Illustré par :

Voluntary simplicity refers to people who have chosen to live voluntarily with few resources, in order to simplify their lives and increase their happiness, a « good life » through the detachment of non-essential needs. It is  » a social trend, an art of living or a philosophy of life that favors inner wealth as opposed to material wealth manifested by the abundance of consumption »(1). Pierre Rahbi, one of the main leaders of the degrowth movement, also calls it  » happy sobriety ». It is only in the 1990’s that the expression voluntary simplicity will really take off, starting in Quebec, thanks to numerous books referring to it, such as the one by Richard Gregg (1885–1974).

Social philosopher and disciple of Gandhi, he is considered a precursor in the West of voluntary simplicity and non-violence theories. He sought to propagate Gandhi’s thought in the United States through a book, « The Value of Voluntary Simplicity  » (1936).  » What about the involuntary simplicity of the poorest? Is this a good thing asks Richard Gregg. « Constraint creates frustration, feelings of inferiority, resentment, and envy for things that are denied them. Insofar as sudden simplicity leads to a greater intimacy with the healing forces of nature and to unity with our fellow human beings, it does not seem entirely wrong. The lives led by the urban poor, however, are not natural, but depend on a highly artificial and complex environment that deprives them of sunlight, fresh air and organic food. This living environment also very often distances them from human and ordinary relationships and from healthy activities. The more voluntary sobriety will be practiced by the privileged, the more the advantages of simplicity will reflect on the underprivileged, because their undergone abstinence will seem to them all the less unjust and their poverty could then find a remedy »(2). So the richer ones can learn from the poorer ones, and then the process can be reversed. 

However, simplicity is generally not well received. In France, this is what Nicolas Duvoux calls  » thwarted autonomy « . These are people who receive benefits and who are convinced that they cannot get out of this welfare system. They therefore position themselves as victims and highlight their difficulties. They also internalize their status and the stigma it carries. However, the simplicity experienced can be well lived. This could be likened to Duvoux’s « internalized autonomy » . In his book,  » L’autonomie des assistés », he explains that for people who  » make do « , receiving aid is sometimes considered a legitimate right. They are indeed aware that this is just a passage of their life and they feel that soon they will get out of it. However, if they do, they want it to be on their own. They value their abilities, even if they usually have a fragility that they want to hide at all costs. This is also the case for most people who experience downgrading, which explains why they continue to maintain relationships with their former environment, since they believe that one day they will return to it. They are also people who, in order to compensate for a lack of work, practice a lot of leisure activities, in order to occupy their free time or to devote themselves to a passion(3).

On the other hand, people on welfare who have a Marxist culture sometimes feel they deserve it, when there are not enough jobs available for all the unemployed. They also consider that wages are insufficient because of the exploitation of labor by the capitalists. It therefore seems fair to them that a redistribution of wealth should also take place towards the unemployed, via social contributions in particular. Thus, the simplicity experienced is well lived and favors the « good life ». 

Cultures are rooted in concrete practices. Here is a list of voluntary or forced practices, from the working classes or the poor, from which the advocates of happy sobriety are sometimes inspired without knowing it: 

  • Mostly vegetarian consumption (due to lack of means), rather than meat at every meal. 
  • Public transportation and bicycles (especially in the South), rather than cars. 
  • The power of animal traction rather than the tractor. 
  • Repair rather than throw away after use. 
  • Recovering rather than buying new. 
  • Mastery of simple technologies rather than dependence on cutting-edge technology. 
  • Family solidarity rather than selfish individualism. 
  • Mutual aid from friends or family rather than payment to a private provider. 
  • Self-construction of one’s home rather than construction by an outside company. 
  • Lending rather than buying. 
  • Counting every penny out of necessity rather than spending without limit. 
  • Living humbly with little rather than trying to work more to earn more 
  • Creative unemployment rather than sterilizing work. 
  • Producing for one’s subsistence rather than productivism aiming at endless accumulation. 
  • Allotments and allotments rather than the supermarket shelf. 


Christian thought has always advocated material detachment. At the origin of these concepts of simplicity, we find the heritage of ancient wisdom, whose principle is based on a detachment from material goods for a purpose based on a balance of being and a harmonious development of the person. 

Christian ideology has not been content to take up this heritage. She gave him a new approach. For her, moderation also has a social aim of opening up to others. If in ancient thought, in the line of Plato or Aristotle, moderation had for sole purpose the politics of an ideal city, Christian thought has shown that it was a necessary condition of social justice, deeply linked to charity and good living. Jesus showed the usefulness of poverty as a virtue. St. Francis of Assisi, one of the first ecologists, made the vow of poverty one of the principles of the Franciscans. This tradition continues in the Christian religion, even if there is often a big gap between the speech and the facts. For example, the considerable wealth of the Catholic Church’s patrimony, especially the Vatican, as well as its ostentatious practices, is a significant departure from this. The ideas of moderation and sobriety are nevertheless at the heart of the Christian way of life, in its search for fulfillment and the « good life. This attitude of detachment from material possessions runs through most religions. Buddhists thus advocate the quest for detachment from the needs that cause suffering, in order to achieve perfect equanimity, a form of detached and permanent happiness. 

Buen vivir  » and  » sumak kawsay  » come from the Amerindian culture. Buen vivir  » is a concept that is a mixed translation of Sumak Kawsay words from different indigenous cultures, especially Andean. Born in South American countries, the  » Buen vivir  » or  » Sumak Kawsay  » movements are the result of a long search for alternative ways of living in popular struggles, especially indigenous ones, often including a spiritual approach. Buen Vivir  » is more a concept than a movement. It is first carried by the indigenous and environmentalist movements in Ecuador, as well as other social organizations undertaken by the government of Rafael Correa, economist and president of Ecuador, to rename the country’s development plan, the « National Plan for Buen Vivir ». This concept of Buen Vivir can be found in Bolivia with the Sumak Qamaña on which Evo Morales, Bolivian union leader of the movement towards socialism, president of the country, of indigenous origin and culture, is based. 

David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, sums up  » buen vivir  » as  » starting again to be what we have been « . Article 8 of the Constitution establishes that:  » the State assumes and promotes as the moral-ethical principles of the plural society the concepts: ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be a coward, do not be a liar, do not be a thief), to which are added qamaña (good living), ñandereko (a harmonious life), teko kavi (a good life), ivi maraei (a land free of misfortune) and qhapaj ñan (a noble way or life) ». Living well means giving priority to life, knowing how to feed oneself, knowing how to combine food adapted to the seasons, accepting differences, knowing how to dance, knowing how to work, but it is not « living better » quantitatively as in the productivist paradigm(4).

From the proponents of « buen vivir » to the « indignados » and the degrowth movements, more and more currents are being born in the world against this society of material growth that wants to be infinite. Edgar Morin considers that « this voyage which includes more shipwrecked than passengers » destroys traditional know-how and wisdom, confusing human rationality with technological rationalization, competition of all against all and leading to the human and ecological disaster that we know(5).

Faced with the depletion of resources and the current economic crisis, a growing number of citizens around the world are drawing the conclusion that a development model is coming to an end. Not content with noting this, they call for the invention of alternative economic models based on the notion of « good living ». According to them, environmental damage and social inequalities are the direct consequences of the development model of the productivist economy. They believe that  » the economy should only be a set of tools and means put at the service of human ends and not an end in itself . « The purpose must be guided by a goal of  »good living »(6).

Paul Ariès considers that anchoring « in the roots of civilizations, the project of the good life is today at the heart of the debate and is no longer only a means but becomes an end […]. Essential to regain a foothold, to allow […] to the working class to meet […] in order to ensure the visibility of other ways of living with the aim of living better(7) « .

For political scientist Matthieu Le Duang, « the Buen Vivir society also has as its goal the happiness of the human being. This happiness does not correspond to the search for wealth and growth, but to improving the relationship between human beings and nature. And all this in a democracy that is at the same time representative, participatory and direct, which seeks unity in diversity, solidarity and better cooperation between people »..(8) It is therefore a holistic approach, i.e. psychological, environmental, economic and political. 

A parallel can be drawn between the culture of the good life and the « 11 indicators of the good life » created in 2011 by the OECD, one of the central organizations of economic analysis of the industrialized countries of neoliberal orientation(9). They are formalized by the following 5 indicators: housing, income, employment, education, health. The latter involves adequate nutrition and health care. In addition, there are six other indicators: social connections, environment, civic engagement, satisfaction, safety, and life/work balance(10). The first 5 are close to the definition of basic needs formulated by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1976(11). The last 6 are not needs necessary for physical survival, but psychological and societal needs, essential to the quality of life. In 1947, UNESCO inaugurated a basic education project in Haiti, directed by Alfred Métraux. This was the first program undertaken by the UN, where priority is given to meeting one of the basic needs. At the World Conference on « Employment, Growth and Basic Needs » in 1976, the ILO proposed a universal definition of an « absolute minimum of satisfaction of basic needs ». The indicators of basic needs are therefore related to the culture of « good living » which is inscribed in the values of different national cultures, but also cultures linked to socio-economic classes. 

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an indicator that is part of the philosophy of happy sobriety. It was created in 1972 by the government of Bhutan. This country of 700,000 inhabitants is landlocked between India and China. The NBB aims to guide public policies differently and to complement the quantitative indicator of GDP. « The GNP is based on four main principles: economic growth and development, cultural conservation, environmental protection and responsible governance », whereas the GDP only takes into account the creation of quantifiable economic wealth. Moreover, the GDP grows with the societal nuisances… For example, the destruction of a nuclear power plant or the passage of devastating hurricanes will increase the GDP, because it will be necessary to finance the reconstruction and the care of the injured! In contrast, « the NBB consists of 72 measurement criteria that have been established and cover all of the country’s activities . Thus,  » Concrete measures have been taken such as banning the sale of tobacco, improving access to health care and drinking water, improving the quality of roads and providing education for all. Aiming for maximum material, psychological and spiritual well-being in a country suffering from endemic poverty is no small thing. » But measuring happiness is not just about using an indicator, it is about taking a set of measures to get a complete picture, says economist Renaud Gaucher author of Happiness and economy. Is capitalism soluble in the search for happiness? « . There is no shortage of examples of indicators developed in recent years: Human Development Index (HDI), Net Domestic Happiness, World Happiness Index… »(12). However, their limitations remain the fact that these indicators are sometimes a bit subjective. The NBB thus includes psychological indicators such as relaxation time, feelings of jealousy or generosity, which although necessary remain difficult to measure scientifically. Although Bhutan is the first government to create a happiness-based indicator, it is still a developing country with high poverty. This government has, however, had the merit of seeking an alternative path based on basic needs, rather than growth as the primary societal goal. Economic and cultural issues mark differences that generate frustrations and social struggles between the working classes and the wealthier classes. 

Notes et références
  1. Reseau quebecois pour la simplicite volontaire, Riche autrement, autrement libre, juin 2013, http://
  2. Gregg Richard B. La valeur de la simplicité volontaire, 1936, p. 91.
  3. Duvoux Nicolas, L’autonomie des assistés, sociologie des politiques d’insertion, Paris, PUF, 2009, p. 43.
  4. La Razon, 25 postulados para entender el “Vivir Bien” (25 Postulats pour comprendre le bien vivre), 5 février 2010.
  5. Morin Edgar, La voie Pour l’avenir de l’humanité, Fayard, 2011.
  6. Manifeste pour une autre economie, Revue Projet (n° 324325), éditeur C.E.R.A.S., 2011/5 (n° 324 325), p.72.
  7. Aries Paul, le Socialisme Gourmand, le Bien vivre : un nouveau projet politique, La découverte, p.7.
  8. Le Duang Matthieu in Aries Paul, Le buen vivir contre le bien-être, Le Sarkophage, mars 2012.
  9. (NDLR) On peut d’ailleurs questionner cet intérêt pour ce que nous considérons comme des valeurs avec de possibles orientations sociétales subversives, par des organisations clairement orientées vers des politiques libérales productivistes.

(10) OCDE, Comment va la vie ? Mesurer le bien-être, OCDE, 2011. 

(11) BIT Conférence mondiale tripartite sur l’emploi, la répartition du revenu, le progrès social et la division internationale du travail. L’emploi, la croissance et les besoins essentiels, BIT, Genève, 1976, p.33.

(12) Allegrezza Théo, « Le Bonheur national brut peutil remplacer le PIB ? », Libération, 6 avril 2013. 

Espace membre

Member area