by Ann M. Colford

Just what is Voluntary Simplicity? It's a decade-old social movement, complete with research studies, support groups and the inevitable (though antithetical) merchandising. But the term was coined in 1981 by author Duane Elgin as the title for his book, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. That title didn't sell a lot of copies in the high-living, materialistic 1980s. But Elgin's book inspired other authors, notably Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin of Seattle, whose 1992 book, Your Money or Your Life, became a national bestseller and spawned workshops, study groups and a host of other titles touting the simple life. Elgin's catchy term was applied to the philosophy, and a social movement was born.

Voluntary Simplicity encompasses environmental awareness and a desire to mitigate the impacts of contemporary American consumer culture. Paring life down to the essentials and not buying more than is needed are key concepts. Dominguez and Robin contributed the notion of "life energy," an honest look at how much that daily latte or latest seasonal fashion is really costing us. Many simplifiers also focus on finding work that is satisfying, fulfilling and uses their individuals gifts; there is often a spiritual component as well. Most advocates for simple living make a clear distinction between poverty and Voluntary Simplicity as a middle-class social phenomenon, noting that poverty is neither voluntary nor simple.

A key ingredient in the 2002 definition of simplicity is the notion of authenticity, along with a uniquely American infusion of individuality. "There's a belief in our group that simplicity is what you want it to be," says Joan Reuthinger of Spokane. "You do what works for you."

Reuthinger, along with a dozen or so others, is part of a Simplicity Circle in Spokane. The Spokane group and other Simplicity Circles trace their historical roots to the study circles of the 19th-century Chatauqua movement, but the contemporary term and usage was coined by Cecile Andrews, author of the 1997 book, The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. Andrews' book has become a primary resource for people like Reuthinger and her group who seek to follow its less-is-more philosophy. They're not following any single dogma, but they desire the companionship of like-minded friends to help them avoid the temptations of the American advertising machine.

"You turn on the TV and it's buy, buy, buy," says Reuthinger. Resisting the lure of materialism isn't easy; group members share the joys and challenges of trying to live counter to the prevailing cultural attitudes, she adds. "The key is finding your center and your peace and moving from there. You don't get that support from all the rest of your friends. A lot of my friends [outside the group] think my choices are crazy."

Voluntary Simplicity followers may feel like they are swimming upstream in a sea of consumerism, but the tide may be shifting. Nationally, sociologist Paul H. Ray estimates that 26 percent of the adult American population -- or 55 million people -- fall into a group he calls the Cultural Creatives. According to Ray, this group holds socially concerned, person-centered and environmentally conscious values, while emphasizing the importance of spirituality, personal development and tolerance for the views of others -- the same core values espoused by Voluntary Simplicity advocates.

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