Debate: Why We Yearn for the Simple Life

The Sexual Allure of Simplicity

You have probably seen them at your local bar: the man with a beard, plaid shirt, and wool hat; the woman with an unbuttoned flannel over a T-shirt, hair tied back in a tousled bun. They are well-groomed and probably have good jobs, but also look like they could survive in the wilderness, build their own log cabin, and hunt for food. They represent the new sexy.

In the market for life partners, explicit wealth used to be a great way to show off desirability: Men in expensive suits flashed cash; women wore diamonds and Gucci. Living in a big house, driving an expensive car, and talking about exotic vacations signaled that you’d be a quality partner.

Things, for some people at least, have changed.

From an evolutionary perspective, the most important—really, the only—goal for any living thing is to reproduce itself. Since finding a sexual partner is key to this process for humans, we should anticipate strong pressure on mate-selection strategies. Specifically, evolutionists predict that we should be attracted to “honest” signals of mate quality—properties that take a lot of effort to maintain and so aren’t easily faked. Honest signals may vary from one generation to the next.

Until recently, people who were conspicuous about their consumerism reliably signaled better access to health care, food, and education, as well as a greater overall ability to provide for future offspring. But today it has become the norm to live off loans and credit. Someone’s outward display of wealth, especially a single purchase, may no longer be an honest signal of their value as a potential mate. Instead it may actually signal debt or a willingness to spend disproportionate amounts of money on superficial things.

Exaggerated displays of wealth have lost their authenticity as signals of a good-quality mate. So mating strategies have switched accordingly.

The simple living philosophy can be seen as a recalibration of quality signaling in the dating arena. In today’s world, only certain privileged groups can afford to live “simply,” as defined by popular notions of the movement. It takes money and networks to live well in a small house, eat organic produce, use eco-friendly products, and follow sustainable practices. Living a simple life might be a better signal of true, meaningful wealth and values than displaying flashy gold jewelry and shiny new shoes.

Evolutionary biologists have demonstrated that the shift in honest signals plays a fundamental role in the mating systems of many species, from birds with colorful plumage to deer with large antlers. Humans are no exception. Evolutionary theory doesn’t just apply to long-term genetic processes; it can also be used to understand contemporary cultural shifts.

The concept of simple living now thriving in the West can be seen as a culturally specific expression of the qualities and values that make for a “fit” mate. Lithe organic farmers dressed in reclaimed clothing and living in tiny houses have reconsidered the traits they wish to show off in order to attract potential mates. Basic plaid is now sexy.

Up Next: The Long Path to Enlightenment