The antidote to modern melancholy

Published in the Courier Mail 17 March 08

I recently discovered the world of council-funded Outdoor Cinema where a great movie is screened in a local park, under the stars, on a big screen. The best thing about it is that it’s all for free. A number of friends and I headed off with a picnic dinner and enjoyed a low-cost and relaxing evening in the great outdoors.

Enjoying simple pleasures is sometimes a lost art. We are used to being entertained – often looking for the next bigger and better thrill. We have constructed what some commentators call ‘hyper-reality’ that is fuelled both by reality television, where ordinary people can become stars, and the ‘Paris Hilton effect’ where one can be famous through being famous alone.

With an increasing desire for, and acquisition of, luxury products and status symbols, the unattainable becomes attainable and we reach for the glamorous lives we see modeled in the media. The new campaign for Queens Plaza, promoting the ‘new royalty’ is a perfect example.

We happily keep lifting the bar in terms of the lifestyle we’ll settle for and in so doing, create an ever-increasing financial commitment that we need to maintain. This is all well and good for those who profit from our lifestyle being shaped by media constructs and fuelled by consumer goods. However, for those who have to ensure such a lifestyle is appropriately financed, it can be a source of stress.

For example, without romanticizing the past, we used to rely more on imagination than technology to create our entertainment. In the 2006/2007 financial year, Australians broke the $1 billion dollar barrier on retail spending on computer game hardware and software. Technology is our friend, but family entertainment is no longer financially simple.

There is a small remedy to help alleviate this but you won’t hear much about it. Simple pleasures don’t fuel the marketing machine so they don’t get much airtime. But they are just the antidote for our modern melancholy.

Living simply and trimming the excess can create some margins in life. So often, modern families find themselves over-extended, in time and money, far more than what is healthy. We may have got just a little too sophisticated for our own good. Children don’t need designer clothes and pets don’t need pedicures. And reclassifying non-essentials as the new ‘must haves’ is a problem that each of us must grapple with. Have we forgotten the art of living simply?

There is nothing wrong with luxury goods, computer games, designer clothes for children or even, when it all comes down to it, pedicures for pets. If our desire for these is insatiable, and our life has accumulated goods but not harmony, then the idea for relearning how to live simply may resonate.

Imagine incorporating a ‘living simply day’ once a week, or even a month, where we unplug, de-clutter, slow down and take a moment to savour the things which make life rich – things such as friends, family, ideas, dreams, love and laughter. The game of cricket in the park, lazy afternoons with a book, a bowl of homemade soup served with great conversation – simple pleasures that so often get crowded out by the ‘stuff’ of busy lives.

Perhaps the greatest battle we face in the quest to learn to live simply is the de-cluttering of our internal world. So often we find our hearts are cluttered with insecurity, unforgiveness, fear or other negative emotions. Living freely, confidently and securely is so much harder when it does not emanate from within.

Seeking external sources of power, confidence, acceptance or status will soothe temporarily but will ultimately only send us deeper into a place of need. Technology is quickly superseded, “It bags” go out of fashion and today’s achievements often become yesterday’s news. If these temporary things are the source of fulfilment, then life becomes a complex dance of avoidance and acquisition.

However, when we have journeyed through the difficult places of the heart, and find ourselves at peace, then living simply becomes just that much easier. Then you can be watching a free movie in a park, and still feel like the richest person on earth.

Ruth Limkin