Friday, December 21, 2012

The Cruisin’ Minimalist

When I view minimalist art, I do not appraise it and declare, “That’s not minimalism.  It’s not doing without.”  In fact, the idea that minimalism is about focusing on that which we relinquish or don’t have is an entirely distorted perspective on simplicity.  Minimalist art does without nothing.  It is akin to the old wood carver, who was asked how he decided what to carve out of his length of raw wood.  His reply was simple.  “I merely look at the wood, and see what is in there.  Then I just get rid of the stuff that doesn’t belong.”
I have heard this analogy before, in various settings.  Minimalism focuses on finding what should be there, and nothing more, whether it involves interior design, business operations or lifestyles.  I regularly read blogs and articles by those who espouse minimalism, simple living, voluntary simplicity and frugal living.  Many of those writers espouse getting rid of stuff, and living with less.  This seems intuitive, since minimal implies living with the minimum of something. I, too, consider myself to be a minimalist.  I have relatively few household possessions, keep my wardrobe to the most basic, have forfeited our second vehicle, shop for bargains, employ those assets that can do double duty, and so on.  These all are tenets of voluntary simplicity, as it is commonly accepted.  Yet, I also indulge myself.
Minimal art does the same.  Minimalist art decries the clutter of unnecessary elements, and, in turn, highlights the focus, and the most significant facets of the work.  In my book, The Last Drop Of Living: A Minimalist’s Guide To Living The High Life On A Low Budget, I draw the comparison between minimal living and displays in an art gallery or museum.  The focal piece on the gallery is not hidden by an assortment of frivolous support pieces.  Instead, it likely will be found on a pedestal apart from other pieces, or on a naked wall, featuring only that artwork.  It is the most critical component, the only element that matters.  It is not diminished by being alone.  Rather, it is enhanced.  Minimalism should allow us to find the most important things in our life, and focus upon them.
With that in mind, I built my personal strategy for “going minimal.”  It involved a very basic process: decide what is important to me, and what is unimportant.  Next, I opted to relinquish  those things and ideas that may have value, but that were less vital than others.  Both my wife and I chose to focus on our leisure as vital to our enjoyment.  Essential to those recreational priorities was the idea of cruising.
Today, I write this blog on board the @Norwegian Pearl, as we leave the Grand Stirrup Cay for our next Caribbean destination.  How is such a lavish holiday “minimalist?”  Simple.  In exchange for giving up frequent dinner-out evenings, a second vehicle, extra home furnishings, a big house, etc., we are able to apply some of our surplus resources to a great holiday.  It is the second of four cruises we will have taken within the year.
But sacrificing in one area of living and then splurging in another is like saying, “Well, I stuck to my ‘no smoking’ pledge for six months, so now I’m going to celebrate by having a huge cigar, or overeating for the next six months.” 
As a dedicated minimalist, I need to show  restraint in the area of my holidays, as well, if I wish to avoid my own internal dissonance.  So, I cruise minimally, as well.  Websites like (,, individual cruise line websites (like ( and several other discount providers offer discounts that may be as much as 80% off the brochure price.  By screening carefully, one can boast of significant savings, and demonstrations of frugality.  By purchasing in a 90 day window prior to sailing, prices may drop further.  By booking inside staterooms, you are able to obtain rock-bottom prices (inside staterooms, after all, are only used for eight hours each night, while the rest of our time is spent on shore or on deck.).
When I factor in the cost of food, entertainment and supplies, plus the cost of accommodations, I discover that each day on a cruise costs less than the cost of a budget motel room each night!
Ask the more rigid advocates of minimalism whether we truly can be considered to be living a life of voluntary simplicity and you will receive a resounding “No.”  That’s fair enough.  They see the world differently than I do.  But tell me, would you rather live in a cardboard box, eat scraps and proclaim yourself a minimalist, or would you prefer to get the most out of each moment at the best price while being ostracized by the self-professed puritans?  Live minimally.  Cruise to your heart’s content!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Minimalism In The Big City

Voluntary simplicity and minimal living have great cachet in today’s fragile economic times.  Frugal living is nothing new, and simple living has bee the mainstay of many environmentally aware people for decades.  However, the concept has not gained widespread acceptance for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the tendency to look to rural living or escaping from the “big city”  standards of living as the primary technique for achieving a simple lifestyle.  Yet, living minimally actually is easier to undertake in urban centres, even though the social pressures to conform to more materialistic lifestyles are significant.
Living with less is the primary focus of this lifestyle, but, in truth, the most gratifying aspect of cutting back on frills is the ability to focus on the most important aspects of our lives.  That is unique to each of us, yet proponents of the way of living too often urge us to adopt their own perspectives and interpretations of simple living.   It is far from an accurate or satisfying approach.
My wife and I opted to live in a yurt, off the grid, for several years.  However, I would never advocate that everyone else who wants to embrace voluntary simplicity move to a rural environment, live off the grid or build their own yurt.  It was our personal preference.
Other acquaintances have employed a more basic approach to living in the city, without any difficulty and with a lot of enjoyment.
In the city, one has greater access to options than in the country, and greater opportunities to employ alternative strategies to reduce ownership while increasing enjoyment of assets and activities.
One of the greatest materialistic and economic burdens is the automobile.  Yet, any owner will tell you that the car is essential to daily life.  There are several options, however, to reduce reliance on personal ownership of a vehicle in the city.  While public transportation is the most frequently cited substitute, other alternatives include “car sharing” (where owners either opt for specific times of the day or days of the week to use a shared vehicle),  commuter vehicles (mopeds, etc), bicycles, weekend vehicle rentals (or on-demand rentals) and seasonal leasing.
Of course, to reduce the need for a vehicle, simply either move closer to work or search for a job closer to home!
In the 1970s, many young people (most often, young men) cut housing costs by sharing a house.  The modern-day extension of this concept is for homeowners who wish to cut housing costs to lease out rooms or share the house with other renters.
In the vein of shared housing, consider sharing other entertainment assets.  On average, a video or DVD is viewed fewer than three times, yet millions of us buy and store vast collections of movies.  Similarly, print books gather dust on the shelves after one or two readings.  Why not develop an exchange program with friends, passing these movies, CDs and books or magazines among the members of the group.  Lower cost, greater reach of each piece of entertainment!  Even many e-books can be shared or “loaned” on Amazon and other e-book vendors.  Hundreds of thousands of free songs and books are available, legally.
Inexpensive entertainment can become free entertainment, if you opt for “open house” days at local zoos, art galleries, museums and even local high school drama productions.  In summer, most cities offer myriad free entertainment, including bands, dance groups and theatre.
Many places offer discounts for groups of six or more people.  Inquire as to whether the entertainment venue that you wish to visit will provide a bulk rate, and then arrange for a group outing.
Weekly visits to restaurants form the backbone of the food service industry.  However, home-based parties provide a much more relaxed atmosphere.  Consider arranging for a regular rotation of hosted dinner parties (e.g. each member of a group of eight hosts once every two months).   
There are hundreds of ways to minimize costs while simplifying your life in the big city.  Most rely on the principle of owning less, or getting more mileage out of each possession.  Be creative, and the need to own will become less of an addiction, or even a craving.  At the same time, you will find that your budget dollars last much longer!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Lean, As Well As Green, Living Combines Best Of Each Concept

A popular lifestyle trend, advocated by many who profess to live responsibly, is the voluntary simplicity movement.  In its raw form, minimal living requires that we eschew material wealth, and look to a standard of living that involves the least amount of possessions. Simultaneously,  the environmental movement demands that we create the smallest eco-footprint that we can, guarding the environment preciously. Both lifestyles appear to have much in common, yet, oddly, there is only a nominal effort to blend the two together.
There is vociferous opposition to the eco-friendly concept by those that seek to deny the reality of climate change.  The anti-tree hugger groups gravitate toward the argument that, since global warming is a myth (or, at best, not caused by human actions), there is no need to spend effort on protecting the ecology of the earth.  These people miss the point of being eco-friendly.
I live a modest lifestyle, yet do not begrudge those that have wealth and show it.  The premise built into the anti-environment people’s argument is that, if what they do will cause no serious harm, then there is no reason to discontinue being disrespectful and selfish regarding pollution problems. Extrapolating that argument to the middle/upper income situation then, I should be able to simply take what I want from those who have affluence, simply because it will have no monetary impact on them.  Even more to the point, I should be able to walk into the anti-climate change proponents’ homes and dump whatever garbage and pollution I want in their back yard, because the filth will not impact on the environment.  The fact is, whether or not my actions harm the environment, I should act responsibly as much as possible, including taking care to not impact on others’ enjoyment of the world around them!
Living a green lifestyle simply says that I want to enjoy this earth, but that I do not need to be wasteful to do so.  I want to take only what I need on this globe, not what I want.  I choose to live cleanly and simply, as much as possible.
Those that embrace the minimalist approach to living often are labelled as harshly as “tree huggers” by those that think that we choose to live this lifestyle because we have nothing, and want others to do the same. I have been told that most of us choose this way of living because, if we have little in the way of material wealth, we don’t have to work as hard to get it.  In essence, I am being told that I choose voluntary simplicity because I am lazy!  It is an intriguing label, given that a) I have developed multi-million dollar businesses for others, b) have owned (and sold for pennies) a business that grossed $1.6 million in its second year of business, and c) living minimally takes a lot of conscious effort and (the horror!) work.  Voluntary simplicity says that I do not need material wealth to generate huge enjoyment out of life.  Indeed, it offers a richness for which money cannot  be bartered.
Both minimalism and environmentalism seek to embrace living consciously and enthusiastically, but without taking huge bites out of that which is available to consume.  By doing so, more is left for others to enjoy.  This idea that “lean” is an ideal to aim toward is not radical, nor impossible.  It is realistic, and hugely gratifying.  Similarly, “going green” is a fantastic journey, allowing us to take Robert Frost’s road less travelled. He was so correct when he claimed that doing so “has made all the difference.”  Will the world be greener because of me?  Who knows?  Will my efforts at living with less pay dividends for others?  Possibly not.  Neither matters.  The lean and green living concept offers an option that combines, for me, the epitome of what I see is my duty.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Simple Minds Or Untapped Genius?

The world waits on our best scientific minds and deep corporate financial pockets to provide us with solutions to our global energy crisis.  We know that it is only a matter of time and money before they develop cost-effective solar solutions, and eliminate our dependence upon fossil fuels.  But the promised alternative energy Nirvana has been long in the development, with little sign of imminent solution.  So why are we waiting on our self-proclaimed and acknowledged academic and financial geniuses?  Stan Ovshinsky already has proven that these great inventions do not have to originate from huge monetary investments or conventional intellectuals.
Mr. “Call me Stan” Ovshinsky is the guy who invented the battery that powers most laptop computers, and was the force behind the invention of hydrogen fuel cells, LCD TV screen technology and electric car systems, along with being the holder of nearly 1,000 patents.  Yet, he never graduated high school.
With this apparent lack of genius, he was able to show that the conventional theories about semi-conductors were wrong, much to the chagrin of scientists who scoffed at this nearly uneducated man.  Undeterred, Stan and his wife used their meagre savings to start Energy Conversion Devices, and began developing and marketing his inventions.  His everyday genius has provided us with incredible breakthroughs in the understanding of alternative energy concepts.  At the age of 85, he started two new companies, focused upon making solar cell energy less costly than coal.  Unfortunately, he died, just shy of his 90th birthday, with his latest dreams unfulfilled.
It is not the intuitive brilliance of his creations that is Mr. Ovshinsky’s legacy.  Rather, it is the lesson that each of us could learn from his example: every one of us is capable of contributing to the solutions needed in today’s world, from social to economic to concrete creations.  The myth that only big money and educated academics are able to solve the complex issues confronting us has been completely disintegrated because of the practical example set by Stan Ovchensky.
While money may be needed to bring ideas to commercial fruition, those essential, initial steps – the dreams, ideas and concepts – require only the application of our own unique perspectives and experiences.  It is the combination of these two elements that germinate the genius within each of us.  Rather than regarding our own meagre contributions as the uniformed inspirations of a simple mind, we should act upon those insights as if they were -- all of them – the seeds of the next most marvellous event to change the world.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Micro-lending, Telephone Banking and M-Pesa For Minimalists

In a part of the world hardly known for its economic innovations, a revolution in finance offers a concept that is a brilliant solution for North Americans: M-Pesa.
M-Pesa is a cellular-telephone money-handling idea that allows Kenyans to store money on their cell phones, transfer the money across the country, and avoid costly bank fees in the process.  It is a concept that provides a real stimulus for commerce and micro-business development.
In other parts of Africa, another innovation – micro-lending – offers a platform on which budding entrepreneurs with creative ideas and a commitment to success can build micro- and extremely small businesses through funding sources that may provide as little as $20 for a business start-up.  Yet, this supposedly pathetic funding model has resulted in financial independence and freedom from abject poverty for thousands of Africans without access to conventional financing.
Ironically, both concepts would work in western economies, but have been eschewed, largely because they lack the glamour, polish and complexity of conventional business models held out as being the most efficient in our North American markets.  Particularly, both schemes are adaptable for those of us who embrace the minimalistic mantra for living: simple is better.  M-Pesa’s equivalent – telephone banking – has been usurped by the domestic financial community in North America, with, aside from PayPal, the only significant cellular banking formats being conducted through one’s existing banking institutions or credit card providers.
M-Pesa has grown beyond Kenya, to countries like South Africa and Tanzania, where geography and weak banking infrastructure make access to finances difficult.  The concept, though, allows for users to hold money on their phones, then attend at any of myriad kiosks in these countries, where they are able to obtain actual cash to make purchases or pay bills where cellular funds would not be accepted.  This component of M-Pesa overlaps into conventional North American debit systems.
Micro-lending, like M-Pesa, has grown out of the unique, impoverished demands of Africa.  As an option to no funding whatever, or worse, loan sharks, workers can borrow money from a non-profit micro-lender to establish a very localized business, obtain raw materials or inventory or expand an existing cottage micro-business.  A mere $20 loan can provide economic stability that will enable an undertaking, otherwise doomed to failure, to flourish.
Again, like M-Pesa, micro-lending is a concept that would work well in North American systems, if not for our myopic belief that “big” is the only way and that any lending needs the financial skirt and blouse of respectability and perception of quality.  In fact, micro-lending on a community basis may be nothing more complex than a bartering system, using cash instead of goods.  Micro-lending can take place, based on faith and the security of future product and/or service.
Since conventional capitalism seems to be reluctant to embrace something so base as an M-Pesa or micro-lending network, the opportunity exists for those of us who embrace simplicity.  Networks of money exchanges could be set up, with little difficulty and no risk to lenders, but using only one centrally managed bank account and a team of volunteer overseers.  The equivalent to M-Pesa similarly could flourish, using a combination of barter and social network tenets, at almost no cost to the participants.  Yet, established financial institutions would, most likely, seek to block such initiatives, ostensibly because it would be perceived as risky for individuals, but, in actuality, to protect the institutional lenders’ territory.
Such a concept – discarding establishment corporate power – probably would be welcomed enthusiastically by such fringe groups as survivalist and anti-government bodies, and, in turn, be viewed suspiciously by those of us who may be more mainstream.  This should not keep us from, at least, exploring the potential in these viable ideas.  All that we require is a willingness to be open to the proposal, and identification of individuals or groups willing to take the lead in setting up M-Pesa and Micro-lending for Americans.  Are you one such person?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Creeping Materialism

I didn’t notice that we were closet materialists until  …. well, until we emptied out all our closets!
Last fall, my wife and I reluctantly moved out of our yurt for the winter months, and purchased an old home in desperate need of extensive repairs nearby.  There were a few reasons for the decision. 
First, at age 60, I am getting somewhat reluctant to shovel snow from a driveway that is 975 yards long, in a Manitoba winter.  On average, we would be shovelling ten to twelve times per year, and, after doing it twice in one week last winter, I knew that I did not want to do it again.  Being a bit of an eco-freak, I also refuse to buy a tractor or snow blower, just yet.  So, it was shovel or shove off.  I chose the latter.
Second, also because I am a bit of an eco-freak and consider myself to be handy, I felt that, if I upgraded the windows, doors, insulation and heating system on this old house, the home would be a great year-round retirement place, at a very good price, for some lucky buyer.
Third, I was not yet ready for full retirement, and this project would provide me with a fair amount of exercise, a little extra cash and a chance to learn new curse words as I demolished the old interior.  (I did learn those new words, by the way.)
But moving for only the winter months meant that we opted to buy a few new items of furniture, new window coverings, new fixtures, a few new tools, new accessories for staging the home when we sold, and even new clothes (because the snow was too deep to get back to the yurt, in winter, when we left for vacation).
This spring, we put the house up for sale.  It didn’t sell.  Then, it didn’t sell.  And, by late summer, it still didn’t sell. So, we put the land and yurt up for sale.  In two days, it sold.  Then, on the day after closing the deal on the yurt, a potential buyer offered us an acceptable price on the house.  We didn’t sell. 
So now, we had to move everything from the yurt to the house. That was when we discovered that we were closet materialists.  In a strange way, we were “outted” by a lack of closets.  Today, our garage is overflowing with surplus possessions.  Our home is as full as any other materialist’s home, but with a strange assortment of stuff that we neither wanted nor needed, but purchased, “just in case.”  Extra spring jackets, extra pictures, extra seating, extra space heaters, extra lighting, extra lawn accessories and so on. We have three air compressors (for roofing), since one failed on the day we needed it and the other was trapped, by the snow, at the yurt.    We have four hammers, extra cabinets, two sofas, two barbeques, an extra oven, two washers, two dryers and four ladders.
I only purchased what I felt we absolutely needed, when we needed it.  Yet, as you can see from this partial list, I have a surfeit of stuff.  This is the most commonly travelled path to materialism: we fail to plan ahead, we purchase for the moment and we confuse wants with needs.  It is creeping materialism.
This weekend, though, we will hold a garage sale.  Regardless of the price, we will be unburdening ourselves of our excess.  Anyone need an air compressor for a buck? And, do you know where I can by an extra yurt?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bartering Best For Minimal Lifestyle

In the small village in which I was raised, it was common for a neighbour to bake twenty or so loaves of bread one day, and make the rounds giving away a few loaves to each of her closest friends.  Another neighbour might have cooked a vat of stew, which she shared with others.  In hunting season, the men would bring home thirty or more birds for plucking and cleaning by the women, who then distributed them in the community.
Men would, whenever needed, spend a day or two building shops and sheds for friends, or one who could do electrical repairs would fix plugs and lights throughout the village, asking nothing in return.  However, when he need mechanical work done, there was always a neighbour who would be able to weld or repair machinery.
This concept of community seems overly simplistic and archaic, yet it worked exceptionally well.  Where and when did it die?
The 2008 economic downturn helped to revive the spirit of need, but not the spirit of sharing and cooperative effort.  It may be that the entrepreneurial, independent spirit that we have been told is the hallmark of American society has been the cause of this misguided independence.  It is not dependency to offer your skill set to those in need, and then, in time, to have the favour returned. 
Those of us who have opted for one variation or another of voluntary simplicity in our lives have uncovered the benefits of community, and caring for the community.  It is nothing more than barter. I do something that is within my skill set and abilities for someone, and, some time later, I call on someone else to provide a service or goods for me. 
Money has interceded in the very logical and most-often effective system of tradeoffs and pooling of resources for individual and group benefit.  Money, and government.
The IRS and Canada Revenue Agency both view bartering as taxable.  You do carpentry work for Joe, and then “bank” that service,” redeeming it later for free merchandise, you have bartered.  If you are operating as a business, then you and the other party are taxed on the fair market value of those goods. 
But are backyard exchanges of garden produce, or household goods, or helping hands considered “business?”  Both tax agencies have ruled inconsistently on this matter.  “Is there a profit intent?” they ask.  Well, if you consider that you got rid of something of little value to you but of greater value to someone else, and in exchange the opposite was true, then that could be considered a profitable transaction.  But where is the business component?
For the most part, government turns a blind eye to such elementary transactions, and therein lies the opportunity for the industrious minimalist.  Bartering and trading of goods and services is a fantastic way to minimize owning or possessing items that you rarely use, but occasionally need.  Community spirit and the honest, fair exchange of goods cuts costs, cuts ownership obligation, and is a very efficient use of resources. And, it is an act of independence, not dependence, that has operated successfully for thousands of years.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Successful Living Like Successful Dying

We should learn lessons on living from those that have died successfully.  If that sounds convoluted, or even fatalistic, it is not.  Succinctly put, dying successfully involves living even more triumphantly. Many of us neither live well nor die well.  Substantially, that is because we not only have been indoctrinated with false assumptions and values, but also have been conditioned to live comparatively and competitively, in every aspect of our lives.

I want to draw on four people in my life as examples of dealing with the prospect of dying, or, at least, dealing with a life-threatening illness.

The first, diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s, responded by angrily determining to beat the disease, even though radical surgery was required.  Her prognosis was terrible, but she lived another ten years, at last weakened beyond recovery in a serious car accident.

The second died of throat cancer, after denying that his smoking was a contributor and refusing to deal with the growth on his neck for over a year.  When, in the latter stages of cancer, he was told that he might gain a few weeks or months of life if he quit, responded, “It isn’t worth it,” and smoked to his last day.

The third bemoaned his fate, gave up and died quickly.

The fourth person accepted the diagnosis, looked into alternatives, made adjustments in his life and continued on with daily activities, letting the diagnosis have as little impact on the way that he lived as possible.

These people are representative of the world at large, and dealt with their illnesses in typical manner, with varying degrees of success.  Two, of course, decreased the quality and duration of their lives significantly by their inaction. 

Dr.  Fiore, a specialist in issues of dying,  recommends that a person with a fatal illness starts by taking charge of his or her life, asking lots of good questions, and making informed choices regarding doctors, hospitals and treatments. He further suggests that the patient should express his feelings through talking or writing them down, singing or even screaming. He concludes by telling his patients that they should treat the illness, not like a Rocky Balboa fight, but trusting the body to know what to do.

Psychological researcher, Dr. C. Scanlon, in his 1989 article entitled, “Creating a vision of hope: The challenge of palliative care.” (Oncology Nursing Forum, 16(4), 491-496.), itemizes the following as the primary worries of a person with a terminal illness: 1) Further debilitation and dependency, 2) Pain and suffering,  3) Consequences for dependents and arranging affairs, 4) An uncertain future, 5) Lingering, 6) Dying alone, 7) Loss of control, 8) Changing relationships, 9) Existential concerns,  10) Change in mental functioning and 11) Afterlife.

As we examine each of these concerns, we find that, in a nutshell, people facing death primarily focus on issues relating to loss of control.  By placing health management responsibly in the hands of the patient, the stress associated with loss of control is diminished.

This concern over control in death is the same with control in life.  Most of us ride life, instead of steering.  We are not in control, and, in turn, we experience stress.  More stress, less happiness.  Less happiness, less fulfillment. 

Such a simple conclusion seems --- well, too simple!  It is not.  Those people with an external locus of control, who give their lives into the hands of others, are less fulfilled that those who take control of those things that impact on their own lives, and those things over which they can exercise responsible control.  They are less stressed, more vibrant, more explorative, more willing and able to face hurdles, not as insurmountable problems, but as challenges to be faced and overcome.

Death is an insurmountable problem.  Dying is not, and should be approached by seeking to maintain as much control over the process and facts as possible.  Living, equally, is a process that demands that to be successfully navigated and enjoyed we must be involved in and managing the events in our lives.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Live Life As If You Were Already Retired

From the time we begin our adult working life, we are inoculated with the belief that we should plan, save and direct substantial amounts of our energy toward being ready for retirement.  Yet, we live a retired lifestyle for an average of sixteen years, and work for nearly 40. So where is the wisdom of focusing on the future, when it is so distant and such a small portion of our adult life?
The concept of retirement planning is, of course, with merit.  However, living for today also carries merit.  There are extremes of lifestyle focused in each of these directions, with those that indolently absorb the moment, but are totally unprepared for any contingency or emergency that may arise, counting on society to take care of their needs.  On the other hand, there are frugal, obsessive individuals who hoard pennies to be ready for old age, and, when old age arrives, fret over every coin that is spent, even when faced with the truth that they have more than enough set aside to live comfortably.  In the middle is the route to comfort and balance, making the most of each moment without selfish indulgence.
Unfortunately, modern technologies and modern standards blur the lines between responsible work and planning, enjoying one’s life and being a contributing part of the world around us.  Our laptop computers, tablets and smart phones carry our personal lives to work, our business lives home.  Exclusive, valued time spent with close friends has become shared with Facebook and Twitter, email and text friendships at our fingertips.   Quiet time frequently is shattered with the beep, tweet, chirp, ring or jingle that alerts us to incoming communications.  Few of us demonstrate the will power or social awareness to defer answering these devices, regardless of where we are or what we may be doing.  We live, not for the moment, but governed by that moment – a moment owned by whoever is intruding into our time.  There is no exclusivity to our time, whether it be work, play, community personal or family.
We have become a society that has no future, but is directed to save for it.  We have become a culture that has a surfeit of time, but gives it away frivolously, then bemoans the loss.  We have become slaves to the moment, but that moment is defined by others, for the most part.
To embrace the idea that we should live for the moment is as polarizing as to embrace the idea that we should focus exclusively on the future.  However, we do need to value the moment, and anticipate the upcoming life. 
Studies show that we derive more value from small, frequent pleasures than from one large indulgence.  On the other hand, analyses reveal that we are more stressed by frequent minor annoyances beyond our control than by larger, infrequent crises.  The logical corollary to these two conclusions is that, to get the most out of life, we need to take time to embrace the world around us, but to do so in a manner that provides long term satisfaction rather than short term spikes of pleasurable but selfish indulgence.  The future will be shaped by how we view and interact with life today.  If we opt to ride the crests and valleys formed by others around us, we will experience less enjoyment in the moment than if we take a balanced view of our contribution to the environment around us in relation to what we would like to see come back to us.  We should grab each moment, not each day, and look to being the best we can be, not look to grabbing the most we can get.
By snatching at every incoming communication, by mashing work with personal life, by sacrificing friendly personal interaction for electronic jabber, we are ingesting everything, but like the cow in the foxtail patch discovers, everything is not always a pleasure to eat!
Balance, then, is vital.  Enjoy the moments of pleasure, but enjoy, also, the moments of effort and hard work.  Save and plan for the future, but also plan and spend as if the future is today.  Use technology to embrace life, rather than letting gadgets sap life from your fingertips.  Live each moment as if you were already retired!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is Chasing Happiness A Selfish Pursuit?

Like the American dream of owning your own home and becoming wealthy, the pursuit of happiness has become the touchstone that identifies the focus of many of our lives.  But is the pursuit of happiness, like the dream of financial success, an overtly and overly selfish concept?

As a child of the hippie era, I lived my early adult years in the fog of self indulgence and Spartan decadence, with hundreds of thousands of young North Americans around me choosing the irresponsibility of unemployment, “free love” and separation from the pedantic duty to the world around us.  Yet, our generation burdened those other North Americans that chose to work hard to build a strong nation, through consumption of health care and social assistance, and reliance on the infrastructure that those others sought to maintain. 

On the other hand, the social change brought about by indulging in personal exploration and examination of conscience helped in the evolution of the American and Canadian societies of today – both good and bad.

So, after forty years, our world has made a full turn, from indolence to industry, and back to the pursuit of individual happiness.  Will this quest for happiness have a different end result than that of the 1960s and 1970s?  Most likely, given that the gist of the modern effort is to find happiness in material wealth and luxury.  Ironically, many of those former capitalists and “yuppies,” though, are seeking satisfaction in a life of voluntary simplicity, and in that chase, hope to find happiness. 

One segment is looking for contentment in self indulgence, while the other is choosing self denial as a means to the same end.  Like a binge dieter, both probably are destined for failure.  The reason is not so much in their methods, but in their goals.  Like a dieter whose objective is to lose weight for some external reason, the reason may fade, and, with it, motivation.  But those that seek to become more healthy often have, as an integral part of the strategy, losing weight, along with changes in mental outlook, physical fitness and so on.  It is this balance that, according to psychologists, is more likely to result in long-term results.

Chasing after happiness is, in effect, a race to lose weight.  Happiness is only one part of wellbeing.  Immediate euphoric happiness, after all, can be found in a cloud of hallucinogenic smoke or a shot of illegal drugs.  Sopping up happiness, by itself, is not a goal but an act of gluttony.

On the other hand, happiness results when we embrace a concept of wholeness and completeness. 

I live in a climate where there are extremes of cold and hot.  I can only appreciate either if I have experienced the opposite.  True pleasure is maximized in contrast to a prior experience of discomfort.  Contentment comes from exerting oneself for the betterment of a cause, from helping others and from doing well, but not at the expense of others.  In other words, I must experience work to enjoy rest, and satisfaction after facing angst. 

Happiness, on its own, is not indulgent or selfish.  Happiness without earning it is. 

This philosophy does not require that I deliberately set out to be unhappy or experience discomfort in order to pursue happiness.  However, it does require that I be sufficiently courageous to face the possibility of negative experiences, in order to claim my spot at the happiness buffet.

Instead of viewing life through my own needy eyes, I should seek to find a fulfilling life, and from that fulfillment find happiness.  Having set aside my immediate wants to satiate the needs that I see around me, having taken the time to find a life that gives outwardly before it craves inwardly, and having understood that happiness is fleeting, while contentment is lasting, I will be able to accept happiness as a worthy objective.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Labelling Minimalism, Voluntary Simplicity, Simple Living and Frugal Lifestyles

The most significant problem with labels such as minimalist, living simply, voluntary simplicity or frugal living is that the categorizing itself is purely subjective.  A minimalist may eschew all possessions, or focus on a few premium pieces.  Voluntary simplicity suggests that one can acquire anything he wants, but opts for a Spartan existence. Frugal lifestyles seem to imply that the subject lives “on the cheap” with everything.  Living simply, too, evokes images of backwoods, back-to-the-earth survivalism.  Yet, each may describe the same lifestyle.  Rather than attempting to label, it is easier to visualize the concept of selective possession, and view true minimalism as a way of filtering out the excesses.

I, for example, own few material possessions, live in a yurt and often harvest wild plants.  Yet, far from being bereft of money or liquid assets, we own a newer Prius, holiday three or four times each year in exotic or far-flung locales and live a life free of worry about finances.  Our choices are the envy of many friends, yet are options available to anyone who wishes to prioritize his life similarly to us.  We do not measure ourselves by what we own, but how we live.  We own few tangibles, yet also own a library of memories and pleasurable moments.

How many of us, though, are mentally and financially prepared to make the sacrifices that allow us to make choices focused on voluntary simplicity?  A simple test will reveal our capacity to not only adapt, but to embrace this alternative way of living.  Oddly, the first time I tested myself using this simple strategy, I felt significant stress and anxiety – a little like being lost, alone and in a strange country.

 Choose a mid-week day for your trial. Leave home without your cash, credit or debit cards, and no means to access them.  If you take the bus or subway to work, carry the tokens essential for a trip to and from work, nothing more.  No coffee money, no gift cards for restaurants and so on.  If possible, leave your cell phone at home, and, under no circumstance use it to access a friend’s support or make purchases.  Sounds simple, right?  Almost certainly, the minute you are isolated from any means of funds to make spontaneous purchases, you will begin to go through a withdrawal, regardless how minor.  Yet, do we really need that morning latte, the afternoon drink, the chance to make an impulse buy?  A mere day of deprivation will reveal just how essential these comfort buys are to you, and whether you are emotionally ready to embrace a minimalistic lifestyle wholeheartedly.

That one day was tough?  Now set yourself up for three days, or a week. 

My first test, predictably, found me longing for my daily coffee fix, and wondering what I would do if a crisis occurred.  The fact that no such dilemma had confronted me for months (or perhaps years) prior was not material.  The “what ifs” drove my thinking for much of that day.  However, at the end of the day, I discovered that I was not embracing my return to materialism, but was, instead, exhilarated by my newly found freedom.  I have always been a spendthrift or a tightwad, depending upon the moment and the mood.  For years, I carried upwards of four to six thousand dollars cash in my pockets, and my low-limit credit card as backup.  Now, I carry no credit cards, no debit cards, and rarely have more than fifty cents in my pocket.  Do I long for the days of superfluous cash?  Hardly. 

The measure of whether you, too, are suited to involve yourself in a life of voluntary simplicity  really is whether you fear the lack of possessions or love the thrill of attempting to discard all of the excess you own.  In order to adopt this new way of viewing your possessions, you need to adopt a new way of viewing your life.  Is your life defined by the moments of pleasure you get from all of life, or is it defined by the status you feel that you acquire by owning and displaying material items?  Each of us finds our oasis of enjoyment in life uniquely, and the owner of a $450,000 sports car or a $3,000,000 painting is no less entitled to enjoy life his way as you are to choose a more focused yet Spartan way of living.  The labels attached to materialism or minimalism do not define you or your priorities.  You define, by the route you choose.  A minimalist simply chooses to cozy up to fewer possessions, and more moments.  Yet, even each minimalist is uniquely different from the next, regardless of the label attached.