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Soul Searching and Simplicity

Take a moment to ask yourself a few questions which can help define your values

By Marie Sherlock

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about voluntary simplicity and a low-consumption lifestyle. Part One was a primer explaining this idea. Part Three will provide concrete steps to consume less but enjoy life more.

The renowned 19th century philosopher and environmentalist Henry David Thoreau encouraged the world to "Simplify, Simplify!"

A glistening lake at sunset. Next Avenue, simplicity, declutter, walden pond, Henry David Thoreau
Walden Pond at sunset, Concord, Mass.  |  Credit: Geoff Livingston/Flickr

Thoreau carried his belief in simplifying to what most of us would consider an extreme in today's world: he chose to live, alone, in a cabin in the woods, off the grid (not that there was much of a grid back in 1854) for more than two years.

His goal: to distill life down to its essence — devoid of distractions — so that he might discern what really matters and to live authentically.


Anyone can set aside time for some soul searching.

Thoreau's rustic, prolonged interlude in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, isn't the only way to, for lack of a better term, find ourselves. Anyone can set aside time for some soul searching. If done with the intent of discerning what Thoreau described as the "essential facts of life," the effort could improve the balance of your life by helping you live your values. Or it could reassure you that you already live an authentic life, one that dovetails with your beliefs.

In the first installment of this series, you learned that voluntary simplicity is a "less is more" lifestyle focused on the values of personal growth and concern for others and the planet. To ascertain what your values actually are, you'll need to set aside a few hours of uninterrupted quiet or even carve out a weekend retreat (think of it as your mini-Walden experience; one option is spending time at a monastery).

This exercise is NOT some kind of hippie-dippy busywork assignment. Acknowledging exactly what your authentic values are is (obviously) essential to actually living them.

Defining Values

Before you begin, here's a little primer on values.

Values are what an individual judges to be important in life. They are your principles, morals and standards for living.

Tim Kasser, an emeritus professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, has researched the intersection of one's values and quality of life for three decades. His research looks at two types of values: intrinsic, or those focused on good relationships with family and friends, personal growth, spirituality and community; and extrinsic, those values prioritizing wealth, possessions, appearances, image and status.

Secret to Happiness

After an academic lifetime of research in this area, Kasser concludes that "people who internalize the belief that it's important to be wealthy — those who have materialistic values — are much less happy than those who have nonmaterialistic goals."

A wall-hanging that reads, "Make it do, wear it out, use it up, do without." Next Avenue, simplicity, declutter, walden pond, Henry David Thoreau
The author's parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, displayed this plaque in their home.  |  Credit: Marie Sherlock

Here's the good news: Most people say that intrinsic (nonmaterialistic) values are more important to them than extrinsic ones. Kasser adds that "research shows that voluntary simplifiers (yes, he used that term) endorse those intrinsic goals even more than the mainstream."

Kasser's extensive research further reveals that when people learn more about intrinsic values and their benefits — as you are right now — their "soul searching" will help them focus on those nonmaterialistic values. Kasser explains that "inward reflection in and of itself shifts people away from materialistic values and goals."

Define Your Values

With that research in mind, let's find out what your values are.

The goal of this exercise is for you to discern, acknowledge and record a list of the values that are most important to you. The suggested questions are a means to this end. You can answer all or some — or devise your own. Writing down your answers — in great, even painful, detail — is essential.

And, for any question you tackle, include your reasons for answering as you do. Dig deep. For example, why do you define success the way that you do? Why are these your fondest childhood memories?


Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How do you define success in life?
  • How would you define a "life of no regrets?"
  • What do you think our purpose is here on earth? As environmentalist Wendell Berry asks in one of his essays, "What are people for?"
  • What matters most to you? What do you hold sacred?
  • When do you feel most at peace?
  • What characteristics do you value in your friends and family?
  • List your fondest childhood memories.
  • What makes you happy? Which activities give you the greatest joy?
  • Imagine that you have only one year to live. How would you spend that time?
  • Who are your heroes?

Write your answers down and then sift through them for the values (principles, morals, standards) behind them. Examples of potential intrinsic values you might hold may include personal growth, kindness, family, faith, spirituality, justice, compassion, charity. Extrinsic value possibilities include wealth, possessions, appearances, image, status and praise.

Do You Live Your Values?

Make a list of your values and then go through and rank them in importance. Keep this list handy; post it on your fridge; refer to it often.

Have you discovered that you prioritize intrinsic (nonmaterialistic) values? As Kasser notes, the vast majority of us do.

People who claim to have intrinsic values but don't actually live them are some of the most unhappy people out there.

Here's the rub: While Kasser's research indicates that holding intrinsic values leads to well-being, it also reveals that people who claim to have intrinsic values but don't actually live them are some of the most unhappy people out there. (Researchers have not formed a consensus on why this appears to be so, but Kasser says, "perhaps they feel the hypocrisy.")

But the good news, according to Kasser, is that voluntary simplicity is a lifestyle that — assuming you hold those intrinsic beliefs — can help you live your values.

Another famous student of human behavior, Mohandas Gandhi, expressed it this way: "Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony."

Marie Sherlock
Marie Sherlock practiced law for a decade before turning to writing and editing in her 30s — and never looked back. She's worked as the editor of several publications and is the author of a parenting book (Living Simply with Children; Three Rivers Press). She spends her empty-nest days writing about travel trends and destinations, simplicity, spirituality and social justice issues. Read More
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