Less Is More

Joel Boutin - Danvers, Massachusetts
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, April 20, 2015
Joel Boutin

When Joel Boutin served in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, he enjoyed living a simple life. After returning to the United States and once again getting caught up in the cultural norms of daily living, he came to realize he would be happier and healthier living more simply in a very tiny house.

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When my students ask me why I live in a tiny house, they ask it in light of all the “sacrifices” I am making. They know that I have given away most of my possessions and moved from a large apartment in the city to a 128 square foot custom-built home on wheels in the backyard woods of dear friends. They know I forego running water, internet connection, sewage, and reliable phone reception. I am often surprised to find myself stumbling over my answer, as if defending what I assume to be a perfectly logical decision. Doesn’t everyone want to live more simply, or at least can understand my own deep attraction to it, I think? But alas, in the wise words of Monty Python, “we are all individuals (I’m not!)”.

When I lived in rural Africa, I recognized some jarring facts. Too many to list here. But four that connect to the pertinent question:

1. It was possible to be happy, genuinely happy, while living with fewer material possessions.

2. My body responded well, in health, fitness and mood, to following a schedule more aligned with the natural day and night cycle.

3. Pardon the cliché but the most valuable possessions were not material possessions at all. Observing the daily sunset, hosting friends for days at a time, reading and journaling and letter writing and exploring natural wonders in my spare time all were free and invaluable experiences.

4. I had often confused necessities with luxuries and only when living without them did I realize, sometimes surprisingly, that they were not necessities afterall. Television, electricity, running water and toilet, a telephone and computer, a vehicle…I couldn’t escape the reality that they were all wonderful luxuries and not, by definition, necessary for my survival.

What was necessary to my survival proved to be a rather short list. Healthy food, clean and potable water, heat source, weather-protecting shelter, weather-appropriate clothing, and equally important, friends and intellectual and physical stimulations.

When I returned to life in the US, I couldn’t help but sense a deep, uneasy conviction that life was suddenly, for lack of a better word, plastic. Not plastic in the malleable sense, so much as in the synthetic, phony sense. I felt disconnected…from the earth, from others, from my food source and my waste disposal, from the natural cycle of my body and the earth, and from the productive pursuits I once cherished but now found myself “too busy” to enjoy. How was it that I was now earning literally 40 times my Peace Corps salary and was less healthy, satisfied and deliberate in my daily schedule? I found myself asking, what is it to be rich anyway?

In short, I was not living deliberately here. I was following a social script written and directed by forces outside my control. It felt inauthentic, arbitrary and meaningless.

So, last August I took the plunge…I let go of most of my possessions and moved into a tiny house on wheels because I wanted to see if I could, in the US, live a more deliberate lifestyle reminiscent of my lifestyle in Africa. And so far, several months into it, so good. No inconvenience, all minor to begin with, has offset the multiple positive benefits that continue to come from this change in lifestyle. At least in this time in my life, I believe that I have made the right decision.

Joel Boutin is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Tanzania, and he currently teaches at St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers, MA. He joyfully resides in a teeny, tiny house on wheels.