Review: Simple Prosperity

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development or personal productivity book.

simpleAbout two years ago, I went through a huge lengthy “green” streak, brought on by An Inconvenient Truth. I spent several months absorbing as much information as I could about global climate change, from the actual scientific literature to books on things individual people could do to slow the effects. This went beyond my natural interest in the back-to-the-earth Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening type of living that’s always percolated inside of me – it was approaching full-blown modern green status.

As my interest in the topic matured, the pieces that really stuck with me were the ones that weren’t simply “green” – they also spread something positive to other aspects of my life. For example, there are a lot of simple green initiatives that also directly save money, and there are a lot of fun family-oriented green activities, like starting a compost bin.

The real eye-opener is that I began to realize the best thing I could do for myself and for the world was to cut down on my consumption without reducing my enjoyment of life. Figuring out how to do this would save time, save money, and perhaps save a little sanity, too. That’s the path that led me to discovering Simple Prosperity.

Simple Prosperity was written by David Wann, who also wrote the excellent Affluenza. In Simple Prosperity, Wann basically looks at how to build a life after overconsumption, addressing the question of how people can recapture a sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle without sacrificing the things we hold dear. The answer is in the sum of a large quantity of small and simple things, which is what this book is loaded with.

Interested? Let’s dig in.

A Deep Look At Simple Prosperity

The concept of Simple Prosperity is laid out in the introduction: we’re all searching for a better life, but what is better? Affluenza basically argued that for the last one hundred years or so, our idea of better is more stuff. Simple Prosperity argues that better is actually more personal fulfillment.

1. Taking Stock
Simple Prosperity opens by taking an assessment of where we’re at right now. The average Westerner consumes more and produces more waste than ever before, and this continual growth requires more and more income to fuel it. That means less time for actually enjoying life and making it sustainable. Is this a long term equation for growth?

2. Evolutionary Income
Here, Wann argues that the most fulfilling experience we can have in our lives is flow, or that point in which you’re so deeply engaged with something that you lose track of time and the effort and challenges involved are completely natural. The only problem is that most of us rarely have an opportunity to reach that state of flow, so we replace it with substitutes that don’t bring about that level of joy.

Think about it for a minute. Don’t you feel happiest when you’re so engaged with something that really excites you that you lose all track of time and it seems somehow easy to solve problems? That’s the flow state, and I know from my own experiences that this flow state is something I value very highly. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I’m switching to writing full time – writing is the one activity I do that can consistently move me into that sensation of flow, where I feel like I’m genuinely accomplishing something.

3. Personal Growth
Follow what you’re passionate about, the money will follow. That’s the point of this chapter. What activities really get you into that state of flow? For most of us, the activities that get us into that flow state are the ones that we’re truly passionate about. Since that flow state is often the key to real happiness, it makes sense that we should follow whatever path gets us into the flow state most often, and that’s usually in the direction of our deepest passion.

The obvious problem that some people are going to point out here is that doing this often means not taking the financially lucrative job and instead making very little money, especially at the start. This makes it very challenging to just pick up your tent and make that switch. Trust me, I know – I am right now facing that very challenge. It can seem almost impossible to abandon your career, but Simple Prosperity argues that it’s the first step to a new level of fulfillment and prosperity in your life.

4. Mindful Money
Another way to increase the amount of “flow” in your life is to get the stuff out of the way. That means buying fewer things, but when you do buy things, buy quality things that you don’t have to fight to use or maintain.

Whenever I consider advice like this, I think of kitchen knives. In my opinion, most home kitchens need only a few knives for cooking purposes. We have a large set of them, actually, but in truth we only use about three of them regularly. So, instead of buying a big knife set, you’re way better off buying those three knives individually and paying for some serious quality in those three knives. Less waste, less time for maintenance, less time for use (as they’re better knives), less space for storage – it’s an all-around win.

5. The Bonds of Social Capital
This is basically a chapter-length version of the social networking book Never Eat Alone. Both of them have the same basic core idea: what goes around comes around. Whenever you can do a favor for someone, especially if it’s easy for you, do it. In the long run, you’ll build more lasting relationships and connections with others because of it.

The first step, though, is talking to people. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to the people you interact with regularly. Go to community social events. Meet people, listen to them, find connections with others, and help them out when you can. The love and respect that will come back to you is far more valuable than you can ever imagine.

6. Time Affluence
When people hear the word “affluence,” they naturally think of money. Simple Prosperity argues that for some people, time affluence is actually far more valuable than financial affluence.

I agree with this notion wholeheartedly. Not too long ago, I was quite obsessed with financial affluence, worrying greatly about getting my finances into prime shape, maximizing my investments, and shooting for the seven figures. Over the last year or two, though, I began to not yearn for money but for time.

Of course, there are ways to translate money affluence into time affluence and vice versa, but the question is which is more important to you: a pile of lazy afternoons or a fat investment account? I used to choose the latter – now I’d rather have the former.

7. The Stocks of Wellness
Personal well-being is another valuable aspect of life that’s overlooked in the modern era. As a society, we’ve adopted a substandard diet and don’t exercise enough to counteract the effects of that diet. Wann offers the usual advice: a reasonable and nutritious diet and appropriate exercise to match. It’s oft-repeated advice, but it’s good advice, because both maximize your opportunity for long-term health.

Wann also advocates mental exercise, in the form of both medication and some sort of thought-engaging activities. In other words, doing a sudoku puzzle or writing a journal entry.

8. The Currency of Nature
Here, Simple Prosperity argues on behalf of reconnecting with nature – or at least with the outdoors – as much as possible. Even if you’re city-bound, you can at least visit a park regularly, for instance. Wann also is a big fan of gardening,

This is something that I take for granted in my own life. When I look out my back door, I see nothing but cornfields and trees, and we have an enormous boxed garden as well. When I visit a city, at times I feel almost claustrophobic – people all around and nothing but buildings in all directions. Experiencing both a healthy amount of nature and of civilization makes for a healthy balance, I think.

9. Precious Work and Play
In many places, there is a firm dividing line between work and play. Wann believes this dividing line to be dangerous as it generally transforms work into a place with minimal enjoyment and thus makes it much harder to get into a sense of flow. Flow requires happiness and enjoyment, so mixing play and work often goes a long way towards getting ourselves into a state of flow with whatever we’re trying to accomplish.

Wann is a strong advocate of not sticking around at jobs that bring you dissatisfaction. If the negativity of your work is interfering with your free time, it’s time to make some changes with your career.

10. The Real Wealth of Neighborhoods
At this point, the book weakens somewhat as it begins to talk about solutions that are greater than the individual. Here, for example, Wann focuses on neighborhood design, both in terms of physical and cultural aspects, and argues that everyone benefits when more people are involved in the community. For example, if only five people volunteered an hour a week to keep the village green clean, it wouldn’t be that great, but if five hundred people volunteered, everyone would have an utterly amazing village green to share.

This is a nice call to arms to get involved with the community, but it only works if this ideal is shared by others. Community involvement only works if there is a community to get involved with. Joe Average can’t just free up an hour or two a week and change the world – the change has to come from cooperation. I tend to believe, based on my own experiences, that if you put in the effort to find groups and organizations to get involved with, the benefits are tremendous, both in terms of building the community and in building yourself.

11. Higher Returns on Investment
Wann’s argument here is that there’s many more resources available to us if we focus on simpler things. For much of the chapter, he focuses on the idea of being a vegetarian. Growing a vegetable takes vastly fewer resources and energy than growing an animal. Even more, our bodies are physiologically more prepared to eat plants than to eat animals. Thus, it makes sense to focus on eating vegetables.

You can carry this logic with you anywhere. Let’s say you care about the environment and are willing to donate $500 a year to a green organization. Why not just spend that $500 on buying organic fruits and vegetables instead? If your normal food purchase costs $2 and the organic item costs $6, you can make the organic purchase 125 times and do far more direct good for the earth than you ever could by donating $500 to a green organization. Your dollars are working much more directly to save the earth

Basically, Wann advocates focusing on direct routes to what’s important rather than indirect ones. Focus on efficiency and simplicity in your choices.

12. Energy Savings
This chapter largely reiterates the idea that there are a lot of ways to simultaneously save money and conserve energy. In a way, it’s a continuation of the previous chapter – energy efficiency not only saves money now, it extends the period of time that, say, a megawatt-hour can power your home.

Let’s say you install CFLs, for example. You install 15 of them, and each of those sockets are now sucking down 50 watts less. If you keep each bulb on for four hours in an average day, you’re saving three kilowatt-hours per day, or about thirty cents a day. Even more interesting: let’s say that change reduces your home’s energy use from 50 kilowatt-hours per day to 47 kilowatt-hours per day. Before the change, it would take only 20 days to eat a megawatt-hour of energy from the power plant. Now it takes 21.3 days to eat that much power. That’s a slice of coal that doesn’t need to be burnt and, even better, a bill you don’t have to pay.

13. The Benefits of Right-Sizing
Wann argues here that the average American family has far more space than they need. I agree with that, to a point. We live in a 2,000 square foot home here in Iowa and most of the time, all four of us are in the same room together, leaving a dozen rooms unoccupied. Even at night, all four of us occupy only two of the rooms on one of the three floors on the house.

Do we need this much space? Probably not. We could likely downgrade to a smaller house, particularly one with a more efficient layout, and not miss things too much. In fact, we’ve even done sketches for our dream home and they’re basically the same size as our current home, just laid out differently.

Finding the right size is important, however. The right size gives you all of the pleasures of being at home while also minimizing costs – the cost of building, the cost of maintenance, the cost of energy, and so on.

14. Trimming the Fat
Simple Prosperity makes a strong case for a healthy diet here, laying out the reasons that had been scattered around up to this point. Most of the points Wann makes overlap heavily with the ideas presented in Michael Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food, which I discussed a while back.

The advice? Both this book and In Defense of Food say to eat food (meaning focus on basic ingredients and avoiding processed and prepackaged foods), not too much, and mostly plants. This basic premise extends outward to the logical places: start a garden, buy organic produce, etc.

15. Infinite Information
In our modern lives, we have access to almost boundless information. In many subtle ways, it’s information overload – there’s so much out there that it can become addictive and distracting. Even worse, there’s a lot of misinformation thrown in there – advertisements, people spreading misinformation, and so on.

Wann suggests doing some serious filtering on the information. Instead of letting the information come at us (turning on the television, for example), we should just seek out the information we want or need. If we do choose to absorb information in greater quantity, look for sources that have a high level of quality and reliability. Weirdly enough, I think this logic is thriving out there, as the blogosphere is becoming a meritocracy and the writers who are presenting useful, honest, and correct information in an intelligent way are building audiences.

16. Historical Dividends
Here, Wann suggests becoming politically involved, something else that I think is happening in America right now. The average American is more engaged in the political process than they’ve been in a long while – and that’s a great thing.

Wann suggests looking at local politics as much as national politics. That means checking in on what’s going on at the city council or maybe running for the school board, both of which are valuable ways to get involved with the local community.

17. Cultural Prosperity
Simple Prosperity closes by stating, quite astutely, that most of the stuff in this book requires a groundswell of people to get involved. For many people, that’s a huge detriment – “if there isn’t a lot of people doing this, it won’t work and it’s a waste of my time.”

Of course, that’s a catch-22. If everyone thought like that, there would be no societal change. Thus, Wann advocates just doing these things yourself and basically being an example. Eventually, a trickle of others will follow (either because of you or because of their own accord) and, eventually, a flood. That’s how change happens, so get started today.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Simple Prosperity offers a ton of food for thought about what’s really valuable about life, and it offers some interesting suggestions and conclusions as well. Wann’s clearly got a green philosophy, but many of the points are sensible no matter what your perspective.

Basically, the philosophy in a nutshell is maximize your time in “flow” and minimize the distractions, both short and long term. This ranges from internal things (finding work that you’re passionate about, eliminating immediate distractions, eating better) to external things (living in a pleasing community and society, focusing on efficiency and utility, eliminating workplace distractions).

If that philosophy seems powerful to you, Simple Prosperity is a very worthwhile read. It offers tons of concrete suggestions about how to move closer to that state of living, both internally and externally, and much of the stuff really works quite well.

On the other hand, if you reject most of the premise out of hand, this book will be a big frustration for you. I know several people, for example, who think that the idea of flow is patently ridiculous, and I know others who basically see no merit at all in being involved in the community in any way. For these people, the ideas in Simple Prosperity aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

As for me, I enjoyed this one a lot. Most of the life choices I’ve made over the last year are really in line with what this book talks about – maximizing my flow time and eliminating distractions that keep me from it.