Significant Results

Using research findings to tell a more positive story.

4 Ways to Start Simplifying Your Life

Our lives literally move too fast. Time to take back control.

For sheer creativity, I love the research of social psychologist Robert Levine of Fresno, California. To gauge the pace of life in societies around the world, he timed how quickly people walked a single city block during morning rush hour, assessed the accuracy of public clocks, and timed a single transaction at local post offices. Levine found that societies vary greatly in the speed at which they live and that residents of faster places were at greater risk for heart disease.

This raises the interesting question of whether you should slow down, and the larger question of whether slowing down is part of simplifying.

There have been innumerable recent calls to simplify. Some critics of modern life are concerned with materialism. Others point to increasing social problems while still more mention a seeming wave of collective anxiety. The most common rallying cry of those espousing the simple life is to get rid of many material possessions and simultaneously refrain from acquiring more. Anyone with a cluttered garage can sympathize with this.

Even so, should we become more Amish-like in our lifestyles? 

Interestingly, the Amish are faring pretty well, psychologically speaking. I spent months collecting data from two Amish communities in Illinois and found that they had high average life satisfaction. When it came to emotions, 100% of the respondents were above the neutral point. Even when I double-checked this with their peers, the number stayed at a high 89%. When I triple checked using memory measures, I still found that 85% of the Amish were above neutral across research methods.

Despite the research you may not be ready to trade your Toyota for a horse-and-buggy. And yet research by Tim Kasser and his colleagues suggests that valuing material goods undermines happiness—and that living a thrifty life can boost it. Others have underscored this argument by pointing to well-documented psychological phenomena such as the human propensity to adapt to new circumstances. This can lead to escalating desires where consumerism is concerned.

Even if you accept the multiple streams of data suggesting that a simpler life is good for your psychological health, you may be uncertain where to begin. Do you have to move to a geodesic dome in the woods? Do you have to compost your food? Do you get to still watch Game of Thrones on TV?

Here are a few brief suggestions to get you started. To start, think about "the simple life" as having multiple parts:

  1. Stuff. All the material items you have, ranging from food storage containers to electronics to socks. Try to determine if items represent “enough” or “more than enough.” I just did this with my socks and discovered that I had 26 pairs, including wool socks, dress socks, athletic socks, and others. Although I value having specialized socks, I certainly did not need 26 pairs. You can repeat this process with virtually everything you own.

  2. Time. We all have the same amount of time—24 hours in a day. Professionals, however, are more likely to value their time highly and complain about not having enough. It can be helpful, though, to remember that you have the same amount as everyone else—not a second more or less. What you choose to do with it is, at least in part, up to you.

  3. Transitions. This is one of the overlooked ways to simplify your life. The fewer transitions you make throughout the day, the more at peace you'll potentially feel. If your day includes exercise, work, a trip to the dentist, picking the kids up from school, and eating dinner with your family it might feel quite bloated with activity. I side-step this problem by clustering activities. I try to couple errands with exercise on one day and work uninterrupted the next. Even within work, fewer projects and transitions within a single day can enhance your well-being.

  4. Social. I once coached a client who wanted to have a great romantic relationship, to be a terrific father, to have a flourishing social life, to be friendly with colleagues, to participate in community events, and fulfill the duties he had to his extended family. Terrific if that’s a lifelong goal, but try to cram that all into a single week and something’s gotta give. Consider stretching rewarding social experiences out over time as another way of simplifying. 


Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a research and trainer. He is fascinated not only by happiness but also by the difficult aspects of human psychology and has written about these topics in his forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.

Robert Biswas-Diener is a happiness researcher and adventurer.


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