Less is more
Due to the coronavirus, life has become more pared down this year – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for our minds or our finances, says Flic Everett
Coping with COVID-19 has been a roller-coaster learning curve. The virus has taken so much – work, money, health and in the cruellest cases, people we love. But some people whose suffering has been less acute may feel that they’ve gained too: a simpler way of living prioritising people and time over possessions, and feeling gratitude for the little things.
It’s not just a case of mindfully admiring a leaf on a walk (though that can be part of it), or Marie Kondo-ing all your clothes into perfect colour-coded rolls. It’s about stripping back our attitude to life and learning to live with less, whether that’s driven by lack of money, the determination to appreciate what we have, concern for the planet – or all of the above. A few years ago, I lived in a busy city, surrounded by piles of stuff and crowds of people. I had an equally busy husband, a son, three stepdaughters, a huge, cluttered house and a full-time career. At weekends, I socialised myself silly and shopped myself sick, buying endless clothes, trinkets and books to fill my life. I had no space or time to think, and was permanently stressed.
It was only when the kids grew up, my marriage broke up, and I met my current partner and moved to the Scottish countryside that I realised what truly makes me happy – being with family and close friends, animals, cooking, reading, and solitary country walks. I no longer buy uncomfortable shoes just because they’re 50 per cent off, or lipsticks I’ll never wear to ‘cheer myself up’. I know what cheers me up, and it’s mostly spaniels.
We are bombarded with exposés of unhappy celebrities, for whom riches, fame and beauty seem meaningless – unsurprisingly, the happiest are the ones who strive to live normal lives. The actor Matthew McConaughey lived in a trailer, even after making his first millions, praising its ‘minimalism’; Sarah Jessica Parker admits her son wears hand-me-downs – “I’ve got all these older nephews” – while the world’s most famous living author, JK Rowling, has said, “Many parts of my life are perfectly ordinary… even boring, but that’s what I like about it.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that even the rich and famous crave ‘less’ when, according to psychological theory, humans aren’t designed for the modern world of 24/7 online communication and a never-ending deluge of new products.
A recent survey carried out by the UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations found that lockdown has revolutionised our habits, from buying and travelling less to reduced energy use. A reduction in food waste was reported (92 per cent to 84 per cent), while participants also spent less during lockdown (63 per cent spent nothing on clothing/footwear in March-May, up from nine per cent during the three months prior).
Clinical psychologist Dr Oliver Sindall explains, “Evolutionary psychology shows us that our primitive brains were meant for a ‘simple life’. Our ancestors lived in small spaces, owned very few man-made objects and knew only a small group of people. The problem is, we evolved. While our new abilities to think, plan and imagine led to life-changing developments, they are also responsible for our capacity to overthink, compare ourselves, and fuel our obsession with the pursuit of happiness.”
As a result, he adds, “Many people think that material possessions are at the centre of a satisfying life. In fact, studies have found links between materialism, loneliness and depression.”
Advertising and, more recently, social media have exploited our natural desire to feel secure by offering us more and more things we don’t really need, to solve problems we don’t have. By contrast, our long lockdown put the brakes on our ability to take comfort in consumption – including restaurants, cinemas and holidays – and forced us to look closer to home for our pleasures, with surprising effect. In July 2020, the Office for National Statistics reported that national happiness levels had improved during lockdown.
“For many of us, feelings of anxiety and guilt lead to overloading ourselves with responsibilities,” says Dr Sindall. “Lockdown gave people ‘permission’ to say no and the clarity to relearn what makes them happy.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that a recent YouGov/RSA survey found 91 per cent of Brits did not want life to go ‘back to normal’.
“With our ‘normal’ lives on hold, we had no option but to live a simpler and slower life and many of us thrived, despite the uncertainty,” says Dr Sindall.
“We learnt to cook from scratch again, go for walks or bike rides, and appreciate the company of friends and relatives.”
If society is to change for the better as a result, he thinks, “At the heart of this will be letting go of the need to impress others, to buy the latest handbag or iPhone and to be perpetually living life at 200 miles an hour.”
But living a happier, ‘less is more’ life isn’t just a case of decluttering, or freezing leftovers – though those are a good start. It’s also useful to ask yourself why you’re craving a simpler life – what isn’t working for you about the one you have? It could be too much stuff, endless commitments, or simply fear of moving on from a lifestyle that once signified success, even if it’s no longer desirable.
A reappraisal of needs has driven ‘having less’ for Toni Hargis, 59, from Virginia Water in Surrey. Two years ago, she and her husband, Mark, 60, moved back from Chicago, where they had lived with their three children since the 1990s.
“We had a large Victorian town house, four floors, and 27 years’ worth of stuff,” Toni explains. “I sold some furniture and gave a lot away, and I now find myself not buying anything because I don’t want to amass a lot of things any more.”
After gutting and renovating two large family houses in the US, she adds, “We are renting a house half the size, while our youngest finishes school. Because it’s not our house, I’m not doing home improvements – I find myself thinking, ‘I’m not going to expend too much effort,’ which is quite liberating.”
Getting rid of possessions they had gathered over decades was tough, she admits. “We had a huge wooden bed, and I just gave it to a friend. I gave thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff away. I used to be the kind of person who’d hold on to things for a long time, but I had to let it all go,” she says. “When we got to England, the shipment wasn’t due for a month so we landed with our suitcases and went to Sainsbury’s to buy four plates!”
Toni has also simplified her commitments. “I have been a busy schools volunteer for more than 25 years, and I’ve now decided I’m not doing it any more – I’ve put my time in! I have more tranquillity now,” she adds. “I don’t want to acquire more things – having and doing less has made me appreciate the smaller things in life.”
But while Toni has embraced the ‘less is more’ mindset, being forced into it can be painful, acknowledges psychotherapist Grace Warwick. “When people feel that they are losing the ability to make choices, or express themselves, then very different emotions can arise,” she says.
She points out that often, we express our identity through what we choose to wear and buy, and how we spend our time – and with less, she says, “We can feel a sense of diminishment, a loss of motivation and for some, even the loss of coping mechanisms that were staving off other issues such as anxiety and depression.” To ensure the ‘less is more’ approach is positive she says, “A good starting point is gratitude. Engaging more closely in observing and appreciating the things that make a difference to us in our day and listing them each evening. This trains the brain to observe the ways the smaller things in our life contribute to our well-being.”
Use the full range of your belongings, too, without keeping anything ‘for best’. “Who says that we can’t do the washing-up in something special?” says Grace. “Whether it’s a T-shirt from college you love, or a tiara! What matters is that we increase our appreciation of what we do have, and what it means to us.”
Having and doing less – concerning, say, possessions, holidays abroad, UK travel or shopping – also has a positive impact on the environment. And being aware of the greater good is essential to achieving a more minimal outlook, says Grace.
“We can begin to see what we really need in life, and how much of that is not associated with materialism,” she explains. “We notice what can sustain us in different ways – music, art, learning, nature, more quality time with fewer friends.”
Of course, having less money to spare can mean there’s no choice about having less, but learning to make the most of what you do have is vital, says Beatrice Widmark of the financial well-being app Dreams (getdreams.com).
“This current climate of quarantines, curfews and restrictions is a good time to regain control over your finances by saving,” she says. “An easy way to do this is by examining how much you’d normally spend on birthday dinners, weddings or buying rounds, then putting that money aside towards a savings goal.”
A survey carried out by Oxfam recently found that one in three British women under 55 didn’t buy any clothes in lockdown – with almost six million choosing instead to wear more of their existing wardrobes. Previously, British women bought eight new garments a month.
“STUDIES HAVE FOUND LINKS BETWEEN MATERIALISM, LONELINESS AND DEPRESSION”
Perhaps seeing the current crisis as a catalyst for needing and consuming less can salvage something positive from one of the most difficult years of our lives. “Overconsumption causes us to overuse natural resources and contributes to feelings of scarcity, which in turn causes people to consume more to feel safe, and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle,” says Julian Hall, the founder of Calm People (calmpeople.co.uk) and co-founder of My Internal World (myinternalworld.com).
“Consider toilet roll consumption at the start of lockdown in March. On a psychological level, consuming excessively is a sign of stress – we’re seeking to distract ourselves from fear by buying more stuff.
“Basic needs such as freedom, exercise and connecting with other humans became essential luxuries. The once-a-day exercise became crucial to our mental and emotional health.”
Add to that whole families getting outside together and connecting in ways they may not have done before, he goes on. “It started to break down barriers, improve well-being – and it’s taught us that we don’t actually need very much to be happy.”
HOW TO EMBRACE LIVING WITH LESS…
1 Make a list of your values – what matters most to you? More family time, writing a novel, living somewhere beautiful? Let that be the compass for your decisions – “Everything you choose should lead to that goal,” says Julian Hall.
2 Consider the psychological trigger before you purchase anything unnecessary. Are you bored, sad, feeling inadequate? Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. “Buying to impress is temporary gratification and usually results in having more than you want or need.”
3 Journal, consider, or even discuss with a therapist the feelings behind having ‘less’ and what it brings up for you. “Processing this may lead to the opportunity to heal deep-rooted issues you may not have known existed,” says Julian.
4 Reflect on what you have more of. “Don’t forget, most of the things in life that leave us feeling fulfilled – such as love, gratitude, care, and encouragement – can’t be taken away.”
5 If you haven’t used something in six months, then you probably don’t need it. “Outside of things used during holidays and Christmas, we keep many items ‘just in case’ we need them, or because of the dread of having to buy them again. Fear of this keeps many people holding on to items they don’t need.”
6 Enlist help if you’re struggling to decide what to get rid of, whether a house, a relationship or just excess clutter. Contact the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers (apdo.co.uk) and if you feel therapy would be helpful, you’ll find qualified therapists at welldoing.org.uk.