Henry was a bright student and attended Harvard, where he studied Greek, Latin, and German. After graduating, he wasn’t sure what to do next. After a period of drifting, he founded a school with his brother, but the venture failed a few years later.
He subsequently met a mentor who introduced him to Transcendentalism, an idealistic philosophical and social movement. Henry began to think deeply and write about what it means to live a good life. Still a young man, Henry decided to retreat from the city—its noise and distractions—to live and work on land owned by his mentor outside of Concord, Massachusetts.
Henry, as you may have guessed, is Henry David Thoreau. His mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his masterwork, “Walden,” Thoreau describes what led him to pursue a simpler existence:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
For Thoreau, to “live” was to live on his own terms, not based on the norms, dictates, and expectations of others. He wasn’t interested in “keeping up with the Joneses” of his day. He wrote:
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
March to the Beat of Your Own Drummer
When we look back on this time, I believe that one of the cultural shifts that’s identified as a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic will be that large numbers of people found a drummer that led them in a direction away from the unhealthy norms of today’s society. Instead of striving to keep up, they decided to slow down, because they, too, feared not living.
Shifts in mindset are leading to shifts in location. There must be more to the great exodus from big cities to small towns than a desire for more physical space alone. Uprooting oneself and one’s family is no small endeavor. Like Thoreau, more people are seeking to live deliberately, having realized that trying to “keep pace with companions” is not the path to a rewarding and enriching life. Today’s crisis has served as a catalyst for change.
And change is sorely needed. We have all seen the statistics. Rates of depression, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse have skyrocketed across many segments of the population in recent years. Societal pressure to keep up can exacerbate individual mental health challenges.
Exhausted, pressured, restless, searching—these are what we feel while running in the rat race.
How do I know? For years, I was sprinting to keep up with the pack.
What changed? I finally identified what mattered to me and embraced a more minimalist lifestyle, which allowed me to find the space and time necessary to strive for things—and by “things” I mean experiences, relationships, beliefs, and values—that are necessary to cultivate a contented and fulfilled life.
Live a Life That’s True to Yourself
Perhaps you’re feeling the weight, too. If so, of course you’re not alone. We all are these days, to one extent or another. What’s required to bring about positive change is slowing down and taking stock. As yourself the following questions.
Are you living to work, or working to live?
Are you sacrificing your time, energy, and relationships now, in hopes of some idyllic retirement in the future that may never materialize?
Are you surrounding yourself with people who lift you up or drag you down?
Do you live in a place that makes you happy?
Are you chasing short-term highs by acquiring more physical things, or are you pursuing new and novel experiences that bring real happiness?
Is it your own desires, or the expectations of others, that are keeping you from making big changes?
Transformation is not easy. I know this from experience. But I can say with certainty that there’s only one way off the hedonic treadmill, and it’s by taking a leap of faith into a more minimalist, intentional, and purpose-driven lifestyle.
Once you regain your footing, and start following a beat that’s uniquely yours, you’ll come to realize that everything you were chasing was never going to make you happy. You’ll see clearly, perhaps for the first time, that passion for life comes from its simplest pleasures.
Slow down and determine what really matters to you. The only thing worth keeping up with is your own vision of a life well lived.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.