Exhausted? Stressed-Out?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Then simplify. More and more Americans are finding that scaling back may be the key to better health -- and fuller lives.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

High-powered careerists Steve and Kate Scopelleti sported all the badges of success: the Jeep Cherokee, the Nissan 300 ZX sports car, the Cadillac convertible, the Harley-Davidson cycle, the designer suits, and, being Southern Californians, the surfboards. Seven of them.

Many would have envied their lives. But beneath the veneer lurked a dark secret known only to the Scopelletis: They were stricken with "affluenza" -- an ailment characterized by swollen expectations, feverish consumption, rising debt, and constant fatigue.

"I needed caffeine to wind myself up at the start of the day and alcohol to unwind at the end," says Steve, 45. "I was grinding my teeth so much I had to wear a mouthpiece every night. My blood pressure was high. And both of us had back pain that I think came from being so stressed-out by this supposedly good life.''

Gradually the Scopelletis came to the same conclusion that many other Americans are reaching: Their health depended on a slower-paced life. As many as one in six American adults are trying to simplify their lives, according to the New York-based Trends Research Institute. Dozens of books and at least two new national magazines offer how-to advice, and in every state, small groups of advocates gather in "simplicity circles" to share ideas. Among them: replace TV watching with bird watching, exercise by taking walks instead of using costly equipment, resole shoes instead of getting a new pair, and never buy clothing that needs dry cleaning or ironing.

One Garbage Bag

For some, simplicity means scaling back on work to spend more time with their families. For the movement's most zealous disciples, it means inhabiting a cabin, buying second-hand clothes, growing their own vegetables, bartering with neighbors, and slashing consumption so much that a family fills only one garbage bag in an entire year.

"Life in the fast lane can make you sick," says Cecile Andrews, a Seattle-based author of simplicity circle guides. "Who can dispute that we're working too long and moving too fast, and that we would get healthier by slowing down, cutting stress, sleeping better, eating healthy organic foods?''

While no one has directly researched the health claims of the simplicity movement, there is some evidence that frantic getting and spending takes a physical toll. Dozens of medical studies, for example, corroborate a link between job stress and high blood pressure. In one such investigation, researchers at the University of California at Irvine reported in 1998 in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine that men with high job strain had systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels roughly 10 points higher than those with low strain.

In a study published this year in the journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Alabama reported that people with a high ratio of credit card debt to income were in worse physical health.

Nor is more work the solution: a Gallup Organization survey last fall found that Americans already consider themselves hardworking, stressed, and underpaid by a full-time work week that averages 46 hours, and climbing. In fact, the higher their socioeconomic status, the less content workers are with their leisure time.

Simplicity for Sale

Simplicity is hardly a new idea. Socrates observed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Later came Puritans and Quakers, then Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau, whose shoestring existence on Walden Pond led him to write, "Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?" It was a theme echoed again by the counter-culture of the 1960s.

Today's movement risks being co-opted by Madison Avenue, its lingo trivialized to hawk "simplicity products." Real Simple magazine bulges with advertisements for makeup, cars, and clothing.

But whatever its fate, the simple life will always have independent devotees like the Scopelletis. One day, they quit their jobs running a construction corporation, sold their posh Orange County home, and -- through a series of garage sales -- reduced their belongings to what would fit in a 4-by-4-foot crate.

"The best thing we ever did was get out of the rat race and into the simple life," says Steve, as he sips herbal tea in his tiny kitchen. "Once we got rid of our stuff and slowed down, we were able to live in the moment. We live better with less."

They've purchased a modest two-bedroom house and furnished it with a few odds and ends culled from rummage sales. They drive a 1982 Volkswagen van, shop for clothes at factory outlets, and spend their evenings reading or listening to National Public Radio. Steve makes good money as a construction consultant for a nonprofit organization; Kate volunteers at a local food bank and a gardener's program.

They've quit drinking, their back pains have vanished, and Steve's teeth-grinding days are history. During a recent physical, his blood pressure was so low that the nurse queried, "Are you sure you're alive?"

"Funny thing is," says Steve, "I've never felt more alive."

Vicki Haddock is a reporter for The San Francisco Examiner and frequently writes about family and health issues. She lives in Petaluma, Calif.

Originally published Sept. 11, 2000.
Updated and medically reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD, on Feb. 25, 2002.

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