Stress: Is Simplicity the Answer?
Is your life more or less complicated than it was 10 years ago? How about 20 years ago? More and more people are finding that, in spite of technology and other modern conveniences, they have less time, get less sleep, and are more stressed than they were a decade ago. The reasons for this are, well, not so simple, but relate to a number of factors.
Today's Sources of Complexity
Too Many Options
When making a purchase, whether it's food, health and beauty products, cars, or computers, we confront an expanding array of brands, flavors, and options. Similarly, we also have more options in terms of careers and lifestyles, and this can make our lives busier and more complicated. Although choice can certainly be a good thing, it doesn't always make life simpler. Some people lose touch with their priorities when faced with too many options and distractions.
You have an urgent question to ask your healthcare provider and you reach an automated phone system instead of a person. Your new computer has a problem that no one in the office can fix and your work is put on "hold." Your new office phone has dozens of features, but you can't make sense of the complicated instruction manual. It's enough to make one question whether or not technology really makes life simpler.
Mass production, mass marketing, and buying on credit has fueled a fervor of consumerism. People buy more than they need and end up burdened with clutter and debt.
Exchanges of information used to take place primarily among the people in one's immediate environment through personal contact. Gradually, more information was exchanged through letters, publications, telephone, radio, and television. Now we have rapid, world wide, mass communication through the internet, email, and fax machines, as well as diverse and increasing numbers of publications, radio, and television stations. More organizations tend to be created in response to increasing knowledge and information—along with more regulations and more bureaucracy.
We went forth and multiplied. Now we wait in long lines, sit in traffic jams, and witness phenomenons such as "road rage."
Increased Cost of Living
Today it takes more money to live at the same standard of living as our parents did. Many women cannot afford to stay home with their children, and two-income families have become the norm. As a result, people are feeling strained by the lack of quality time and energy they can bring to their families and relationships.
Many businesses have gone through phases of "merging and purging." Most people don't expect to stay at the same job for decades, but many are working longer and harder than ever.
Increasing choices, and job and lifestyle changes are leading people to move more frequently. Look at your address book. How many times in the last 5, 10, or 20 years have you crossed off the addresses of friends and family members? How many times have they crossed off yours?
Here today, gone tommorow—that seems to be the law of modern life. But unless we know how to manage it, rapid change can take its toll on physical and mental health, jobs, relationships, family life, and goals.
What Is Simplicity?
Making changes to simplify certain aspects of life can be the antidote to living in such a complex society. But simplification is a very individual matter—what's considered simple and stress-relieving to one person might be burdensome and stressful to another. For example, you may eat convenience foods because they save you time and energy. Your friend, on the other hand, may find convenience foods expensive and rather "inconvenient" for her family food budget.
The most important part of the simplification process is introspection—taking an honest and in-depth look at yourself and your life and then identifying things that can be changed. Simple enough? Yes and no. That is, some changes can be relatively easy to make. You may decide to unclutter your house by throwing out items that you really don't need and scaling back on your consumption. On the other hand, you may find that you need a major overhaul to find a simpler life—a change of career or financial goals, a geographical relocation, or a change in perception through intensive psychotherapy.
What makes the concept of simplication difficult for some people is that it implies that you must give up something. But many people derive invaluable benefits from simplifying their lives—more time, freedom, self-expression, and a chance to live with more clarity and meaning. Simplification is a deeply personal endeavor and should be approached with the following things in mind:
- Values/Priorities. What is most important to you? What would you have the hardest time living without—your health, spouse, family, friends, time, creative projects? (This can be a tricky one. For example, you may say that you value money, but by looking deeper within yourself, you may find that what you really value is freedom, self-reliance, time, friends, or self-esteem, which you think money will buy for you).
- Identity. Who are you? What talents, skills, activities, and types of environments bring you the most enjoyment? Are you living authentically—speaking your truth and living according to your own values (values that you've examined and owned) or someone else's?
- Time/Pace. How do you manage time and pace yourself? Is your natural pace 100 miles per hour or a bit slower and more reflective? Examine your current pace and your energy levels. If you're feeling exhausted or burned out, you may need to slow down, or at least change where you are focusing the majority of your energy.
- Purpose. What do you most want to do with your life and are you doing that right now? How do you wish to direct your talents? Are you living purposefully?
- Vision. What is your ideal lifestyle and environment? What would your life look like if you could design it exactly the way you wanted? You can't always "have it all," but think about how close you can get to that vision now, realistically.
Ways to Simplify Your Life
The list of things you can do to simplify your life is probably endless. Big changes will require a good deal of thought and planning. But there are many small changes you can make to simplify your life right now, such as:
- Buy a simple car—one that has less gadgets to fix.
- Do your shopping all at once, and preferrably in the same place.
- Reduce the clutter in your home and office. Throw out things that you don't use.
- Buy classic clothes that don't go out of style.
- Donate your dry cleanables.
- Shop during off-hours.
- Get a simple, low-maintenance hairstyle.
- Downscale to a smaller home or less expensive car.
- Find a way to turn your hobby into your primary source of income.
- Make a conscious effort to reflect upon and appreciate the simple things in your life—those things that you may be taking for granted.
Simplifying your life isn't always simple, but something as easy as getting more organized can be a big help. As some of the complexity decreases from your life, you may find greater clarity and peace of mind.
National Institute of Mental Health
National Mental Health Association
Adams C. The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. Harpercollins; 1998.
Aumiller G. Keeping It Simple: Sorting Out What Really Matters in Your Life. Probity Press; 1995.
Orem S, Demarest L. Living Simply: Timeless Thoughts for A Balanced Life Health Communications, Inc; 1994
St. James E. Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More. Hyperion; 1998.
Last reviewed August 2007 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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