Seeds of simplicity in a material world

January 25, 2004|By Mariko Thompson | Mariko Thompson,Los Angeles Daily News

Eight years ago, Carol Holst did a very un-American thing -- she stopped striving for "bigger" and "more."

Rejecting the American passion for consumerism, the California resident founded the nonprofit group Seeds of Simplicity, which advocates finding sources of fulfillment outside of material goods.

Holst, a former teacher, no longer feels compelled to buy new business suits each season to match the prevailing trends in fashion magazines. She's content to rent a modest one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of vibrant downtown Glendale, Calif. And she's found her calling in social activism, spreading the word that simple living does not have to mean sacrifice.

"People overwhelmingly have the misimpression that we're going to start talking about deprivation," Holst says. "It's really about adding to our lives that measure of fulfillment and passion. That rarely has to do with brand names or materialistic pursuits that are fleeting and ultimately unsatisfactory."

Some might mistake it for a New Age fad, but the philosophy of simple living has been around for a long time. Think of 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau exhorting readers to "simplify, simplify." Now voluntary simplicity is branching into the mental health arena, where experts are examining links between the movement's concepts and psychological well-being. Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers are all featured at a conference by UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute this Saturday.

Dr. Rod Gorney is quick to caution that excessive consumption by itself is not an official clinical disorder. But there's no question that the drive to "keep up with the Joneses" can trigger stress and anxiety. The thirst for a fancier car, a house with a view or a bigger television often has little to do with function and more to do with symbolism.

"For many of us, things have ceased to be valued in terms of what purpose they serve intrinsically," says Gorney, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute and a Seeds of Simplicity board member. "They are then used to either quell anxiety or establish prestige."

When a person can't stop buying without feeling distressed and the behavior affects work or home life, compulsive consumption shades into a disorder, Gorney says. Some even experience withdrawal symptoms associated with true addictions. Gorney once had a female patient who shopped for shoes every day. If she didn't make her daily trip to the shoe store, she became tense, nervous and irritable. The patient came to realize that shoe shopping served as a substitute for her lack of lasting relationships, Gorney says.

When compulsive consumption becomes a concern, Gorney suggests taking up an enjoyable activity at the same time. That makes it easier to quit. Seeds of Simplicity holds group meetings called simplicity circles in 100 cities (There are a few in Maryland; for more information, visit www.seedsofsimplicity.org.) If people find that they can't stop, then it's time to get help from a mental health professional, Gorney says.

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