I was a senior HR professional in one of the biggest companies in the country, earning more money than I ever thought possible, but I felt empty.
I was working all hours to juggle all the balls this successful life threw at me, but there was a hole in my soul.
Although I had everything I’d ever wanted, I didn’t have what was most important: happiness, meaning and fulfilment.
I didn’t fancy living in a cabin in the woods and eating nothing but berries either, but surely there was a middle ground—a balance between the modern world we live in and a life simple enough to give us freedom and happiness?
And so, over the last few years I’ve gone from climbing the corporate ladder and a house by the beach to exactly the opposite and then, finally, somewhere in between. And, having sampled each end of the spectrum, I have learned a lot about how we strike the balance and make life easier.
At first, sick of the corporate world and the 9 to 5 rat race, I decided to swap it all for a backpack and go in search of the simple life. Rather than chasing the materialistic happiness that had left me unfulfilled, I thought I’d try the opposite and see how that worked.
Having nothing taught me a lot about having everything.
I lived as a nomad off the land, travelling to ashrams, temples and retreats in search of the simple life. I went from driving my company car to catching the bus. From fine dining to cooking with vegetables out of the garden. I wore the same clothes day in and day out and didn’t watch TV for months.
I had to forgo the luxuries my corporate career once paid for: gym memberships, meals out and expensive vacations. But I found my new, simpler life didn’t have so many needs. Fresh meals from the garden made me feel and look better. I no longer needed to go to the gym as I was more active and doing much more walking without a car. And without the stressful life I once had, I no longer felt the need for a vacation to get away from it all.
I spent a year living in a campervan with one suitcase of clothes, cooking on a gas stove with one saucepan, yet some mornings I woke up to million dollar beach views and I was the only person there!
Yes, sometimes there were the financial struggles of living without income, but having been at both ends of the spectrum, I know which made me happier.
I now find myself somewhere in between these two extremes, and able to apply methods of simplicity to a “normal” life. I’m proving to myself that these principles can work to make our life less complicated, and in the process make us happier.
I now work 9 to 5 again, live in a city apartment and do all the things I love, with people I care about. For me it was about rediscovering what matters and ensuring I prioritised this so that the way I spend my time aligns with what I love most.
Obviously, I still have to earn money to live like the rest of us, and I try to make that money through work I’m passionate about and enjoy. Sometimes that’s voluntary unpaid work, so I take the odd contract here and there to pay my bills, but living simply means I don’t need to earn as much, giving me more free time to do things I love and, in turn, more freedom.
I don’t buy much “stuff” anymore, because I’ve learned that it’s not having things that makes me happy. The sense of happiness I get from the freedom to live a life I love is worth more than anything money can buy. I’d rather that than the most expensive painting or handbag in the world. Wouldn’t we all? And yet, so many of us are still stuck in this unhappy loop.
This all came home to me at recent Christmas gatherings full of talks of what we want, what we’ve bought and what we’re still going to buy in the sales. This was coupled with conversations about our ill health, our unhappiness, how hard life is and how we’d like not to have to go back to work.
Many of us then spent the first couple of months of the new year trying to make resolutions to be different, to find the solution to our unhappiness, whilst still buying more things and worrying about the debt we’ve now created on top of the back-at-work blues, which means we need to plan a holiday for a break from it all…and now we can’t afford not to be at work because we need to pay for that holiday.
When did life become so hard and does it really need to be? We are the most developed society ever, yet it seems we may have overdeveloped. So many of us feel trapped in this cycle of having to be in jobs we don’t enjoy to fund lifestyles we don’t need in the bid to make us happy when, in fact, it’s having the opposite effect. So how do we break the cycle?
Here are are my top two tips, learned through experience, that I now apply to live a more balanced, happy and less complicated life in the “normal” world:
1. Stop buying “stuff” you don’t need.
2. Clear out the “stuff” you’ve already got.
I’ve learned to prioritize what matters in terms of material things. I’ve learned to practice being grateful, and to choose time over money.
We seem to think that to be happy we have to have things, yet the opposite is true.
The pursuit of happiness in external things is what takes us further away from what we seek in the first place. I’ve learned that happiness is not about getting what we want. It’s about loving what we have, and realizing this makes us more grateful, too.
None of the things we think we want actually make us happy—a bigger house, a nice car, new clothes, more food or all the gifts we buy each other at Christmases and special occasions. And after the novelty has worn off? We want more, or better, bigger or different. It’s never enough, like a bottomless bucket of constant craving.
There is something freeing about having less stuff, particularly when you have to pack it all up to move house. There’s less to insure, to lose, to clean and most of what we have we no longer use anyway.
Think of the stuff that sits in our garages or attics untouched for years. Would we miss it if it wasn’t there?
At some point in our lives most of us are forced to reduce the amount of “stuff” we have, whether for financial reasons, because of divorce, sickness, natural disaster or, eventually, death. Because guess what we won’t take with us when the inevitable happens? Everything.
Letting go of things begins to bring us the freedom we so desperately seek. Often, having less means we can then have more—more space, time and freedom for what really matters.
And if we spend less on more “stuff,” we don’t have to earn as much.
The less “stuff” I I buy, the less hours I have to work, which gives me more time to enjoy life. When you ask most people what they’d love more than anything else in the world, it’s generally not more money, but more time. Yet, so often, we sacrifice the limited time we do have to work more to earn more because we think this will make us happy. This gives us less time, more stress and ultimately makes life more complicated.
The cost of our consumer-driven society is our freedom.
We give up our lives and put it all down on one bet; that we can buy ourselves the freedom to do the things that matter, the things we love later, like when we retire. But, in the meantime, life passes us by.
So, have a think about your priorities. How can you simplify your life?
Have a clear-out at home and take a look at your finances and budget. What is it you really need, what really matters to you, and where could you simplify? Take some time to consider all you do have and never lose sight of your gratitude for that.
If we love what we have we’ll be less inclined to chase down more.
This is what’s clear to me now: Having less stuff does not mean less quality of life. In fact, it opens more space in our lives for the fun stuff, the things that really matter. We actually need surprisingly little to be happy.
Author: Jess Stuart
Image: Hernán Piñera/ Flickr
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren