Living Simply: Being Happy With Less

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Behind all this back-to-nature, recycling, renovated-school-bus, simple living philosophizing that I do on this blog is a simple desire: to focus on the right things, to be happy. And, of course, to teach (by whatever means) my kids that way of looking at the world.


Photos by Justin Evidon

You may or may not be familiar with the concept of positive psychology — the idea that, rather than focusing on disease and syndromes (depression, etc.), science should explore what people do to make their lives more meaningful and worthwhile.

There are tons of insights to be gained by looking into this and incorporating the recommended practices into your day — but it’s not easy, by any means. I’ve had a tendency toward depression for a long time, which is probably why I’ve done so much reading in this area.

Water Water Everywhere….

n_a (6)One of the findings has to do with income disparity — and it’s something I really noticed when living in New York City. The difference between the richest New Yorkers — those who have cars and drivers, townhouses on Central Park, and work crazy hours on Wall Street — and the poorest is pretty dramatic.

And if you’re not among the top earners, the wealth is still in your face all the time — all those things you can’t have, can’t afford, will never be able to afford.

According to a City University of New York analysis of household income (PDF) put together this year:

At the very top of the household-income earning hierarchy the upper 1% of all New York City households experienced an increase in their median incomes from $452,415 in 1990 to $716,625 in 2010. For the upper 10% of income-earning households their median incomes rose from $205,193 to $262,010 over the same period.

This may be contrasted with the poorest New Yorkers. The lower 10% of households
earned median household incomes of $8,468 in 1990 and $9,455 in 2010.

Some may believe that this situation is just fine — work hard, get rewarded, all is well, right? But it turns out that income inequality makes 60% of Americans (those in the lower- to middle-income brackets) more unhappy, according to 2011 research led by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi.

A writeup on the website for the Association for Psychological Science explains it like this: “…The gap between people’s own fortunes and those of people who are better off is correlated with feelings that other people are less fair and less trustworthy, and this results in a diminished sense of well-being in general.” The top 20% income-wise aren’t noticeable affected, the study found. 

People And Experiences Beat Things, Hands Down

Interestingly, though, scientists generally believe that material possessions in themselves don’t make you happy. In fact, acquisition tends to lead to something called the “hedonic treadmill,” where you think that buying that new gadget will make you happy, but, in fact, you quickly get accustomed to it. Possession of that object becomes the new norm, and you start wanting something else.

This is a phenomenon anyone with kids will be familiar with. They beg and beg for that new toy and, once they get it, they need the next new toy. We spent hundreds of dollars indulging our youngest son’s Thomas The Tank Engine obsession by investing in wooden railway engines and track. Then, he wanted the next level up: Trackmaster, where the engines were battery operated and the rails made of plastic. He’s got a pretty elaborate set up going (mostly bought secondhand at garage sales and on eBay):


And now he’s seen something on YouTube that has captured his imagination — a larger, more elaborate Thomas engine, made by Hornby. Of course, it doesn’t work on either of the two sets of tracks he already has. Nearly every day, I’m asked about when he can get the Hornby Thomas. And when confronted with the track incompatibility he explains that we can simply get new tracks.

I find myself repeating the same phrases: “You don’t need any new toys,” or “Be happy with what you have,” “Things aren’t as important as people,” and “Things don’t make you happy.”


But I’m absolutely not immune to the “more more” mindset (including the “retail therapy” phenomenon) and actively try to combat it in my own thinking. One method: gratitude. Actively thinking about the positive things happening in my life, rather than focusing on what I don’t have.

happier-logo_round_largeThere’s actually an app that aims to help with this. It’s called Happier, and the CEO of the company that developed it is someone I met a while back through my work at Federated Media — Nataly Kogan.

The idea is that by regularly tapping your memory for positive experiences to share, you train yourself to dwell on the good, rather than the bad, or the lack. Kind of reminds me of thanking God in your prayers before meals and bedtime.

And now, finally, 750 words in, I get to the point that actually inspired this post. I came across some new research by scientists at Baylor University (just up the road) that tied together materialism, gratitude and happiness.

From the study:

“We propose that one of the reasons materialists are less satisfied with their lives is that they experience less gratitude. Rather than being satisfied with what they have, materialists may instead focus on what they do not have, making it difficult to appreciate the positive in their lives. Such an orientation may make it more difficult for materialists to get their psychological needs met, further contributing to lower life satisfaction.”

For this research, the scientists — Jo-Ann Tsang, Thomas P. Carpenter, James A. Roberts, Michael B. Frisch and Robert D. Carlisle — defined materialism as such: “the degree to which one believes that material possessions are a large determinant of one’s happiness in life.”

Roberts notes: ““As we amass more and more possessions, we don’t get any happier, we simply raise our reference point…. That new 2,500-square-foot house becomes the baseline for your desires for an even bigger house. It’s called the Treadmill of Consumption. We continue to purchase more and more stuff but we don’t get any closer to happiness, we simply speed up the treadmill.”

That said, one type of consumption — consumption of experiences — is said to contribute to happiness, probably because it fosters that other key element that brings happiness: bonds with friends and family. And now, off to hug my kids and spend some time with them this Sunday.

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