What have you been up to? Just think for a moment: when catching up with a friend, how do you tend to answer this very common question? The reply usually revolves around big events: job promotions, career changes, memorable holidays, births, weddings and funerals. I am often struck, however, by how our quality of life from day to day is affected more by small, simple things – reading a good book or enjoying the sunshine on a warm spring day. For me, seeing a new seedling appear from a seed I’ve sown gets a squeal of pleasure every time.
Which is more relevant to our well-being, the big or small? Of course, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. To suggest that people should be happy just listening to the birds if their marriage is falling apart would be asking too much. If we’re unhappy in our job or our relationship we need to turn our attention to how to make some changes. On the other hand we could have a row of ticks for all the big things and still feel miserable in our daily life. Being overwhelmingly orientated towards achievement, for instance, can make the small and simple disappear from our awareness.
It is interesting that the happiness that comes from small things is, like everything else, only partly under our control. We can make sure we do the things that make us happy, be it spending time with the people – or animals – we love, going for country walks or watching the world go by in cafés. But many moments of joy come unbidden.
So what should we do? We don’t all have to go to the woods, like Henry David Thoreau, to find “the essential facts of life”. We do need to take care of the big issues. But we can strive to create space in our life for that kind of small-scale noticing. This could mean simplifying things somewhat. Above all, it means cultivating a mindful attitude, to avoid being so mesmerised by the bigger picture that we end up missing what really gives flavour to life.
No pleasure is simpler than a good loaf. But is home baking a way of going back to basics or an unnecessary complication? And does a bread machine make baking more straightforward or just add more clutter?
This question captures the complexities of simple living and helps explain why so many people share the puzzlement of the reader who asked us whether we can be happy with just the simple things in life. One problem is that there is an ambiguity in the very notion of a simple life. There is the zealous desire for a life reduced to the bare minimum that leads to an austere minimalism. But there is also the more modest ideal of a life stripped of excess, which only requires avoiding the superfluous.
The medieval scholastic friar William of Ockham provides another way of becoming clearer about simplicity with the help of his metaphysical razor. Often glossed as the principle that simpler explanations are preferable to more complicated ones, it is more accurately described as the injunction not to multiply entities beyond necessity – an apt message for a consumerist society if ever I’ve heard one.
But people often wield the razor incorrectly. They mistake superficial simplicity for the real McCoy. For example, it might seem more parsimonious to suppose God created the world than that it was the result of chance events and random mutations. But the scientific view is simpler overall because it leaves fewer things unexplained.
Likewise, true simplicity in life is not necessarily a matter of having or doing less, but creating a whole in which the different elements do not jar and scrape against each other.
That is why there is no definitive answer to the bread conundrum. No option is inherently simpler than the other. What matters is what really makes life run more smoothly for you, giving you time and space to appreciate the things you value. It’s not always clear what that requires, but then no one said living simply was easy.
Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini’s book ‘The Shrink and The Sage’ is available in paperback (Icon, £9.99). To suggest a question, email email@example.com.