Last week I kicked off a social experiment based on Jen Hatmaker’s book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. I recruited (wrangled) ten women to join (suffer) with me, and together we committed to radically simplifying seven areas of our lives over the course of the next seven weeks. On our hit list: food, clothing, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.
Week One: Food
Our first week of the 7-Experiment focused on radically simplifying our food choices. We restricted our diets to only seven food items for seven days. My seven food items were:
- Whole wheat bread
- Peanut butter
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Salt, pepper, olive oil, and drinking water were allowed.
- Coffee Confessional: Need I say more? I categorized (justified) it as a non-food item akin to drinking water (which is exactly what it is people! Just dirty drinking water). Therefore, I didn’t count it as one of my seven items. For the sake of this experiment, I hereby declare coffee the first cousin of drinking water. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Food Makes Fun
Food is closely intertwined with our feelings, so mess with our food, and you’re messing with our emotions. Which, I suppose, makes us all emotional eaters. People associate activities and emotions with food, like coffee and work, cake and birthday parties, hotdogs and ballgames, watermelon and summertime. As I participated in activities this week where I couldn’t enjoy the associated food items, I realized how empty the activity seemed. No cake at a birthday party—What was there to celebrate? No Coca Cola while doing the laundry—Why do laundry? No dessert after dinner—What’s the point of having dinner? Take away the food, and the activities seemed…hollow.
Nourishing the Social Life
Food is the centrifugal force that has drawn people together for thousands of years. It’s the primary vehicle for social interaction. Want to spend time with people? Offer to feed them. “If you cook it, they will come,” is our unspoken mantra here in the deep south. Therefore, this week’s experiment didn’t just affect how I handled nourishing my body. It affected how I handled my social life. It impacted where I ate and who I spent time with. It affected what conversations I had, and possibly the ones I didn’t have. “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture,” says author Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food. Food and human interaction have long been intertwined. By altering my diet, I inadvertently altered my social interaction.
Hungry for Choice
I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten the same thing four days in a row, much less seven. As a true-blooded American, I am seriously addicted to choice. Our grocery stores aren’t just brimming with food—they’re brimming with options. We have an entire aisle dedicated to bread, for goodness’ sakes! Not only are there generous quantities of bread in the aisle, there’s an abundance of types of bread. Whole wheat, honey wheat, whole grain, 7 grain, 12 grain, natural grain, harvest grain…not to mention the tortillas and pitas, English Muffins and bagels, doughnuts and croissants, baguettes and pastries. And that’s just 15 types of bread off the top of my head.
By Day 4 I was bored by my limited, predictable meal options. I was itching for some choices, so I created a meal plan for the rest of the week. LIGHTBULB. A whole new world of options opened up to me. I paired different food items together and got creative on ways to cook things. When I was finished, I realized what an abundance of options seven little food items actually offer. It was astounding.
Psychologists agree that freedom of choice and autonomy are critical to our wellbeing as humans. And yet even though modern Americans have more choices available to them than any other people group in history, the benefits are not as psychologically evident as should be expected.* Shoppers nowadays have so many choices that it’s seriously stressing them out—to the point that Americans are battling depression and anxiety at historic levels. Psychologists agree that our over-abundance of choices are causing average Americans to battle depression, anxiety, and even feelings of isolation and loneliness. Going to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread is overwhelming because twenty types of bread are staring back at you from the shelf. Interestingly enough, studies show that reducing our amount of choices actually reduces stress and anxiety and makes us enjoy what we choose all the more. While a plethora of choices seems like limitless freedom, it actually tends to be paralyzing.
Final Food for Thought
Food seems benign, but it’s powerful. It impacts mood, social interaction, and can even affect the overall quality of life. The heart behind this entire 7-Experiment is to exercise simplicity. It’s a way to create space in my life for the things that really matter, while highlighting the things that are out of control. I finished this week with the realization that choice has become a monster that probably doesn’t need to be fed as much. This 7-Experiment is the perfect diet to not only curb my voracious appetite for options, but also find a healthy baseline. Perhaps less truly is more?
Join me next week as I share about 7 days of wearing only 7 articles of clothing.
*The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz 2004