What’s in a simple life? My thoughts on living simply and meaningfully

I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel through Southeast Asia over the past few years. I’ve found one thing to be true: In Southeast Asia, more so than anywhere else I’ve traveled, simplicity brings happiness. Whether it’s taxi drivers, street vendors, hostel staff or scuba diving instructors, I can sense the joy that arises from a genuine appreciation of one’s current livelihood. These people make enough for a humble living, and maybe they have a family to return to at the end of the day. That’s it. That’s their simple–and happy–life. They have enough to bring them happiness. In other words,

“I am enough. I have enough.”


We dwellers of the modern world probably find this concept rather foreign. In fact, we’re probably unfamiliar with what simplicity even mean when it comes to life. We’ve been programmed to expect more and more from this world, and, for the most determined among us, from ourselves too. “You are not enough” is the voice of society projected into our subconscious. As we grow ever more perpetually connected (do we ever disconnect anymore?), this voice gets even louder. I am reminded of a Henry David Thoreau quote:

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses…. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Arianna Huffington expanded on Thoreau’s provoking thought in her book Thrive:

“Shake off the village” — what a great way of expressing a vitally important human need. Since Thoreau’s time, the village has grown exponentially bigger and become more intrusive and seemingly intimate — giving us the semblance of connection without any of the real benefits of connection. Technology has enabled the village to become exceptionally good at not allowing us to shake it off. With the advent of the smartphone, getting away from it all is no longer as easy as simply getting up and walking away. And, increasingly, people are making the choice not to even try to shake off the village — surrendering to a life of distractions, with the result that, as Thoreau put it, we are living much of our lives out of our senses.” – Arianna Huffington

What wonderful combination of wordcraft (It’s not a word, but you get what I mean. Heh.) and wisdom!

Anyway, as I was reflecting on the happiness that visits those blessed with simplicity, I started to wonder which parts of my village–more like a sprawling city nowadays–are really necessary. A huge chunk of my village is the continued quest for meaning in life, which leads me to my million-dollar question today:

Is meaning-making compatible with a simple life?

Through my lens, I’ve often noticed that the simple lives are often not based on meaning, but more on contentment with one’s surroundings and a detachment from worldly affairs that are seemingly out of their control. Although I can understand–and even long for–this lifestyle, I cannot imagine myself living it; I am simply (pun not intended) not hardwired that way. Meaning is far too important in my life. I would rather die trying to find meaning than live a happy but meaningless one.

But perhaps it’s possible to live a simple and meaningful life, because simplicity–just like happiness–is within our control. The practice of simplicity can be as simple as letting go of the excess and the bad in one’s life, and recommitting oneself to what brings joy. I suspect the reason I haven’t found many folks with simple and  meaningful lives is not because they aren’t compatible, but because most of us engaged in the pursuit of meaning is cognizant of the magnitude of the challenges of our time, and therefore carry  the resultant anxiety and stress as part of our aforementioned “village.”

Come to think of it, this is rather foolish. Although we are in charge of our own lives, we do not control the narrative of the universe. In other words, we simply cannot foresee the impact we’re supposed to have. Maybe we will one day be a revolutionary. Or maybe our circle of impact will be smaller. One thing is for sure: we’ll die trying to make a difference. This should be all that matters. The key to this is letting go of the need for tangible results. We are not here to prove our worth to anyone–not the society, and not even yourself. Because the “self” that is looking for proof of your worth is an insecure self that keeps telling you that you are not enough. For us looking for meaning, simplicity is possible. We have to free ourselves from judgment. Make the journey our destination.

This is part of my goals this year: to make myself believe that I am enough, and find my simple and meaningful life.




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