Adopting a lifestyle that reduces consumerism, consumption, and clutter to focus on non-material pursuits.

The phrase came into widespread use with the publication of Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, first published in 1981, and reprinted throughout the 1990s. Elgin looked back at the traditions of the Quakers, the Puritans, transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and various world religions to provide philosophical underpinnings to living a simple life, in the context of growing environmental awareness and the spread of American consumerism into global monoculture. In the 1990s it got more attention with books like Vicki Robin's and Joe Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life, Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette , PBS' televison special Affluenza, each encouraging a new "frugalness."

Critics of the "simple living movement" decry what they see as a romanticization of poverty, an unrealistic call to return to rural subsistence living and aesthetic deprivation (pointing to extreme examples such as the 1990s neo-Luddite zine, Simple, set with moveable type and printed by letterpress).

Voluntary simplicity, as the word voluntary implies, excludes conditions of involuntary poverty. And while there may be sacrifice involved, the point is not deprivation, as Elgin points out, quoting Gandhi:

As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you...
VS has become enough of a trend in the United States (where people seem to have trouble distinguishing between quality of living and standard of living), that corporations have noted the opportunity to make a quick buck: If the idea of spending money to learn how to reduce consumption doesn't make sense to you, ask yourself these questions from the Simple Living Collective of San Francisco:
  1. Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it involve passivity and dependence?
  2. Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
  3. How tied is my present job and lifestlye to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  4. Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the Earth?
In practical terms, voluntary simplicity often means choosing to reduce the number of hours spent working for pay and increase the time spent with children, friends, family, pursuing artistic goals, or contributing to the community.

Sources: Mark A. Burch, Simplicity (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 1995);
Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (New York : Morrow, 1981);
Amitai Etzioni, "Voluntary Simplicity: Characterization, Select Psychological Implications, and Societal Consequences," Journal of Economic Psychology, No. 19, (1998), pp. 619-643.

In a recent NPR story about how much more vacation time Europeans take than Americans, economist Lester Thurow described it thus:

To feel that they're getting the most out of their vacation time, Americans (in general; it's a generalization, OK?) want accessories like powerboats. Europeans (in general) are perfectly happy to spend their vacation in a canoe, and so can afford to take a lot more time off work since they don't need to pay for the boat.

Thurow also pointed out that, while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that longer vacations make one more productive when back at work, there is no hard evidence to support this notion, and so one cannot say which work ethic is 'better' for an economy.

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