Voluntary simplicity can ease the stress of American life

Who hasn’t heard the story of a friend or acquaintance who retires only to become seriously ill or die soon after?

Are we working ourselves to death? For anyone who has ever wondered “is this worth it?” a move is afoot to question the concept of the American work ethic. We are currently the most overworked society on the globe. The United States has surpassed Japan as the nation with the longest working hours. We also enjoy less vacation time than most Europeans, where the average is six weeks a year.

As we have developed more advances in technology to make our lives easier, instead we have ended up stressed and exhausted. Americans soothe themselves by acquiring more and more things, but increasing debts add another layer of stress with personal bankruptcy on the rise nationally.

A vicious cycle is created when we need to work ever harder to support a lifestyle of debt and abundance. What does all this mean for our health? One clue may be the increased rate of heart attacks on Monday mornings.

Voluntary simplicity offers an alternative to this lifestyle. It asks us to examine our consumer driven lifestyle, our relationship to money, work and what it means to be happy and fulfilled. It encompasses a wide variety of lifestyle choices, from the CEO who decides to cut back on work hours to spend more time with her children, to the family that chooses to live off the land and raise their own food.

There is no one model that suits everyone. Spiritual exploration, environmental consciousness and more healthful living are frequent benefits. The goal is a life enriched with a sense of purpose and fulfillment with a decreased emphasis on the pursuit of wealth and status.

Steps toward voluntary simplicity

Examine and make a list of your personal priorities and goals. Consider how do you want to spend your time and where do you want to be in ten years.

Explore what your work means to you. Does it give you a sense of fulfillment?

Learn to say no. Set limits on your obligations and stick to them.

Reduce stress by eliminating debt. Money concerns are a common source of marital discord and personal frustration.

Think before you buy. Consider whether the item is something that you really need and will regularly use.

Eat a simpler diet. Limit the consumption of fat laden fast food and highly processed foods. We are blessed to have an abundance of locally grown foods available through our local farmers markets.

Explore your spirituality. Medical studies have found improved outcomes and better coping skills in patients who have a spiritual belief system.

Volunteer. Doing something for someone else has powerful benefits. I have often recommended this to patients. They return empowered with a sense of purpose.

Connect with nature. Plant a garden or explore the park and its many hiking trails. Enjoying our natural environment is a wonderful form of relaxation.

Honor yourself with a day of rest every week. This is an important opportunity for renewal.

Aldebra Schroll is a family physician who blogs An Apple a Day at NorCal Blogs.

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  • bw

    I would gladly take a significantly lower salary, have a smaller home, and have less stuff if it equated to me having 6 or more weeks of vacation per year. But as a medical student who frequents this blog, I wonder how this is possible in today’s primary care system. It seems, as I read about the difficulties just keeping a practice open, like a precarious position to juggle increased vacation and fewer hours with a lower pay, because it seems like that lower pay could quickly become no-pay. It would be just one 21% Medicare cut away. Plus there’s the debt! Oh heavens, I just worried myself into working my life away again…

  • Jim ( UK )

    My own personal experience : I am 62 , retired , and found the easiest way is to slow down ; take things easy , and THEN work out what you want to do . I have a lot to do in retirement , but I will do it in my own time . Another 20 – 30 years to go , but take it at your own spead .

  • http://www.drjohnm.blogspot.com DrJohnM

    Wonderfully done!

    It is as Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

    Congratulations, and good luck spreading these words of wisdom. The “program,” or as you call it, “voluntary simplicity,” lies right in front of us, but is so often difficult to see.


  • http://www.themusicwithinus.com Lisa Chu

    Love this post! Would love to see these kinds of mindful, self-renewing activities given air time in medical schools.

  • http://drpullen.com Edward

    A book I read years ago called “Your Money or Your Life” addresses many of these types of issues too. Not a new concept really, but one that could have great value if more of us took it to heart.

  • http://becomingminimalist.com/ becoming minimalist

    great advice.

    we chose to intentionally simplify our life and minimalize our possessions two years ago. it was a decision that has reduced our stress, giving us more time for each other, and given us more freedom to pursue life.

    we will never go back to the old life of accumulation.

  • jsmith

    But you forgot about doctors’ wives. A lot of time they’re the ones who want to live large. For married couples both have to be on the minimalist kick or it doesn’t work.
    And what about the kids? Just because I eat bread and water doesn’t mean my kids want to, especially when the neighbors have all the toys.
    Good in theory, difficult in practice. Simplicity ain’t that simple.

  • http://www.brightonyourhealth.com Mary Brighton

    I also love this post! As an American that lives in France I see the benefits of a more “simple” lifestyle. Sometimes people in Europe don’t have the choice BUT to live a simple life…salaries are low, but vacation time is abundant. Taxes are higher but you have socialized medicine. Personally I think a good situation is a mix of both…more opportunites for work and monetary compensation (like in America) but less “being taken care of” by the government.
    Whichever path you take though, simple or fast..life is short. Balance is key…with diet, exercise, work, spirituality…and as a health professional we should also be a role model for our clients/patients.
    Mary Brighton

  • MB

    “because I eat bread and water doesn’t mean my kids want to, especially when the neighbors have all the toys.”

    Kids want love, not stuff. This is sad.

  • BobBapaso

    Kids want love AND stuff.

    And often not what’s good for them. That’s an acquired appetite, which parents should be teaching.

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