04/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Involuntary Simplicity?

Simplify: Ask your doctor if it's right for you.

(Fade up on Doctor with worried patient)

"Doctor, I don't know what my problem is. I seem to be coming down with some sort of panic disorder. Every time I reach for my checkbook, my heart starts racing, and not in a good way like it always used to. And when the phone rings, I look to see whether it's a bill collector before I answer. And I actually check the gas price before I stop at a gas station. Isn't that strange? Can I get a pill for my anxiety?"

"Well, judging from your symptoms, I can hazard a guess. I don't think you are coming down with anything. I think you are recovering from something: Affluenza. Here let's look it up. Here it is. 'Affluenza: A psychological condition that is characterized by the hallucinatory belief that the value of your house will continue to pay off whatever you borrow on it, that your stock portfolio will rise in value forever, and that the foreign countries we borrow from will never stop lending or call in their loans. Symptoms include reckless spending, obsessive credit card use, bone-headed optimism, and the constant use of retail spending as an endorphin trigger. Treatment: Cut up your credit cards and stop buying what you don't need. Have all interest payments surgically removed r undergo aggressive repayment therapy. Go on a steady diet of reality, and eliminate any unfounded optimism related to your financial future. Prognosis: One way or another, the patient will usually recover. But resisting treatment will prolong and aggravate symptoms.'

"Well, I am going to give you a prescription for the latest medication. Very promising stuff. It's guaranteed to work and it doesn't cost anything. Hmm. I don't see how they are going to make any money from this. Anyway, I can't pronounce the scientific name, but the trade name is "Simplify" .

"Well, OK, I'll try it. I can't go on like this"

Caution: Simplify isn't for everyone. Patients with teenage children, or who have spouses with motorcycle fetishes, or who have an uncontrolled desire to own shoes in every conceivable style and color may not be right for this medication.


We will check back later with our patient, but first, let's see if you have been suffering from Affluenza, and decide whether Simplify is right for you.


America's long running consumer decadence has been enabled in part by easily available consumer credit and home loans. For years, every time the mail arrived it contained offers to extend limitless consumer credit to anyone who is breathing, and open huge lines of credit to anyone who owns a home, while offering to help the borrower create a total fiction regarding the amount of equity they have. The average American with a credit file is responsible for $16,635 in debt, excluding mortgages, according to Experian. (Source: U.S. News and World Report, "The End of Credit Card Consumerism," August 2008). The amount of unsupported mortgage debt is virtually impossible to measure, but it is astronomical, and there is little doubt that much of it will go into some sort of default one way or another.

How the debtor and the creditor will share the pain is still being determined. But since it was clearly a conspiracy between the two parties that created the condition, nobody is going to get away without paying a price. After all, both parties engaged in a willful distortion of the American Dream. The American Dream had its origins in the Puritan work ethic, which stated that work was intrinsically a good thing. It expressed a sense of possibility, something that could be attained if we worked for it. Instead, we have come to expect that instead of earning it, we could simply borrow it: the borrowed American Dream (with 0% APR financing).

Once we fell into the belief that our wealth would always continue to grow regardless of whether we actually added to it through work, it was a small but fatal step to think we could borrow from that future without risk. Once the financial institutions learned they could make these loans and then sell them before the scheme collapsed, getting out the back door with their little chunk, the stage was set for our current disaster. The only thing surprising about it is that anyone thought it was anything except inevitable.

The question is: Why did we fall for it? What is the mechanism by which we pulled the wool over our own eyes ?

It seems that our identities, our sense that we exist, has come to depend on consumption, living the "goods life instead of the good life" as Tim Kasser puts it. If we go back to the original Samuel Johnson definition of the word "consumption", we find it means "to do away with completely; destroy, to spend wastefully; squander." How strange then that, as Lizabeth Cohen explains in A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, consumerism has become a basic duty of our American citizenship. After the September 11 attacks, President Bush told the American public that the best way to support America is to go out and shop. Consumer spending had now morphed into patriotic duty.

It is an unfortunate truth that when someone or some group wants to get others to do something, creating a belief system ( also known as BS) of a quasi-religion nature that dictates the desired behavior is a pretty effective way to get the desired result. The Catholic Church's dictum to avoid meat on Friday was a political bone thrown to the fishing trade.

So it has become with Capitalism. Instead of seeing Capitalism as an economic engine which we may use to our purposes, our leaders have convinced us that it is a sort of secular religion. So now that we are sinning by nationalizing our banks, we don't want to confess it publicly any more than we would want to televise our visit with the priest in the confessional. So we call it something else, like "oversight". Maybe it's time to stop calling things by what they aren't, and start looking at reality.

First of all, Capitalism is not a religious doctrine, it is an economic engine. It isn't the purpose of government to fuel that engine, but rather to provide for the common good. If Capitalism does that, great, but when, in its unbridled form, isn't the responsibility of government to use something else.

So, what about our patient? How is all this mega-dosing of reality going to affect the case of affluenza we were treating? There is reason for hope.

A study by psychologist Tim Kasser showed that "individuals oriented towards materialistic extrinsic goals are more likely to experience lower quality of life that individuals oriented toward intrinsic goals."

The happy fact is that our new necessity to adjust our spending and live on a smaller budget presents an opportunity to evaluate what's truly important, and move towards a life of more simplicity. And simplicity helps us see the truth, because, remember, the truth is simple. And the better able we are to see the truth, the less likely we will be scammed again by the greed-heads.

This isn't to suggest we adopt the Walden life, but many individuals and businesses are using this challenge to shift their happiness paradigm and strip their lives of the superfluous. Yes, that means letting go of the notion of an ever-expanding economy as the source of happiness, and returning to a more time-honored tradition of measuring our accomplishments by the intrinsic value of that which is obtained solely through work. And that unhooks Capitalism from its quasi-religious status, which means we can simply use it, instead of having to "believe in it". It's a tool. You don't "believe in" your skill saw.

The Voluntary Simplicity Movement has been around for a while, and has gained momentum since the beginning of the crisis. It is a lifestyle that was already being pursued by 10-15 percent of Americans who sensed the need to reject the highly consumerist lifestyle, and instead to organize their lives around the pursuit of personal growth, close interpersonal relationships, contribution to the community, spirituality, and connection with nature. Many were simply tired of the materialistic lifestyle, and the resulting constant need for more money to pay for more things, forcing them to continue in jobs they hated and lifestyles that left them feeling dissatisfied and empty. Voluntary simplicity provided people an opportunity to find balance, connect with who they are, and create a fulfilling lifestyle. It was a shift from buying to being.

Voluntary simplicity does not mean living in abject poverty or practicing a lifestyle of self-denial. According to researchers at Knox College , Voluntary Simplicity adherents orient their lives around three core intrinsic values. The first is self-acceptance, which involves understanding who one is and pursuing one's interests. The second is affiliation, which involves being close to one's family and friends. And the third is community feeling, which involves trying to make the broader world a better place.

The study found that Voluntary Simplicity adherents were more likely than mainstream Americans to highly prioritize these values, and that this was the primary reason they were happier and living more sustainably.

It is well known that disease symptoms are sometimes the result of the body working naturally to cure an underlying condition. Maybe this big mess we are in is not such a mess after all, but rather symptomatic of such a cure. Usually, if we don't initiate a necessary change, life has its way of providing the circumstances that will eventually create the change. When we are forced to downsize, we realize that we can do more with less. In the present case, there is reason to hope the body is curing itself. I suspect we will not only survive, but actually be healthier in the long run.