Voluntary Simplicity: What Is It?

Essentially, “voluntary simplicity” is just another phrase that can be used interchangeably with minimalist living, simple living or frugality. For some, however, the phrase has additional meaning.

Voluntary simplicity can sometimes mean living a life that’s off-grid, rural, without running water or electricity or extreme in some other ways. To some people, voluntary simplicity is even more extreme that just simple living.

The term sometimes has an almost religious meaning in some people’s minds. It can refer to a lifestyle that is completely disconnected from mainstream life in every way.

One online definition calls voluntary simplicity a lifestyle choice in which people consume only what’s necessary to maintain life, but that’s not quite right according to my understanding of the phrase.

Here’s one thing that’s for sure, however: Voluntary simplicity is a choice. That is, it’s voluntary. Those who live with few amenities because they can’t afford them aren’t volunteering for anything. The reasons behind living a simple life don’t make it any more or less right or wrong, but you certainly can’t call it voluntary if you don’t consciously choose it as a lifestyle.

Defining Voluntary Simplicity

Here’s a definition of voluntary simplicity that sounds right to me: Voluntary simplicity is a way of life that limits consumption and avoids the pursuit of money, things and position.

People choose this lifestyle so that they can live more simply and more meaningfully.

Like minimalist living, voluntary simplicity is intended to be a bit radical. It is intended to be a dramatic departure from how the majority of people live — with the specific goal of finding a better, simpler, less frantic way of life.

The Book Voluntary Simplicity

Although Duane Elgin can’t be credited with coining the term voluntary simplicity, his book, published in 1981 and brought out in a revised edition in 1993, is the textbook upon which many base their simple life.

Entitled Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich and available from Amazon, the book includes a philosophical discussion of living a life that’s free from a job and the search for status.

Duane Elgin wrote the book on voluntary simplicity.
Duane Elgin wrote the book on voluntary simplicity.

Many people turn to voluntary simplicity to try to maintain or restore their sanity after too many dealings with an incomprehensible world. In Elgin’s case, however, it was the environment rather than his own sanity that he was trying to protect by switching to simplicity.

The book may be slightly dated in places even after its revision, but the environment figures prominently in it, and that issue needs even more urgent action than it did when Voluntary Simplicity came out in its original and revised editions.

A book about frugality, ecological awareness and personal growth, it’s a handbook for those who seek a simpler life.

Back Where We Started

This discussion of voluntary simplicity comes full circle. It brings us back to where we started.

Most simply put, voluntary simplicity is another term for simple, minimalist living that’s sometimes based on the philosophy espoused in a book now decades old.

While the idea of voluntary simplicity is as old as the hills and its published explanation came out more than 30 years ago, it’s an idea that still hasn’t spread as far as many would like.

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