The Virtue of Simplicity

Not too long ago I met a friend at a work event. He is someone that I don’t meet very often but whose company you cannot help but enjoy. By any measure, I would describe him as very successful: he’s incredibly well respected in his field, he has a very senior job, he’s charismatic, always impeccably groomed, and hugely liked. I say this only to explain why I was so surprised when he turned to me at one point and said that he envied me. 

How could that be, I thought? I have never been particularly career-oriented, am generally not impeccably groomed, am uncomfortable in many social situations, and my charisma level might be described as low average at best. What could I have that might inspire envy in others?  

The answer, as so often is the case of course, is that he envied in me the characteristics that he didn’t see in himself. Most specifically, he envied what he saw as my ability to find joy and meaning in ordinary things. Things like clearing an overgrown patch of garden, or continuing the traditions of Halloween games my mother used to play with us when we were younger. For my friend, meaning was intertwined with ambition and striving, while I think he perhaps saw in me a more simple, and perhaps less ambitious, approach to finding meaning in life. If he knew me better, of course, he might not envy me so much – we all have our issues and challenges. But even given this caveat, I do think that there is an element of truth to his observation.  

I’ve been reading a lot of Ellen Langer’s work recently. She is the Harvard psychologist who, over decades, has pioneered research around mindfulness. This isn’t the same as mindful or Eastern meditation, which has such a strong focus on being aware of one’s emotions and thoughts and then letting them go. Rather, Langer’s idea of mindfulness is to actively engage with each moment, being aware of the meaning, possibility and options that that moment offers.  

I like this idea: the idea that everything we do can be done automatically, by rote and mindlessly; or alternatively can be done actively and with awareness. Everything can be done in multiple ways, which means that every moment offers us choices that give us control over our lives. Nothing is too small – every moment and every choice makes a difference. This way of thinking can turn walking in the rain from a hardship to a sensory joy; can change helping with a child’s homework from being a tiresome drudge to an opportunity to build relationships, trust and memories. We can all work to engage with the present moment. It’s done by means slowing down to actively make ourselves aware and conscious of every decision, thought and emotion, to realise that there are other ways of thinking and feeling, and that how we choose to think and behave now is important. 

There is a phrase that has been going around in my head since I was a teenager. I had always believed in what I called the virtue of simplicity, but I was never able to put my finger on exactly what I meant.  

Reading Langer has made this a lot clearer for me. I think that what I meant was that so many of us make life out to be more complex than it needs to be. We look to the future; focus on future goals; strive for bigger and better. But in doing so we allow ourselves to become mindless about the present, as though it doesn’t matter and is only a stepping stone towards that future. This is even moreso the case if our present reality is the mundane – making dinner; filling out forms; getting kids to school.  

The truth, in my view, is very different.  

Everything about this moment matters, because this moment is all we have.