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Showcase USA: Simply Beautiful: Choosing an Uncluttered, Focused, Rich Life

Volume 5, No. 1, Spring 2000

Sam Quick, Robert Flashman, and Peter Hesseldenz

Abstract

The excessive, frenzied quality of American life has left more and more people yearning for balance and simplicity. According to the Trends Research Institute of Rhinebeck, New York, simplification is a leading trend of our times. The Cooperative Extension Service in Kentucky responded by developing a program called "Simply Beautiful." It seeks to teach people how to make the choices that allow them to align their financial lives with their values. The program gently guides people towards asking themselves if they are living the lives they want to live and if not, why not?

Rationale for Program

The good life, in America, has come to be equated with material possessions. Advertisers would have us believe that spending money leads to happiness. Wealth is a key component of the American Dream; we are encouraged to strive for it from very early on. For many, the images of wealth and the promises of happiness are too compelling to ignore or even look at critically. With easy credit readily available to today's consumers, many adopt a free-spending lifestyle, even if they can't afford it. What is the result? Massive consumer debt and, in many cases, bankruptcy.

In 1993, 897,231 consumers filed for bankruptcy in the United States. This number rose to 1,367,364 in 1997, a 52 percent increase. The situation was even worse in Kentucky. The number rose from 12,421 in 1993 to 21,188 in 1997 for an increase of 71 percent (Jordan, 1999). To make matters worse, during that period, the population in Kentucky rose only 3.01 percent, while the population of the nation as a whole increased 3.88 percent. These figures appear puzzling when one considers the fact that during that time America was enjoying low inflation and high employment rates. Clearly this rise in consumer bankruptcies relates to people not only buying more than they need, but also spending what they can't afford.

Though many have not stopped spending, at least they seem to recognize that this lifestyle is not providing them with the promised happiness. In a study commissioned by the Merck Family Fund titled "Yearning for Balance: Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment," 80 percent of those surveyed stated that most of us buy and consume far more than we need. The study noted a particular concern about today's youth being overly focused on buying and consumption. Furthermore, 66 percent of Americans said they would be much more satisfied if they were able to spend more time with family and friends while 56 percent called for a less hectic, more relaxed approach to life. When asked what is causing so many of our society's troubles, the respondents basically said that our values are "out of whack" ("Yearning for Balance," 1995).

The excessive, frenzied quality of American life has left more and more people yearning for balance and simplicity. According to the Trends Research Institute of Rhinebeck, New York, simplification is a leading trend of our times (Celente, 1997). Director Gerald Celente "estimates that 12 percent of the population is engaged in some form of simplifying. He predicts that number will more than double by the year 2010" ("Doing Well," 1999).

Like the rest of the country, these trends are active in Kentucky. The Cooperative Extension Service in Kentucky responded to them by developing a program called "Simply Beautiful." As with the majority of program efforts, the impetus for this one came from the people, via county agents. Groundswells like this one calling for simplification are not new; they go back even to a time before Thoreau wrote Walden Pond. However, the agents were hearing something different this time than the usual call for living on less and saving our precious natural resources. People were now asking how to align their financial lives with a lifestyle that reflects their values. They didn't necessarily want to be thrifty. They wanted to have enough money to be able to live the lives they wanted to live, but without the encumbrance of a lot mental and physical clutter. If this meant that they had to work less so they could spend more time with their children or grandchildren, then so be it.

With these issues in their minds, the authors of "Simply Beautiful," decided to approach the program in a way that made it different from many of the other "simplify-your-life" programs out there. The program would use a broader approach. It sought to teach people how to make the choices that would let them align their financial lives with their values. The program would address the rampant consumerism that has engulfed America, but it would not be the main focus. The program would try to gently guide people towards asking themselves if they were living the lives they wanted to live and if not, why not?

The Program

The program itself is built around a six-page camera-ready publication and a leader's guide that includes a variety of learning activities and teaching tools along with 16 overhead transparency masters and a user-friendly evaluation instrument. Two videos accompany the printed materials: Affluenza and Escape from Affluenza. The publication asks people to take a hard look at various aspects of modern life and at themselves and decide what is essential and what merely wastes precious time and resources. The writers of the publication assume that many people are living lives that are out of harmony and out of balance with what they truly believe and what they truly value. This state has come about through a series of accumulated habits and poor choices, as well as a lack of self-reflection.

The problem is encouraged by the nature of our consumer-driven culture. Consider, for instance, the act of shopping. It has taken on a prominence in our lives far out of balance with its importance or necessity. This assertion becomes especially telling when one considers the fact that the average American shops for 6 hours per week, while, the average parent only spends 40 minutes per week playing with his or her children (New Road Map Foundation, 1993). Sometimes we shop because we want to or because we need something, but often, shopping takes the place of other entertainments. Why does this happen? For one thing, advertising infiltrates the lives of nearly all Americans. Advertisers do not spare the very young their compelling barrage. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "American children have viewed an estimated 360,000 advertisements on television before graduating from high school" (1995, February). It is very difficult to ignore this constant urging to consume, especially for an unsophisticated child. The result is a lifelong accumulation of "stuff" which surrounds us and is mostly unnecessary.

The publication addresses the out-of-control consumerism that characterizes American life. It talks about the toll it takes on both the environment and our souls. The program calls for a clearing away of the accumulated clutter that such a lifestyle inevitably causes. It asks that we use the simple rule of thumb: "If you've not used something in the last year, and it's not a treasured item with high sentimental value, why not pass it on to someone who would appreciate it?" Doing so tends to leave people feeling refreshed and unburdened. It also may bring enjoyment to whoever receives the object.

The physical clutter in our living spaces is mirrored by the clutter in our minds. The publication suggests we try to clear away old resentments, hurts, and other inner blockages that tend to muddle our thinking. Forgiveness and the ability to let go are the essential attitudes here. Once the old ways of thinking are gone, people may be better able to use their intuition, their inner sense of what is true and best. Everybody has it, but modern lifestyles have dulled it. Re-awakening the intuitive sense enriches people's lives and guides them to better decision making.

Tied into all of this is an overuse and misuse of television. Americans spend an astonishingly large amount of time watching it. If current trends continue, "by the time the average child reaches age 70, he or she will have spent approximately 7 to 10 years watching television" (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1995, October), which is 7 to 10 years that they did not spend engaging in other activities. In addition to keeping us from other things, excessive television is also a primary vehicle for the advertising that so greatly influences us and contributes to our consumerism.

This far reaching publication isn't just concerned with consumerism. It also asks people to look at the path they have chosen for their work lives. Are they doing something that they feel good about? The saying goes, "do what you love and the money will follow," but many people have trouble believing this. Though it might seem unrealistic at first, perhaps the people who don't love, or even like, their jobs need to reconsider that old adage and give it a little more time to work. They might want to consider the amount of money they make and ask themselves if it contributes to their happiness. It should be noted that psychologists David Myers and Ed Diener have pointed out that possessing wealth is "no guarantee of happiness" (1997). In fact, in a study by Marsha L. Richins and Scott Dawson, "materialism was negatively related to satisfaction in all the aspects of life measured" (1992). When it comes to work, people are asked to follow their hearts to the career that is right for them.

The publication tries to avoid preachiness. It does not espouse one lifestyle, but rather that people adopt their principles to whatever lifestyle makes them happiest. It does, however, suggest that people surround themselves with beauty, which nourishes the soul. There are many ways to do this, since beauty, of course, has a different meaning for each person. A last suggestion is that we approach life with a grateful heart--which will help us understand and appreciate our blessings to a far greater extent.

Leader's Guide

The publication is accompanied by an in-depth leader's guide. The guide is filled with a number of activities, including a quiz, and items and ideas for someone who might be presenting the program. The leader's guide also includes action plan forms. Action plans are small cards which represent contracts that participants make with themselves. On the card, the participant writes out a small, but meaningful, change that he or she will commit to in the next seven days. It is then signed and dated. These action plans address the idea that changing a whole lifestyle can be a bit intimidating and will probably not stick for too long. If people approach change a little bit at a time, breaking down the process, it becomes much more manageable. And, before long, the small things add up.

Companion Videos

Afluenza explores both the comical and sobering aspects of our consumerism and its enormous impact on families, communities, and the environment. Escape from Afluenza offers a response to the materialistic lifestyle and tells how people are simplifying their lives in order to opt out of the consumer culture. Both were well-received programs on PBS and are available for purchase from Bullfrog Video for approximately $75 each for educational use, $250 for public performance rights. However, discounts are available for large orders.

(800) 543-FROG (3764)
http://www.econet.org/bullfrog/index.html

Links

Simply Beautiful
Publication -- http://www.ca.uky.edu/agcollege/fcs/factshts/fam-sam/fmsam126.pdf
Leader's guide -- http://www.ca.uky.edu/agcollege/fcs/factshts/fam-sam/fs126lg.pdf

Affluenza -- http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/home.html
Website sponsored by PBS which expands upon and enhances many of the ideas found in the programs Affluenza and Escape From Affluenza. Site contains teacher's guide, interviews, an entertaining history of consumerism in America, resources, links, and other interesting information.

The Simplicity Resource Guide http://www.mbay.net/~pierce/
Reviews of hundreds of books, newsletters, web sites, and discussion groups having to do with simplicity. Many of the items are available for order directly from this site.

Impact Results

Two of the Kentucky Extension Service's program focuses, in its last five-year plan of work, have been to improve the economic well-being of Kentucky families and communities and to promote wellness. These goals have resulted in the development and implementation of a number of comprehensive, interdisciplinary educational programs. "Simply Beautiful" was an attempt to take a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to meeting both of those goals, while complementing the many other programs available.

Bankruptcy Results

Because bankruptcy can be seen as emblematic of the entire issue and because it is specific and measurable, the Kentucky Extension Service's very ambitious goal was to not only simply reduce the bankruptcy growth rate in Kentucky, but, to also see it lower than or equal to the levels in the United States as a whole within five years of the first implementation of the program.

"Simply Beautiful" was not the only program in Kentucky to address this subject. More traditional programs like "Money 2000" also attempted to educated the public about financial issues, including bankruptcy. However, the authors' of "Simply Beautiful" tried to target behaviors and attitudes more basic than lack of financial management skills. Certainly that lack, along with unexpected, devastating life events such as plant closings, death, or divorce were responsible for many bankruptcies. But why were the Kentucky figures so much higher than the nation? The authors believed that one of the contributing factors was the attempt, on the part of many people, to gain a sense of meaning in their lives by spending. Perhaps the consumers were not doing this on a conscious level, but doing it nonetheless.

In a little over a year since the "Simply Beautiful" program has been implemented in 1997, the bankruptcy growth rate in Kentucky is now only 5.13 percent, which is much closer to the growth rate for the United States as a whole, 5.09 percent. Kentucky's bankruptcy rate has remained comparable to the national level throughout 1999. A good part of the credit for this reduction certainly goes to the comprehensive approach that the Kentucky Extension Service has taken. However, "Simply Beautiful" deserves recognition, at least in small part, for this dramatic turnaround.

Other Program Results

In our first group of evaluations, sixteen counties returned evaluation questionnaires. Most of the participants (90 percent) reported making positive attitude changes as a direct result of the "Simply Beautiful" program. Seventy-six percent said they had made positive overt behavior changes, and 61 percent reported following through on the action plans they wrote during the learning session. The following comments typify the types of changes that participants attributed directly to the "Simply Beautiful" program: "I have learned to slow down more and enjoy small things," "I count my blessings and worry less about trivial things," and "I led a retreat on simplification for 26 women."

Since the creation of the "Simply Beautiful" program in 1997, an estimated 20,000 individuals have been reached in group learning sessions. While a large percentage of these participants were our traditional Extension audiences, many additional people have been reached in a wide range of special interest sessions as well as in classroom settings. The "Simply Beautiful" program has also been successfully used in a number of other states.

This data becomes all the more real when we look at the lives of individuals. The program seems to have touched the lives of the agents who were teaching it as well as the participants who received the teaching. The Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service lost two valuable agents because, after contact with this program, they decided to re-evaluate their priorities and do different things. One agent decided, though she loved her job, that she wanted to spend more of her time with her young daughter. Another decided that she would be happier in a different career. Extension's loss is simplicity's gain. We can call this program a success if these individuals and others like them are happier and that happiness is rubbing off on all they come in contact with.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (1995, February). "Children, Adolescents, and Television (RE9504)" Policy Statement. Retrieved December 13, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.aap.org/policy/00656.html

American Academy of Pediatrics. (1995, October). "Children, Adolescents, and Television (RE9538)" Policy Statement. Retrieved December 13, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.aap.org/policy/9538.html

Celente, Gerald. (1997) Trends 2000. New York: Warner.

Doing well, not doing without. (1998) U.S. News & World Report, Dec, 14, 60. Retrieved December 10, 1999 from on-line database Infotrac, Article A53368042.

Fishman, Charles. (1998). Deconstructing the debt head. American Demographics, Dec. 62-65.

Jordan, Jim. (1999). Proposed bankruptcy law criticized. The Lexington Herald-Leader, Dec. 11, Business Section, 1.

Myers, David G. & Diener, Ed. (1997). The science of happiness. The Futurist, Sept.-Oct., 1-7.

New Road Map Foundation. (1993) All Consuming Passion: Waking Up From the American Dream. (2nd ed.) Seattle: Author.

Richins, Marsha L. & Dawson, Scott. (1992). A consumer values orientation for materialism and its measurement: scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research. v19 n3, 1-14. Retrieved December 10, 1999 from on-line database Infotrac, Article A13902410.

"Yearning for Balance: Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment" (1995). Retrieved December 13, 1999 from the World Wide Web http://www.iisd.ca/consume/harwood.html

Authors

Sam Quick, Ph.d., Human Development and Family Life Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Family Studies, University of Kentucky.

Robert Flashman, Ph.D., Family Resource Management Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Family Studies, University of Kentucky.

Peter Hesseldenz, M.S., Freelance Editor and Writer, Currently graduate student, Library and Information Science, University of Kentucky, employed by: Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, Department of Family Studies, University of Kentucky.

Cite this article:

Sam Quick, Robert Flashman, Peter Hesseldenz. "Simply Beautiful: Choosing an Uncluttered, Focused, Rich Life." The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues 5.1 (2000): 26 pars.

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