Voluntary Simplicity and Intentional Conscious Living

Interview with Dr. Anthony Spina, founder and president of Knowledge Resources

Anthony C. Spina, Ph.D. has over 25 years business, industry, and education experience in both internal and external consulting. He has broad professional experience in multiple disciplines, such as organizational effectiveness, research, market analysis, training, change management, information technology, and marketing.

He is the founder and president of Knowledge Resources, an organization focused on facilitating transitioning processes for both individuals and organizations attempting to meet the challenges and demands of constantly changing, complex environments. Dr. Spina considers himself a social critic and management philosopher passionately concerned about the societal impact of technology on the way we live and work.

Tammie: What attracted you personally to the voluntary simplicity movement?

Dr. Spina: Approximately fifteen years ago, I started to become very much aware of my lifestyle and of those oround me (friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers, etc). I continually heard and witnessed how hectic everyone's lives were and how they wanted to get out of the rat race. Compared to living conditions 30-40 years ago, there appeared to be a paradox. We have the most labor saving devices now in society than ever before in history. In the 1980's, all the business journals reported that the problem of the 90's was going to be how to fill up all our leisure time. They predicted a 35-hour work week and that the fastest growing industry would be the leisure marketplace. Needless to say something quite different is in place.

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More recently, I stumbled upon the simplicity movement while performing the literature review for my dissertation. Actually, I discovered it during the concept stage and delved deeper into the phenomenon in the initial stages of my research. I was looking into the literature associated with quality of life issues and happiness. The volume of information was sufficient for several lifetimes of research. The topic of simplicity stirred up great curiosity in me and I decided to seek out the potential relationship between this trend and what I was observing in my everyday life. That's when I began reading more of the publications associated with simplicity and my interest grew exponentially into the meaning and processes behind this trend.

Tammie: You indicated in your wonderful article, "Research Shows New Aspects of Voluntary Simplicity" that in all the cases that you studied of individuals who "downshifted" or made significant moves to simplify their lives, there existed a "wake up" call or a triggering event. Were there common themes related to the kinds of events or realizations that served as an impetus for change in the people that you studied? And if so, what were they?

Dr. Spina: Bare in mind that my research was qualitative. If perhaps, I had performed a quantitative study and surveyed thousands of people, then maybe I would have seen a pattern. However, in my research, there were no common, easily identified "triggers." Each was very unique and common to the individual's situation and circumstances. These included events such as divorce, witnessing a tragic event, a vacation in the wilderness, or job loss, to name a few. But we all experience these events in our lives and yet the majority of us do not make major transitions. The "trigger" alone is not enough. The stage has to be set to allow the individual to hear the "signal" when the trigger is fired and take us above the "noise" level.

Tammie: What, specifically, are you referring to when you talk about the "noise" level?

Dr. Spina: The word "noise" was inspired and borrowed from the field of Communication and Information Theory. In layman's terms, recall the time before cable when you had to adjust the rabbit ears on top of your TV to tune in the station, thus resulting in a clear picture and sound. The snow and static, where the "noise" and the picture & sound represented the message which contained information. The greater the noise, the weaker the signal. When the message is unintelligible, information is not transmitted and all meaning is lost.

Using this metaphor to amplify (no pun intended) my research findings, the meaning(s) in our daily living is often drowned out by the noise we experience. This "noise," enabled by many of our modern technologies, takes the form of over-work, the glut of information, consumerism/materialism, mass advertising, and the TV & personal computers. Included in this last category are the cell phones, beepers, laptops, pagers, FAX machines, etc. which blur the line between our work space and personal lives. The signal must emerge from all this noise and can only occur if one is ready and pre-disposed to begin adjusting the "rabbit ears" (I couldn't resist) of our lives to make it happen.

Tammie: Thanks. That's a terrific analogy. You also reported that each participant in your study appeared to experience a process that involved three stages: (1) Pre-transition, (2) Trigger or motivation, and (3) Post-Transition. Would you mind elaborating on these stages just a bit?

Dr. Spina: The pre-transition state is what I observed as a set of conditions or circumstances which had significantly deteriorated the quality of living. It's an awareness state. "I know something is wrong. I am not finding my present life situation to be meaningful, enjoyable, or worthy of being sustained. I am not sure what it is I am searching for, but this isn't it anymore." This is typically the state of mind of one in this pre-transition state. Once again, many of us feel this way from time to time, but when it becomes sustained and there is this mental affirmation that it just won't do anymore. the stage is set. The "noise" level in our lives has become saturated. All that is needed is something to tip the scales, which leads to the next stage.

The trigger or motivation stage is what caused these individuals to reclaim meaning in their lives. It can be what we typically refer to as the "last straw," but more likely, it's something totally more remote. For example, one of my research participants recalled being on a vacation trip which involved a day long kayak trip in which they were only able to take along the bare essentials for life. This event raised their awareness of the excesses in their normal lives. Now this doesn't appear on the surface to be such a mind-blowing event, but coupled with their existing quality of life, this is all it took to send them into the next stage.

Once the participant recognized what is truly important in their lives, the source of noise is easily identified and minimized as necessary. This is what I referred to as the post-transition stage. Here is where the signal or meaning levels are turned up high and the person is now pursuing the lifestyle that was absent from his or her daily living previously. It may involve a geographic move, a divorce, a change of jobs, or all of the above. The most revealing observation I made was that this new direction was really not new at all. It was what these people were all about since their youth, but over the years, the noise, often assisted by our high-tech society, dimmed out.

Tammie: You've explored how technology has served as a trigger or motivator in leading some people to downshift and you offer a very important perspective that I'm hoping you might share.

Dr. Spina: When I began my research, I was seeking a connection between this movement and technology, particularly, information-related technologies. I admitted that my researcher bias was looking to indict technology as the negative motivator.

My first observation was quite the contrary. Several downshifters use technology to help simplify. The most obvious example is using the computer to tele-work or tele-commute, thus working from home, either full or part-time. This allows for more flexible scheduling in one's life and a better balance between work and family. This, of course, assumes the nature of your passion and work allow for this arrangement. Others use email to connect with distance friends and family, as well as other simplicity advocates forming online communities of interest. Personally, having been a technocrat most of my life, I prefer face-to-face encounters over the electronic ones. Yet, look at what's facilitating this dialogue right now and witness the audience that may be exposed to this discussion.

Tammie: You pointed out that the Kellogg company reduced work hours to six hours a day during the depression in order to preserve jobs, and as a result the quality of life for these workers improved significantly. There have been a number of studies it seems that indicate that there's a very definite relationship between fewer work hours and quality of life and yet for the most part, most Americans just keep working longer and harder these days it seems. Why is that from your perspective?

Dr. Spina: Work was identified as one of the greatest examples of "noise." The work-spend-consume-work- spend-consume cycle is ruling the majority of American society. For many, who we are is defined by what we do and what we have. We have a multiplicity of identities. Kenneth Gergen, in his book, The Saturated Self, calls this "multiphrenia." If we need to identify ourselves externally, we will easily sink into the noise levels. In order to buy all those nice accoutrements, we will need to work more to obtain the money to pay for those purchases. The market will gladly accommodate this desire. Advertising and its associated media target just this situation and we respond.

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Members of the Voluntary Simplicity (VS) movement transition from an externally identified self to an internally identified self. This is where all the meaning, the signal, resides. It takes courage to do this, because by placing less emphasis on material possessions, one has to identify one's self by what's inside. How many know what that is, since we have been brainwashed to rely on external things for this answer? For those, the majority, who have not come to this realization, they will have to continue to define themselves externally. This means more money, which in turn means more work.

There are many other factors that contribute to overwork, related to economics, globalization, advances in technology, the transforming to a service economy, single parent families, etc. All the people in my research were affected by these conditions as well. Therefore, I have offered my opinion from a more micro level.

Tammie: Your definition of simplicity, "living life to its fullest (by each person's own standards) without harm to the planet or the society," is a wonderful one. How have you applied this definition to your own life?

Dr. Spina: I struggle with this daily. Personally, I have been through the first and second stages of VS, or what I am now calling Intentional Conscious Living (ICL). Almost four years ago, I left my corporate career for more meaningful work. I watch my purchases of material things much more closely than ever before and have become more environmentally aware. I no longer rely on external appearances for my identity, for who "I am." The other members of my family are not necessarily in concert with my new found direction. That has caused conflict and limits on how fast and how deep I can move in the direction of simplification. So I am still executing the third stage of post-transition quality of life. I am certain the path is correct, but uncertain of the challenges ahead. Nevertheless, the "signal" is strong and the meaning is becoming more clear daily. The dependence on money (more than is really necessary) is the most difficult challenge in the face of mortgages, college tuition, etc. All of these can be overcome as is evidenced in the simplicity literature.

Tammie: You've also asserted that perhaps we need a new defining term to describe what we're currently referring to as "the simple living movement" and you've suggested "intentional conscious Living" as an alternative. How might "intentional conscious living" more accurately define this movement?

Dr. Spina: I believe that if VS'ers truly wish to share the experience, meaning, and satisfaction of their newly-found quality of life, the focus should not be on frugality alone or being a tightwad. What I said before, is that many people define themselves by what "they have" and "how they look." If you were to appeal to these folks and encourage them to give these possessions up, you are in reality asking them to give up part of themselves. ICL is not giving up anything. It's getting something back that has been lost. This is the message that needs to be conveyed. Now it may involve, less spending, more environmental awareness, different purchasing options, but this should be an effect not the inspiration for the transition.

When I approach people with the term simplicity, they respond with fear and apprehension. They tell me, "I like spending money and will work hard to get it. I enjoy a day at the mall. I like to have nice things." It is not for me to judge these people as being uninformed or unenlightened. However, if these same people tell me they are unhappy, hate their work, need more time, feel stressed, have little energy for relationships, and wish things were simpler; then they need to live a life that is more mindful, more conscious, more intentional. This is the first message they should hear, not start downsizing!

Tammie: That's a really important point that you've made, and I agree with you. Tom Bender once wrote when addressing the tendency of so many Americans towards overconsumption that, "after awhile more becomes a heavy load." I'm wondering how you would respond to Bender's statement.

Dr. Spina: I think I may have already answered this question. The more toys we have the more attention and maintenance they require, not to mention more time for the additional work needed to earn the additional money to buy "more." So the burden of "more" is hidden in the process to acquire "more." It is a process that is enabled by technology in the form of television and new media advertising. It's what keeps the economy going. It's the whole consumption issue and why it's in place.

Tammie: What advice would you offer someone who's seriously considering simplifying his or her Life?

Dr. Spina: The participants in my study all took their cue from reading two books, "Voluntary Simplicity", by Duane Elgin; and, "Your Money or Your Life", by Joe Dominquez and Vicki Robin. These two works seem to represent the bible of the VS movement. I would also highly recommend that they attend a Simplicity Study Circle or begin one themselves. I recommend the latter and encourage them to read Cecile Andrew's book, "The Circle of Simplicity."

The reason to start one from scratch is based on the original intent of study circles. That is, people coming together to solve a common problem. Then, if downsizing is the goal, the more common themes of VS can be explored. If the issues are focused on more meaningful and conscious living, the group might start on a different footing. This will insure that folks won't be scared away by thinking they have to give up their homes to enjoy life. I also encourage people to "talk it up." You will be surprised to find out how many of us feel the same way but are apprehensive to speak up because we thing we are alone with these thoughts.

You can read Dr. Spina's article, "Research Shows New Aspects of Voluntary Simplicity" in the January-March 1999 issue of the Simple Living Network Newsletter. All correspondence can be directed to Dr. Spina at Knowledge Resources, 19 Norman Lane, Succasunna, NJ 07876 E-Mail:

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 7). Voluntary Simplicity and Intentional Conscious Living, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Last Updated: July 21, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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