In today’s society we strive to have it all. We work for it, we shop for it, we dream about it and we beat ourselves up when we don’t have it. We feel un-wealthy, unworthy and definitely NOT satisfied or happy! Why? Because we have been programmed throughout our lives to think that an accumulation of things is what constitutes happiness. And we use this accumulation of materiality to define who we are. So if materiality isn’t the answer to happiness, what is?
Let me answer by telling you a personal story.
A few years ago I was visiting friends and it struck me how simplistically they lived compared to me. They made more money, had fewer possessions and seemed happier. I had so much more - well, you know, stuff! And I certainly didn’t feel truly happy or satisfied. I had fallen into the cultural trap of always wanting more, and I bought it, racking up debt while running out of room to store it. It was at that moment I realized how much happier I was when I was younger and had less stuff. There was less stress, I had fun and if I’m honest with myself, I laughed and smiled more.
So, I made a decision. I really don’t need this stuff anymore! That isn’t what life is about. It’s about experiences and finding contentment, inner peace and happiness in or through those experiences. So I embraced spring cleaning year-round. And I embraced doing more of the things I liked to do.
Guess what? As I got rid of stuff, shopping only when I needed to, enjoying what I have and not stressing for more, I felt lighter, happier and dare I say it… more carefree! And, the less time I spent pursuing material things and instead focused on doing things that made me feel good about myself and my life, the more I sensed that deep satisfaction everyone seeks. In other words, I simplified my life and am happier because of it!
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychology professor and a leading expert on happiness, calls it “the flow” - doing what makes us feel good on the inside, not what we think makes us look good on the outside. In his 1999, American Psychologist article, “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy”, Csikszentmihalyi highlighted several reasons for feeling unhappy when our day-to-day activities consist mostly in pursuing material things and wealth. One reason was the concept of expectation versus value - the more we get the less satisfied we become. For example, you binge on a box of cookies thinking it will make you feel better, but the more you eat the less you enjoy it.
In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Csikszentmihalyi suggests three actions we can take to be happier:
- Find out what really gives you a deep-seated sense of satisfaction and makes you feel more energized and happy when you do it!
- Study what you spend your time on and how you feel doing them, then seek ways to spend time doing more of what makes you happy and satisfied and less of what you think will do it.
- Take control, make a decision and take the necessary steps in your life to do what truly makes you happy.
Sri Paramhansa Yogananda espouses similar things in his book “How to be Happy all the Time”. In his book, Yogananda states that while there is material prosperity, people lack inner happiness because they look for it externally rather than internally. He mentions that happiness stems from being in control of your habits and what he calls “appetites” – the “over-demands of your senses”. He says that in order to be happy we shouldn’t be looking for things; instead we need to be content with what we have and in our pursuit of what we want. He also emphasizes simplicity, which he describes as “a quiet path of moderation”.
This quote from Yogananda’s book is a good way of understanding happiness as it pertains to simplicity: “Joy is too delicate a flow to bloom in the sooted atmosphere of worldly minds, which crave happiness from money and possessions. Joy wilts too, when people water it inadequately by placing conditions on their happiness, telling themselves, ‘I won’t be really happy until I get that car (or dress, or house, or vacation by the sea)!’ Materialistic people, however frantically they pursue the butterfly of happiness, never succeed in catching it. Were they to possess everything their hearts ever craved, happiness would still elude them.”
Now you understand that wanting and pursuing “stuff” does not lead to happiness, but does it mean to be happy we have to have nothing? If pictures of spiritual teachers living in absolute poverty come to mind, that is NOT simplicity and happiness as Yogananda and others define it. It means not buying things you don’t need – those “unnecessary possessions”. It means having enough. It doesn’t mean poverty or other extremes. It means comfortably living your life with, and doing, the things that truly make you happy and letting go of everything else.
So what are some ways you can live a more simplistic, happier life? Here are some tips from Yogananda:
- Spend time enjoying what “God has provided, without seeking false and expensive pleasures”. In other words, spend time in nature, in quiet contemplation, in reading, or listening to music in a reflective state.
- Make time for what’s important and don’t waste time on what’s not.
- Minimize stress, financial strain and worry by spending less on material things and living within your means.
- Let go of unnecessary clutter, the things that are truly not a necessity and keep those things that bring you inner contentment and self-sufficiency (he calls it “soul-sufficiency”) – in other words, do your spring cleaning!
- Enjoy the simple delights that life brings your way and take time to appreciate what you have and what’s around you.
- Spring clean! Declutter, downsize and make your home the sanctuary it’s supposed to be.This means not only rid yourself of things you don’t use, but also toss those things that give off negative energy, such as clothes that make you feel “ugly” or an item that makes you feel sad. Keep only what’s necessary and makes you feel good, inside and out!
- Multi-task less and focus more on things that need your attention the most, first. Eliminate tasks that aren’t really needed.
- Simplify your finances by cutting out unnecessary expenses or reducing them, spend less and enjoy what you have.
- Spend time with your family. Do things together that don’t cost money. Eat together, talk with each other.
- Get outside, get out in nature. Go for a walk or hike, go running, do yoga in the grass.
- Make fewer commitments, learn to say no, and keep your obligations to a minimum.
Spend time without distraction every day. Don’t use your electronics, don’t watch television, don’t check emails. Instead, spend time meditating, in quiet reflection or observing yourself and others.
“Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in the simplicity of living. It is those who have enough but not too much who are the happiest." – Peace Pilgrim.