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The Health Benefits of Simple Living

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 11/5/2014 Anna Medaris Miller
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Shannon Hayes, 40, doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do.

When she gets up at 4 a.m. to write, it’s because it makes her happy. When she takes a morning walk, it’s because it feeds her spirit. When she sits down to home-school her two daughters, it’s because she loves them.

“It’s a life of free choice,” says Hayes, a self-proclaimed “radical homemaker” who lives and farms in West Fulton, New York. “If I’m out there with chicken crap on my shoes, it’s because it’s where I want to be.”

Hayes hasn’t always chosen animal waste over a conventional lifestyle. The blogger at “Yes!” magazine earned her PhD in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University at 26 years old without dropping a dime. She was ahead of track for a promising academic career.

But after weighing her and her husband Bob Hooper’s expected salaries against the cost of living – including two cars, property taxes and professional clothing – Hayes found they’d come up only $10,000 ahead of a simpler, jobless life near the farm where she’d grown up. That wasn’t worth it.

“The more I got into it, the more I realized that the way I was raised was the key,” says Hayes, who published the book “Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture” in 2010. “I had a choice: I could go off and have a career where I espoused the virtues of all these things and got a salary. Or my husband and I could turn around and live it.”

Today, 15 years later, Hayes and Hooper don’t have salaries, but they don’t have bosses either. They don’t eat out or belong to a gym, but they don’t get fat. They don’t have new clothes, but they have no one to impress. They brought in about $28,000 last year, but, they say, they’re happy.

“We’re not extraordinarily beautiful; I don’t have a model’s body,” Hayes says. “But ... we really love each other and we’re enjoying ourselves. And I think all of that plays out in our overall health.”

Hayes might well be right. “Simple living” – or a voluntary lifestyle that favors values such as family and the environment over material consumption and income – has been linked not only to improved environmental sustainability but also boosted mental and physical health.

In an unpublished survey out of the University of the Sciences in Pennsylvania, for example, Heidi Freeman, an assistant professor of exercise science and wellness management, found that 90 percent of people who identified as part of the simple living movement reported improved physical health after voluntarily making a change to earn less money. Almost that many respondents also said their mental health improved.

“There’s this attitude that environmental sustainability and scaling back on consumption somehow requires a sacrifice and is unpleasant, and these are things that people don’t want to do,” Freeman says. “But when you talk to people who do start doing this, there are so many positives that come out of it.”

To reap some of them, you don't have to quit your job and move to the woods, experts say. Take these cues from simple livers instead: 

De-materialize

In a meta-analysis out this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, and colleagues found a link between materialism – or valuing money and possessions – and poor physical health. The team found an even stronger link between materialism and engagement in risky behaviors that undermine physical health such as smoking, drinking alcohol and using drugs.

If you think your priorities are off kilter, Kasser recommends making small changes such as giving personalized coupons instead of gifts for the holidays or renegotiating your contract so you have every other Friday afternoon off, for example. 

“Rather than just adding on, [ask yourself] what am I going to subtract? What am I going to stop doing?” says Kasser, author of the 2002 book “The High Price of Materialism.” “And the thing to stop doing from the simplicity perspective is to stop focusing on the acquisition of money, to stop focusing on possessions, to stop focusing so much on your image.”

Rest and Relax

According to a large survey by the American Psychological Association last year, most American adults live with more stress than they think is healthy – a 5.1 on a scale of one to 10, when they consider a 3.6 healthy. That doesn't seem to be a problem for “voluntary simplifiers,” who rank themselves lower on stress than a neutral midpoint, Kasser's work with the Center for a New American Dream has found.

Hayes and her family, for one, cut down on stress by "responding to the weather" and staying in when the roads are unsafe, for example.

They also get adequate rest: The family usually turns the lights out by 8 p.m. and makes time every day after lunch to read, nap or craft. "If you could have $500,000 a year or a nap every day? I’m going to take the nap,” Hayes says.   

Other ways followers of the simple living movement might stress less is by spending more time with friends and family, getting plenty of physical activity and forgoing or limiting a salaried career for low- or no-paying work they find fulfilling. "Once you've made that choice...a virtuous cycle comes into play," Kasser says.

Move 

To Hayes, the idea of a gym membership “is ludicrous.” After all, she and her family are active all day cooking, gathering eggs, filling up baskets around the farm and, in the winter, sledding and snowshoeing. Unlike many of us, sitting – which has been linked to everything from poor posture to an increased risk of death – is not the default.

"Simple living isn't really that simple," says Freeman, whose survey found that a boost in physical activity was the top change respondents reported when asked how their downsized lifestyles affected their health. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot more physical work.”

For example, simple livers often garden, may chop wood and carry water, the survey showed. What’s more, followers of the lifestyle often have more time for outdoor recreation and ditch their cars in favor of walking, biking or public transit. That, new research has shown, is linked with a lower body mass index.

Eat for Health 

“Fast food” to Hayes’ family is broth made from the bone of a cattle that’s been simmering for days. Breakfast might be farm fresh eggs and homemade yogurt, lunch is a hearty plate of meat and veggies and dinner is the bone broth soup mixed with leftovers from lunch. They don't eat grains in an effort to help manage Hooper's Type 1 diabetes. “We’d rather pay for our food than pay for a doctor’s bill,” Hayes says.

That philosophy is a good one, says Simon Ussher, co-director of the Simplicity Institute, a global organization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die today from largely preventable diseases than from infectious ones. Many more die from injuries and violence. “We’re going to have to look at systematic methods of trying to prevent illness that don’t involve doctor," in order to have a sustainable health care system, Ussher says.

People who embrace simple living also tend to emphasize fresh, unprocessed foods, and grow much of it themselves, Ussher’s work has found.

That process confers its own benefits, says Erik Knutzen​, who blogs about his and his wife’s​ “do it yourself lifestyle” in Los Angeles at RootSimple.com. “I think the main benefit of this lifestyle – gardening, keeping chickens and bees – is that it helps integrate our lives with the natural world,” he says. “It's not about being anti-technology. It's about seeking a balance.”

Copyright 2014 U.S. News & World Report

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