Our unique status as rational thinkers has lead us to develop an arrogance of importance. We have convinced ourselves that we are superior to the rest of existence. As a result of our supposed superiority and importance, we assume that everything we do, and how we live, must be incredibly complex. And we readily accept the obligations that such complexity brings. We embrace some of these obligations and responsibilities willingly, but many are gradually accumulated without much, if any, critical reflection. We are constantly busy, juggling priorities, and substituting artificial connectedness for the real thing. We engage in endless projects, perform endless tasks, and accumulate endless accomplishments.
Other people and organizations, consciously or not, feed into this fallacy by devising all kinds of methods and tools to assist us in increasing the complexity of our lives. A myriad of careers and industries have developed to convince us that optimizing our health, or our finances, or our relationships is a complicated business. They teach us that we cannot maintain our health without the latest diet plan or exercise equipment, that we cannot plan for a comfortable retirement without a sophisticated investment program, that we cannot enjoy a fulfilling and loving relationship without the guidance of a counselor.
As we accept the fallacy that the problems and issues that confront our superior lives require complex solutions, our life’s path becomes full of intricate and never-ending detours. We permit endless distractions to occupy our time and our thoughts rather than tending to our inner being and needs. Most of us delay concentrating on our inner well-being and live in a detached state for our entire lives, or we wait until it is too late.
To live a fully-engaged life we need to simplify. We need to peel away the layers of complexity that we have added to our lives. We need to expose the fallacy that, as special creations of nature, we have unique needs to maintain an optimum existence, which can only be met with complex solutions.
The collective opinions that form modern society have convinced us that simplification is the opposite of progress. And that is true if we regard progress as the advancement of external objects such as wealth, power, and sensual comfort. But simplification does not mean living primitively. Living in a shack in the middle of the forest certainly may be more frugal than living in a penthouse apartment, but drawing water from a well or using an outhouse is certainly not simpler than turning the knob of a faucet or flushing a toilet. Simplicity can fully embrace the technological innovations that are available to us if they permit us to automate mundane activities so that we can focus on what is really important to us.
Simplicity is the ability to resist needlessly complicating our lives with too many unimportant or unnecessary things. It is about reducing the number of options we have to consider to those few that will produce the desired result with the least amount of effort. Indeed, the plethora of options that modern society has provided us to accomplish any task or goal has been referred to as the paradox of choice. The more options available to us, the more complex our decision-making becomes, and the more anxiety we suffer as we contemplate making the best decision. Then we are apt to suffer even more anxiety after our decision is made by agonizing over whether one of the other myriad of options available to us may have been better. It truly is a paradox that fewer options produce less anxiety, and more satisfaction and happiness.
Simplicity is performing a necessary action in a manner that takes the least amount of time and produces the least anxiety; the process that permits us the lightest mental burden. If you are constantly reviewing your investment portfolio, and spending endless nights tossing and turning as you worry about its performance, perhaps you may consider a more relaxing investment strategy. Yes, your overall profit may not be as great, particularly if you are adept at timing investment decisions, but consider the psychic income that comes with peaceful nights of sleep, and the even greater profit you may experience by redirecting the time you used to spend poring over your investments to your family, your spiritual development, or even another financial opportunity.
Dispensing with our public persona and presenting ourselves to the world as we really are is the most extreme form of simplicity. A public persona that is incongruous with our internal beliefs requires a great deal of energy and effort to sustain. Life becomes much simpler when we free ourselves from the complications of maintaining appearances that belie the underlying reality. Simplicity nudges us to critically analyze our obligations to others, to honestly assess how we are trying to accomplish our goals, and to reconsider how we present ourselves to the world.
All of the projects that we have committed to, all of the relationships that we are maintaining, all of the tasks that fill our planners and to-do lists: are they truly important to us as we try to advance toward our goals, or have they mindlessly accumulated and attached themselves to us? How many of our involvements are truly important and beneficial to us and our well-being?
Do we truly understand the methods we use to accomplish our goals? Is our reliance on others really necessary and sensible? Is the time we take to accomplish each task truly necessary? Or, is there a less complex, less time-consuming, more comprehensible and efficient way to accomplish the same things? Do the ends we seek really justify the means we choose to use?
Have we fallen victim to the myths perpetuated by the opportunity-seeking of others, that because our solitary appearance on this planet is so special and our existence so very superior by its unique nature, that our lives must be filled with endless complexity? Must we scurry about with the crowd, chasing after its definitions of success and happiness? Or, will we realize that all of the intricacies and complications that we have accepted as a part of being human are just diversions from what is truly important? Are we so caught up in the details of life, that we have become unable to make our lives meaningful?
We can take advantage of whatever technology and tools further our aims without needlessly complicating our lives. We can rely on our own intellect and sensibilities. We can restrict our efforts to only those endeavors that propel us forward on the path that we have chosen. Kierkegaard cautioned us against “ineffectual activism.” That is, we should fill our lives with meaning rather than activity.
— Henry David Thoreau
Reading Reference: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less