Philosophers for thousands of years have pondered what it means to live the good life. Many argue that simple, frugal living plays a part. And something else, which I explore below.
Frugality is more than just money-saving tactics. Frugality and her sisters simple living and green living are, I believe, essential for a happy, prosperous life for every person, without destroying this beautiful and amazing planet we live on.
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In the article below I take a big-picture look at the idea of a frugal and thriving life.
When trying to live more frugally, we often head straight for the tactics and life hacks that save money. Tactics like reducing the power bill or stretching the grocery budget.
Money-saving tactics are great, especially in the short term. They are easy to implement when money is short and life is busy.
This is why Frugal and Thriving is not the contradiction it might at first seem. Thriving isn’t about having a lot of stuff and a lot of money. It’s about living a happy, healthy purpose-filled life.
Philosophers throughout the ages have come back to this idea time and time again. From the ancient Stoics and Aristotle and Buddha to Benjamin Franklin and contemporary writers like Julia Schor and proponents of the Simplicity and Minimalist movements, many of our greatest thinkers throughout the ages agree that a non-materialistic life leads to the good life.
If material wealth isn’t what it means to thrive, then what is? In this article, I argue it’s living a value-driven life.
What is a Value-Driven Life?
The good life starts and ends with our values.
What are values?
Values are the principles and standards of behaviour we hold as important.
Our values define the sort of person we are or want to become; they are fundamental beliefs that shape our self-identity and they guide our decisions and our actions.
Values are our internal compass that guides us through life and it’s worth taking the time every now and then to reassess our personal magnetic north: are we heading in the right direction?
To know this, we need to know what our values are.
How do you know what your values are?
Most of our values are passed down to us by our families, community and culture and you probably already have a good idea of what your values are.
But if you’re not sure, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What do you want to stand for and what principles do you want to live by?
- What personal qualities and character strengths do you want to cultivate? And if you’re not sure, then ask yourself who do you admire and want to emulate and what is it about them that you admire?
- What would you want people to say about you at your funeral?
- What things are you most proud of and why?
- What things make you angry and why?
Another option is to read a list of values – like the one below – and see which ones you feel strongly about.
Frugality, by the way, isn’t just about saving money, it IS a value. Or one possible one. Obviously, it’s a value I feel is important.
Being conscious of your values and letting them guide you can be a deeply rewarding way to live and, I believe, is fundamental to living the good life. Because the good life isn’t just about what you get out of life, it’s about what you give. It’s about being good and doing good.
And this, in turn, helps us to feel good. This is the power of living according to your values.
As a side note, feeling good about doing good probably means we’ve evolved to be community-minded. Our minds reward us for it so we’re hardwired to do it. The book Social by Mathew D. Lieberman makes this argument so if you’re interested in looking further into the idea that humans have evolved to participate in community life and the science that supports the idea, check out the book Social by Matthew D. Lieberman.
I’ll come back to values in a minute, but I want to talk about something closely related to values and the good life that is goal setting.
How our Values Help Us Set the Right Goals and Enrich our Life
If values are our compass then goals are our destination, or at least, they’re stops along the road to our final destination. Knowing what values are important to you helps you make good decisions about the goals you want to pursue.
A misalignment between your values and your goals can mean either you don’t achieve the goals you set out to, or it can create inner conflict because you’re working against your values and this can lead to unhappiness.
To thrive, your goals and your values have to align.
I read a great book last year by Russ Harris call The Confidence Gap and there are a lot of gold nuggets in this book about goals and values.
In his book, Harris reminds us that while achieving a goal might take time, you can live according to your values every day. Goals can be a long time coming and the satisfaction from reaching them can be short-lived thanks to hedonic adaptation. That’s where we tend to return to a set level of happiness despite life’s ups and downs. The high from reaching your goals is great, but it doesn’t last.
But living every day according to your values enriches your life and the lives of those around you every single day. This builds confidence, which is what Harris’s book is all about, but it also nourishes our soul. This is what it means to live the good life.
Harris describes the difference between being just goal-oriented to being also value-oriented in the story of two mountain climbers (which I’ll paraphrase):
Imagine two mountain climbers.
The first is very goal-oriented. He’s focused on reaching the top of the mountain in the shortest amount of time. He rarely stops to rest and when he does, he’s restless to get going again. There’s little joy in the climb – the sole focus is getting to the top.
When he does reach the top, he’s exhilarated! He reached his goal and it’s an awesome feeling.
But now it’s time to focus on the next goal – which is to get back down the mountain.
The second climber is also driven to reach the top of the mountain. But he’s also interested in the process: he values nature and so he takes time to appreciate the beauty of his surrounds. He values developing his skills and exercising his body and the thrill of adventure. As he climbs the mountain he savours every moment: the strain in his calf muscles, the sound of the birds, the way the light moves across the valley below.
When he reaches the top, he is also exhilarated. He also gets the thrill of achieving his goal.
But between the two, who do you think got the most out of the adventure?
Both of these climbers have the same goal: to reach the top of the mountain.
The second climber, however, is also values-focused. Life isn’t just about the goal – it’s also about the journey; it’s about how he achieves his goal. And his values were at the forefront of his mind as he strived to reach his goal.
In terms of frugal living, being value-oriented is what stops us from being miserly cheapskates. Frugality, miser, cheapskate: these aren’t just words that mean the same thing, living according to your values is the key difference between being frugal and being cheap.
Because frugality balances environmental concerns like waste and social concerns like sweatshops with saving money. Goals and values in a dance together.
That’s not to say that you won’t have to make compromises. We all have to make compromises and perfectionism is unhealthy. Sometimes the budget is just too tight to stick to our values. Other times, you might compromise savings in order to act on your values. That’s life. We all have to balance reality with ideals.
The good news is, there are lots of ways we can act on our values each and every day that don’t have anything to do with spending money. Which brings us to the next point: values can be a little abstract and broad. How do we know if we’re living according to our values?
Live by Your Values by Translating them Into Guiding Principles
Benjamin Franklin was a prolific journal writer. But he didn’t just write about the day to day minutiae, he also used his journal to help him live by his values.
In his journal, he wrote down thirteen virtues (or values) that he wanted to live by and then he deliberately and consistently evaluated his daily conduct against these virtues to see how he measured up to his ideals.
At the beginning of each day, he would ask himself in his journal: what good shall I do this day?
And at the end of the day, he would pull out his journal again and ask: what good have I done today?
Then he would look over his list of virtues and place a dot against each one he thought he violated.
beingto acquire the habitude of all these virtues…I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I crossed these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.” — Benjamin Franklin
Franklin was far from perfectly virtuous. He was, after all, instrumental in enshrining slavery in the American constitution. He wrote of himself:
“I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”
There are many dots in his journal. But by being honest about his failings, it helped him to improve upon them: he later became President of the Society For The Abolition of Slavery, and actively spoke against slavery to try and stop what he had helped put in motion.
The problem with evaluating whether we are living by our values is that they are abstract. How can you measure whether you acted virtuously today? If justice is one of your values (as it was for Franklin), how do you know if you acted justly today?
The answer is to write down as Franklin did, along with your values, GUIDING PRINCIPLES that allow you to evaluate your actions.
For example, if one of your values is frugality, your guiding principles might include:
- Compost all food scraps.
- Meal plan to avoid food waste.
- Stop and think before spending money and ask if you can go without, borrow or buy secondhand etc.
Guiding principles take abstract ideas like justice and frugality and they make them actionable and easy to measure whether or not we lived by those values. If like Franklin, I can take stock at the end of the day and say yes, I did those things (or avoided doing negative things) then I can say I acted on my values. And long after we’ve achieved our goals – or not – it will be the way we acted and whether we lived by our values that will be our most important legacy.
I want to finish the episode with one of my favourite quotes from Hugh Mackay, from his book appropriately named The Good Life.
“The greatest monument to any of our lives will not be in stone, but in our living legacy – the influence we have had on other people at every point of connection with the human family. You don’t have to be rich to leave a positive legacy; you don’t have to be intelligent, famous, powerful or even particularly well organised, let alone happy. You need only to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect, knowing they will have been enriched by their encounters with you.” –- Hugh Mackay
Here’s to a frugal and thriving life.
Links and Resources from the Podcast
- Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect by Matthew D Lieberman
- Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
- The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt by Russ Harris
- The Good Life: What Makes Life Worth Living by Hugh Mackay
- List of Values in PDF
- Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues (see image above in show notes)