitalist system requires ever-expanding wants and needs in order to function. If everybody suddenly embraced frugality, there would be an economic recession.

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told Americans not to fear to go shopping. This sounded odd, but his advice reflected economic reality.   Spending as usual was necessary to keep the economy going.

The unresolved contradiction in the economic system is that the system requires producers who follow the advice of Ben Franklin to save money, work hard and plan for the future, but it also consumers who follow the advice of advertisers to spend their money, enjoy life and live in the present.

Unfortunately there are limits to how much the masses of Americans can spend because median incomes have been stagnant or falling for the past few decades. That is because almost all the economic gains due to increased productivity have flowed to the upper 1 percent of income earners.

Political and economic reform could stop the upward redistribution of income and restore the mass consumer market. But there is no political end economic reform that can stave off climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels, exhaustion of other natural resources or population growth (in the short term).

That means the younger generation, and generations to come, will be forced to choose between voluntary frugality and involuntary poverty.   I think many would benefit from Westacott’s book.


Why the simple life is not just beautiful, it’s necessary by Emrys Westacott for Aeon.

An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness and everyday ethics by Debra Liese for Princeton University Press.


Below is an earlier version of the talk I heard on World Philosophy Day.

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2 Responses to “Learning to be happy while living within limits”

  1. msbeverlydiltz Says:

    amazing post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Craig Says:

    I think that Thoreau also thought that unnecessary toil for “things” separated people from themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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