How Living Abroad Limits Choice

I have ascetic aspirations. I certainly don’t live a monastic lifestyle, but I try to listen to the simplifying impulses in myself.

Years ago, I decided that an easy way to live more simply was by limiting my choices. These inclinations are, at least in part, why I don’t drink alcohol, coffee or tea, and why I don’t care much about food. When at a restaurant, I usually scan the menu until I spot something I want to eat, and stop there. I frequently don’t read the whole menu.

These impulses are also at least partially responsible for my ignorance of entire segments of our culture: celebrities, cars and so forth.

I suppose this approach could lead to an ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Modern life in the developed world throws a lot of cruft at you–a lot of inconsequential decisions that have only a minuscule impact on your happiness. Those decisions differ from person to person, but everybody has too many of them.

In theory, the more of these decisions that I can avoid, the more time I can spend on stuff I care about. And, in theory, the happier I’ll be. So, I’m always on the lookout for ways to distill the important choices from the great froth of trivialities.

As it turns out, living in the developing world really helps my ascetic aspirations. Simply put, there are fewer trivial decisions to make:

  • Menus are shorter, and most restaurants have more or less the same thing.
  • There are more shops, but they roughly sell the same things at the same prices.
  • There are fewer forms of entertainment, or least the kinds I’m used to.
  • It’s more difficult to get from point A to point B, so you do less local travel.
  • I don’t know anybody, so there are few invitations or social obligations to contemplate.

These sound like complaints, but actually it’s quite liberating in the short term. I’m speaking primarily of my three months in Morocco, but these also apply (with slightly less strictness) to rural Malta.

There are frustrations, but they’re definitely exceeded by a sense of simplifying your life, and of spending your time more meaningfully. This has been an unforeseen side benefit of a year away from Vancouver.


  1. Darren,

    Nicely observed, and encouraging for those of us that do not want to consume, consume , consume.

    You will appreciate though, that it’s undoubtedly at odds with a lot of people in our particular industry…


  2. I think that living in the developing world is also very eye-opening because you spend a lot more time talking about trivial things, and a lot more time talking about things that matter- like families, cultural differences etc.

    It’s very illuminating and every time I go to the developing world, I’m always forced to confront and think about what is truly meaningful and what I don’t need to waste time on.

  3. In 2000, I bought a condo in gastown/dtes, and I noticed quite quickly that my shopping habit quieted down. There just weren’t the in-your-face options around – I can only do so much at Army & Navy! The area is gentrifying (some of it responsible and wonderful, some of it not so much) but fortunately, the shopping habit has so receded I doubt I’ll return to my old ways (besides, the new shops are outrageously expensive), with the possible exception of John Fleuvog (sigh).

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