An antidote to TMI

Do you know anyone who wants a more complicated life? Probably not. In spite of all our time-saving gadgets, and the ease of getting information, most people I talk to crave more simplicity in their lives.

We have at least two major magazines, over a thousand books, and almost 60 million search-engine hits that promise to help us simplify. We have smart-phone apps that promise to make it easy to find your friends, share your photos, keep track of calories and exercise better. Our new cars make it easier and safer to back up, change lanes and keep track of service. So why do we still feel so overwhelmed?

Some people think it has to do with information overload, multi-tasking and a sense of false urgency created by 24/7 access to news, email and texts. A recent Northwestern University study, however, showed that people felt “empowered and enthusiastic” about having so many sources of information at their fingertips. So what gives?

Maybe there are times when we want and need a lot of information, and having it makes us feel better. But there are also occasions when we really don’t want to know every detail, and we just want an easy way to make a decision. Each person is different in the amount and complexity of information they want, and when they want it.

A good example is food nutrition labeling. For some it is incredibly empowering to know the number of calories, and the specific percentages of each nutrient, in an item of food. For many, though, nutrition labels are confusing and don’t help them make better choices. Research on some restaurant labeling laws, in places such as New York City, has shown that most people do not change their ordering behavior even when calories are posted.

A lot of talk in prevention circles has been around “making the healthy choice the easy choice”. Bon Appetit Management, a food service company serving many colleges, may have just come one step closer to that goal. It is piloting its own “well-being” score that aims to cut through all the confusion around food labeling, and just make it simpler to tell the difference between one option and another on a menu.  It’s a simple arrow, with more or less green, depending on how healthy the item is.

Maybe sometimes all we want is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. We can only hold limited information in our working memories at any given time. After that, our ability to integrate ideas and to reason well declines. Trying to juggle too much at one time taxes our brains and makes performance suffer. Maybe for some college students, this new food score will be an opportunity to give their brains a rest, at least at mealtime.

There will always be many important occasions when we need to know everything, when we need to sift through reams of information before making a decision. Sometimes, though, we can choose to give up the micro-management of the choice, and rely on a trusted source or our own instincts. Knowing the difference might take trial and error, but at least we’ll be taking baby steps toward that simpler life.

My simple season

When my kids were small, they had a Little Golden Book called My Book of the Seasons. This book had an appealing way of using alliteration and repetition to bring to life the change of seasons. For each season, the book described traditional, iconic imagery, such as pumpkins and snowflakes, and then asked, “Can you see it, can you hear it, can you smell it?” It was wonderful to read out loud.

I think of the book fairly frequently, especially now when I am enjoying the  transition from late spring to early summer. At the beach for Memorial Day weekend, I have had my first local peaches and strawberries of the year. I’ve been basking in the warm sun on the sand. I’ve been taking in the aromas of the plants, as well as the smells of backyard barbeques. I’ve been listening to the birds calling to each other and the children splashing in the waves. Yes, I can feel it, I can smell it and I can taste it. Summer is here!

There’s something incredibly elemental about using the senses to experience the change of seasons. And while a lot of change can be unsettling to people, there is something comforting in the cycle of the seasons, and in knowing that these simple pleasures of summer (or any other season) will be available year after year.

This is also the easiest time of year to simplify and improve how we eat. John Schlimm, the author of a couple of vegan cookbooks, described his style of cooking recently on a radio program. One of his criteria is that all the ingredients he uses have to be available in any neighborhood supermarket, even in the smallest towns. The point is, we don’t need exotic ingredients to make a wonderful-tasting, healthy meal. And with summer here, the farmers’ markets are open, the fruits are ripening, the tomatoes are full of flavor, and there is an abundance of choices. Mmmm…I can see it, I can smell it, I can taste it….

Summer offers itself to us as a lesson in simplicity. It’s not just that the food is fresher and more basic. Our pace slows as we take school breaks and work vacations.  We don’t need to wear heavy clothes so our bodies feel lighter and easier. We can be more in touch with nature because it’s so easy to step outside. All that is required of us is to pay attention and make the choice to enjoy the simple pleasures without asking for more.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about voluntary simplicity as “seeing less  so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so that I can have more”. I see the truth of his words today when I feel so incredibly rich because of the simplest things I have – good, fresh food, beautiful surroundings, warm air, blue skies, and loving people.  

People often talk about simplifying their lives. But what they don’t realize is that there’s no “doing” involved in it. It’s all right in front of us already. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, who realized that she could go home any time she wanted, all we have to do is say, “I can see it, I can hear it, I can feel it…”