We Need Less than We Think

Why are most of us less happy now than Americans were 50 years ago?  Incomes keep rising, the economy keeps growing, and many people (including government policy-makers) believe that should make all of us feel more happy and secure.  But according to recent research, our happiness levels seem to be falling.

Grandma's chickens

How do we explain that?

Let me take a detour to talk about my gifted grandparents.

Grandma grew a productive garden, raised chickens and goats, cooked from scratch on a wood stove, preserved food, sewed, mended, darned, embroidered, crocheted.  She fed and clothed a family of six children through the Depression and World War II rationing.  She wrote long letters and read her Bible daily.

Granddad could fix engines, guns, roofs, electrical wiring.  He only had a 6th grade education, but he taught himself surveying and learned to operate heavy equipment.  He hunted and fished.  He played the harmonica and the accordion, had a pleasant singing voice, and could still recite all the poetry he had memorized in school.  As far as I know, he never took a bank loan for anything.  He and Grandma saved and paid cash for their little house.

So much changed during their lifetimes!  When Granddad was born in 1907, the average family didn't own a car or have a telephone or a flush toilet.  By the time Grandma died in 2005, there were more registered cars than licensed drivers in the U.S.  We carried our phones in our pockets, and a typical master bath might have a whirlpool tub, a multi-nozzle shower, two sinks, and a separate room for the toilet.  We had computers with access to the world's information and multiple television sets with hundreds of channels.  Air travel was common.  So was credit card debt.

Some changes have been wonderful.  Women can vote, choose a career, own and run a business, decide to have children or not.  People of color, while still facing prejudice, have more opportunity and influence than ever before.  Medical advances have improved quality of life for people with disabilities, and increased life expectancy for everyone.

So why are we less happy than we used to be?

Maybe it's because what was once a luxury is now considered a necessity, and our desires and our debt keep growing.  And what was once normal has become rare, and we've become more interested in economic growth than in a life well lived. 

happy older couple
Millions of people around the world lack homes, reliable food supplies, clean water, basic medical care, or a chance of education for their children.  They don't waste energy thinking about computers or big-screen TVs or SUVs, smart phones, on-trend d├ęcor, or closets overflowing with clothes and shoes.

My grandparents lived happily with less.  They were productive, creative, and self-sufficient.  They enjoyed music and stories, family and life-long friends.  They were busy but rarely stressed, and never bored.  They were like many others of their generation.

We need what they had:  fit, healthy bodies, intelligence and skills, tools to do our work, debt-free finances, and loving relationships.

10 luxuries we take for granted

1.  The television

Without it, how much time would we have for creative endeavors, learning, exercise, or conversation?  Can we place any limits on our use?

2.  Overflowing closets

Could we create capsule wardrobes based on two or three colors, with 30 or fewer items to mix and match?  How much money might we save?  How much less stress and dissatisfaction would we experience?

3.  Convenience foods

Could we avoid highly processed foods and make a menu based on whole foods?

4.  The dishwasher

How many dishes and utensils do we really use?  A sinkful of hot, soapy water will clean what we need for cooking and eating a simple meal.  Washing dishes doesn't take long, and it can be an enjoyable shared task, or a relaxed and mindful solo activity.

5.  Gadgets

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we lived without them.  Could we go back to that lifestyle?  Think about a phone that's just a phone, not a pocket-sized computer.  Would we have more distraction-free time?

6.  Ever-increasing collectibles

Some trinkets multiply.  One figurine becomes a set.  One photograph becomes a gallery wall.  Collections take a lot of money and a lot of dusting.  Will we forget a trip without a souvenir?  Could we limit ourselves to just one collection?  Could we let a single item be the focus of a wall, tabletop, or mantel?

7.  The computer

This may be a modern necessity.  But could we limit the time we spend on it (outside of work) to an hour or so per day?  Could we use it to research and learn and keep in touch, rather than for trending videos, celebrity news, and unnecessary shopping?

8.  The clothes dryer

I put shirts, blouses, and dresses into the dryer for about ten minutes to remove wrinkles, then hang them to finish drying.  This saves energy, keeps clothes new-looking for longer, and means I rarely have to iron.  If you're able to have an outside clothesline, there's nothing better than line-dried sheets, tee shirts, and nightwear.

9.  The car

Many people do without a car, and use public transport, a bicycle, or their own two feet instead.  Cars are expensive to buy, maintain, and insure, they consume limited natural resources (even electric vehicles), and they kill and injure millions of people every year.  Could your family do with only one car?  Can we all find ways to drive less?

10.  Air travel

Pulitzer prize-winning author Jack Miles says, "Minute by minute, mile by mile, nothing that we do causes greater or more easily avoidable harm to the environment than flying."  Even a zero-waste advocate who is vegan, uses solar power, and bikes to work, but who still takes the occasional flight, isn't very green at all.  Can we fly less?  Take the train?  Conference online and vacation closer to home?

How to be happier

rotary phone
While I have no plans to give up my flush toilet, washing machine, gas stove, cell phone, or at least occasional summer air conditioning (it's supposed to be 108° today), I realize that my life doesn't require those things.  They're luxuries I enjoy and for which I'm very grateful.  Gratitude, rather than a sense of entitlement and dissatisfaction, will increase my happiness.

But with my current level of knowledge, skills, and adaptability, I wouldn't survive and thrive as well as my grandparents did if I lived in their circumstances.  Rather than increasing my store of luxuries, maybe I should add to my experiences and know-how.  The self-sufficiency and confidence I would gain might make me very happy.

Updated June 2023


  1. When our daughter was a young woman she learned all kinds of "pioneer" skills like shearing and processing wool, hog butchering, and blacksmithing. Now, in her early 50s, she lives off the grid in a fixer upper putting her many skills to use. I am so proud of her. She's the one who taught me you can hang laundry outside in the winter but don't bring it in until it is no longer stiff becasue that stiffness is ice.

    1. That’s amazing, Linda. What prompted your daughter to learn these skills in the first place? She sounds formidable!

    2. She was prompted partly by her need to be independent and partly by her love of learning. She's now an OTR truck driver who lives in the cab of a semi-truck when she's not at home. She loves living in the tiny space of her truck cab but bought the land for her home when she began thinking about her future for when she gets too old to drive. But she still spends most of her time living in her truck earning money towards a retirement that will still let her be independent.

    3. It sounds like she is living her dream!


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