Can a simple, more self-sufficient lifestyle help us to feel grounded?
The afternoon sun is in the sky, through an open window you can hear the sound of chickens gently clucking and cooing and, beyond that, bees buzz hypnotically in and out of a handbuilt hive. On the kitchen counter, clipped sweet peas blossom in a jar of water, and a loaf of freshly baked bread is cooling besides a trug of vegetables – ready to be prepped for tonight’s dinner.
If that sounds idyllic to you, you wouldn’t be alone. The British Beekeepers Association has seen its membership soar from about 8,500 people in 2008 to more than 24,000 in 2017. In the first two weeks of lockdown, one Cornish plant nursery – Rocket Gardens – reported a 600% rise in sales, while Amazon saw a huge 1,237% spike in seed sales in just 24 hours. Flour sales were up 238%, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com, and, more recently, following Oprah Winfrey’s monumental interview with Harry and Megan – where the couple invited viewers to meet their rescue hens – Google searches for “How to make a chicken coop” rose by 700%.
Of course, the idea, and pursuit, of a natural, self-sufficient ‘simple life’ is no new fad. It’s been present in art and culture since before The Good Life in the 70s, before Thomas Hardy spoke of a “private little sun for [the] soul to bask in” in 1891, and even before Shakespeare’s Duke Senior escaped busy court life in 1599’s As You Like It, to return to nature to find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything”.
"You’re taking your destiny, literally, into your own hands"
But today, in the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been reassessing what’s important to us. In uncertain times, the figures show that many – as if acting on instinct – went back to their roots. But, beyond harvesting nature’s bounty, what can a move towards a self-sufficient lifestyle do for our mental health, and can nurturing this philosophy help our sense of wellbeing to blossom?
Safe and secure
Of course, being completely self-sufficient is out of reach for most people. There are always going to be things we need to rely on others for – that’s what being part of a community (local, national, and global) is all about. But knowing that you are able to, in whatever capacity, take care of your needs yourself, is an empowering thing.
“Being self-sufficient can work wonders for your mental health, as it can support you in developing crucial qualities that allow you to thrive,” says counsellor Magdalena Stanek. “Firstly, it builds a sense of security – which is so important, especially recently. “During the pandemic, uncertainty has been lurking around almost every corner.
“That leads me to another significant trait, which is self-confidence. Building your own things from scratch creates a sense of empowerment, which then naturally primes you towards better self-image. It gives you a boost of ‘I can do it’ attitude, that makes your confidence flourish and dispels the internal critic – an issue that many people struggle with.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with Lorraine Bridges, who found that tuning-in to this lifestyle has really helped her over the past year. Lorraine makes her own clothes, bread, and oat milk. In her thriving garden, she plants courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, strawberries, blueberries, herbs, and so much more.
“I’ve never been that excited by material possessions, and read a lot about self-sufficiency over the years,” Lorraine says. “The pandemic acted as a catalyst to go further, because I was stuck at home and struck by the number of vans going up and down my road delivering online orders. I realised that buying more stuff is not what I want, or need.”
Reusing anything she can – from coffee sacks to egg boxes, biscuit trays, and tin cans – living a sustainable life in this manner has helped Lorraine assess her consumer habits, but also uncover a sense of wellbeing.
“I feel much calmer and more ‘present’. When I’m planting or making bread, I am completely absorbed in the activity, which takes me into a place where I can really switch off,” she explains. “It’s taken me away from screens and rolling news, and into nature – which is something comforting and constant in our lives.
“It’s really hit home how important nature is, and also how little I actually need in order to be happy. The important things in life are genuinely not the things you can buy off the internet, and I have learnt that now, this year more than ever.”
"The important things in life are genuinely not the things you can buy off the internet"
Trust the process
We might call this a ‘simple way of life’, but the reality is far from straightforward. Things like growing your own food, and repairing your belongings, take time and patience – if you’re just starting out, these skills won’t appear overnight. But that process of learning and evolving is part of the joy of it.
Research published in the International Journal of Lifelong Education found that adult learning, and acquiring new skills, can boost self-esteem, increase energy levels, improve relationships, and infuse your life with meaning.
“When you are repairing your own clothes, or making your own grocery essentials like bread, you’re taking your destiny, literally, into your own hands, which sends a powerful message of: ‘I am self-reliant and able to survive even under tough conditions,’” Magdalena says.
As she sees it, a boost in confidence in one area of life easily trickles out into the rest of it – helping you to develop a sense of assertiveness, and learn about your personal worth and boundaries, skills essential for long-term happiness.
On the mend
The ability to repair your own clothes is a sustainability game-changer, and one that Molly Martin, author of The Art of Repair, is deeply passionate about. From a young age, Molly was raised to be conscious of her footprint on the world around her, and developed a talent for sewing and repairs when she was still in school. In her book, she offers a wealth of tips on tackling tears – but she tells us that repairing has a dimension beyond the practical.
“Repairing anything can be a mindful practice, particularly if you’re repairing by hand,” Molly says. “It requires concentration, slowing down, and taking your time – and it’s through this act that we can gain a meditative space.
“For me, repairing is about more than mending an item of clothing to give it new life. There is a lesson within the broken fibres we are stitching back together, that we might apply to ourselves.”
Learning the land
At the heart of the idea of self-sufficiency is a sense of harmony, both with the world around you, and within yourself – with your needs, skills, and dreams. While modern life, targeted adverts, and non-stop news bulletins may have you hopping from one thing to the next, self-sufficiency is about slowing down, moving with the seasons, holding materials around you in your hands, and learning about the things you can do with what you already have.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s growing herbs on a windowsill, sewing a button back on a shirt, or ploughing half your back garden into a vegetable patch, the benefits are there for the picking – all it takes is going back to your roots.
'The Art of Repair – Mindful Meaning: how to stitch old things to new life’ by Molly Martin (Short Books, £14.99)