Slackerology: 5 Steps to Living Like a European in the US

Theory: bringing home less disposable income and owning less crap can raise happiness and reduce stress.

By this stage, I think my bias toward calculated Slackerology is pretty clear – as is my devout Atheism and loathing of the suburbs. While I was vagabonding around the planet from 2003 to 2007, I learned (or re-learned in many cases) some very simple, big picture truths about overall happiness and reducing stress. Returning to the US, I vowed to keep my reacquired slacker vibe going by incorporating these nuggets of wisdom into my life and so far things are going swimmingly.

These tactics aren’t for everyone, obviously, but upon first reading many people are a little too quick to declare that, while yeah it all sounds good in theory, it’s far too late for them to integrate these methods into their own complicated, entrenched lives. That’s simply not true.

I’ll allow that the larger edicts of Slackerology cannot be engaged overnight, nor without a little pain and apprehension. You are, after all, going to be required to dismiss the false necessities that have been relentlessly coded into your belief system ever since you could understand spoken language and interpret the judgmental, withering glances from old folks. Yet, nearly everyone can incorporate at least some facets of the Slackerology theory into their lives and, judging from my experience thus far, the end totally justifies the means.

I’m not trying to idolize the European lifestyle over anyone/anywhere else. Indeed, Europeans are prone to many of the same social programming instincts as we are here in the US (fashion victims in Italy, motorheads in Germany, unsettling fast food consumption in the UK). However, by and large, their lifestyle management seems to err on the side of common sense, moderation and awareness, while here in the US we seem to prefer blind consumption, competition and willful ignorance of reality. By my observations, it’s these leanings (and the added benefit of centuries of hardwired culture) that have kept Europeans operating at a more down-to-earth tempo that, by all appearances, seems to be better suited to the long term health and contentment of the human condition.

So, let’s get on with it. Here is the long awaited Slackerology 5 Steps to Living Like a European in the US:

1)    Ditch the car. This lifestyle adjustment will almost certainly sting the most, but down the road it will in all probability benefit you the most. As I described last week, with the same time, energy and money that you devote to owning and maintaining a car every year, you could, for example, take French classes and then finance a one month trip to France. Some people can implement this plan tomorrow. Others will need a little lead time. You may be required to relocate to a neighborhood (or possibly a city) with reasonable public transport and more readily available shops and services. The latter is particularly crucial. Having the necessities within walking distance of your home is pricelessly convenient and labor-saving, not to mention quintessentially European. And while you’re out house/apartment hunting…

2)    Don’t buy more property than you actually need. I live in a 600 square foot condo. This is the perfect amount of space for a single person. In fact, I could easily go smaller and Europeans frequently do. My apartment in Romania was a 280 square foot box. Not long before that, I’d occupied a house with about 1800 square feet of finished space, so naturally I was a little hesitant. Well, it turns out that I simply don’t need all that space. More space just means more area to clean, heat/cool and maintain which requires more time, money and effort. More space also lends itself to unchecked consumption, because, hey, you’ve got all that space, so you might as well fill ‘er up! Well, I promised myself I’d never make that mistake again. As such, my tiny condo is one of the main reasons I can live, and live quite comfortably, on the meager wages of freelance travel writing.

3)    De-crapify your life. I know it may not seem like it at first glance, but you simply do not need 80% of the crap that you have in your home. Same goes for 95% of the crap being relentlessly advertised to you. Do you need a TV in every room? No. And if you do, you don’t need to have a TV on in every room. (Easily in the Top Ten of my list of 1294 Biggest Pet Peeves) Do you need themed dinning room place settings for every major holiday? Do you need a gas-powered device for every facet of yard work? Do you need a CD player shaped like a jukebox? Checking your impulse-buy muscles is the first step, the second step is eradication. Not everyone has the capacity to police their own ‘crapstincts’ (crap-buying and crap-purging instincts), so you may need to employ a small team of people that are sensitive to the Common Senseless unchecked consumerism phenomenon. This process is greatly facilitated by the moving-into-a-smaller-home portion of Slackerology. Get the ball rolling by ridding yourself of anything that serves no unique purpose or that you haven’t used in a year. Christine Gilbert, she of the travel blog Almost Fearless, has had many of the same epiphanies that I’ve had and her post 10 Unexpected Costs of Owning Things goes into lavish detail on this particular subject.

4)    Reward yourself, in small doses, frequently. The Spanish have their naps. The Italians have their espresso. The Swiss have their chocolate. The French have their, um, not-working-very-much. And they all have their responsible intake of wine. I’m convinced that these brief, tiny rewards are key to contentment. Note the emphasis on the words ‘tiny’ and ‘brief’. I’m not endorsing hours of mindless TV watching fueled by a two liter Coke, a bushel of Doritos, and a Three Buck Chuck chaser. Furthermore, in many cases these little rewards serve the duel purpose of forcing us to slow down, if only momentarily, to enjoy them. In the US, we’re encouraged to go-go-go and deprive ourselves and/or feel guilty if we indulge too frequently. I’m not sure how this puritanical, throwback, orthodox-caliber discipline propagated into the general USA consciousness, but it’s ridiculous and self-destructive and we need to turn those impulses around.

5)    Work less. After you’ve ditched the car, sold all your crap and moved into a reasonably sized home, the coup de grâce is that you get to work less! Since this is the US and, for now, one of the primary motivators keeping us working to clinical insanity is our precious benefits (eg health insurance), you’ll have to be very careful how you go about this. Many employers stop providing benefits when you dip below 30 hours a week. Also, this is the part of Slackerology that, even with thorough calculating of your finances, you should approach carefully. Drop to 35 hours per week to start, wait a few months and see how things look. If you’re comfortably covering your bills, maybe drop to 30 hours a week. If a literal drop in hours per week isn’t possible with your employer, you also have the option of downshifting the job itself. Apply for a position with less responsibility and little or no prospect for overtime. If you can’t reduce your hours, you can at least reduce your stress. People may think you’re batshit crazy when you apply for a position with less accountability, opportunity for advancement and pay than the one you already hold, but you’ll have your quiet deliverance while they’re working until 10pm on a Friday night and you’re at a double feature.

And so ends the five chief points of Slackerology. Again, I have been strictly adhering to the principles listed above for over two years. Apart from the glaring lack of health insurance (which is due mainly to my voluntarily selected career path), I’m deprived of precious little in my day-to-day life. I eat well, I go out frequently, I travel and I have a stockpile of wine in my closet that could kill 15 Minnesota moose.

Though incessant repetition has trained us to believe the opposite, a modest life is frequently more rewarding than an ambitious life, with the added perk of having more time to enjoy it (under-worked people rarely die young). We often forget how happy we were as kids. The pure joy of innocence, energy and youth played a major role, but how much of that happiness was derived from the fact that we had little to no crap and responsibility weighing us down?