August 06, 2008 01:30 PM ET
During a recent interview with Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College and author of The High Price of Materialism. He ascribes to a lifestyle known as “voluntary simplicity,” which essentially means opting for a less materialistic life. Instead of spending the evening in front of a plasma-screen television, a voluntary simplifier might cook a meal with the vegetables he grew in his garden. Instead of splurging on two lattes a day, he might bring his home-brewed beverage of choice to work in a reusable mug.
Why do you think that is the case, that people who are less materialistic are also more likely to be happier?
Our perspective on people’s well-being is that it depends in large part on whether or not they have their psychological needs well satisfied.
That is, just like a plant needs to have a certain amount of water, a certain amount of light, and certain nutrients from the soil and air in order to survive and thrive, people have certain psychological needs that must be satisfied if they are to be healthy and thrive.
We propose four psychological needs. The first is safety/security, which is the need to feel like you’ll survive, like you are not in danger, like you will have enough food and water and shelter to make it another day. The second is competence or efficacy, which is the need to feel like you are skillful and able to do the things that you set out to do: I need to feel like a good psychologist, you might need to feel like a good journalist, etc. The third is connection or relatedness, which concerns having close, intimate relationships with other people. The fourth need is for freedom or autonomy, which is feeling like you do what you do because you choose it and want to do it rather than feeling compelled or forced to do it.
As I lay out in my book, The High Price of Materialism, people who put a strong focus on materialism in their lives tend to have poor satisfaction of each of these four needs. In part this is because of their development, but it also is because materialism creates a lifestyle that does a poor job of satisfying these needs. That is, a materialistic lifestyle tends to perpetuate feelings of insecurity, to lead people to hinge their competence on pretty fleeting, external sources, to damage relationships, and to distract people from the more fun, more meaningful, and freer ways of living life.
Is there a middle ground for people like me who really enjoy certain material things but embrace the goals of voluntary simplicity?
There is a story about a man who approached Gandhi and said that he’d been thinking about living a simpler life, but he didn’t feel like he could give up his collection of books. Gandhi is said to have replied, “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.”
My take on this, and on your question, is that simplicity is not an endstate that is achieved but a path that one is walking. I find all kinds of ways in my life that I’m not living quite like I wish, and then I try to see if there is a way to change my life. So, to me, a simple lifestyle is always in the middle ground.