In 1899, Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech in Chicago in which he extolled the virtues of what he called “the strenuous life.”
“[T]he life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph,” said Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, the quintessential “man in the arena,” lived a strenuous life full of risk-taking, rugged self-reliance, and commitment to core values. His lifelong adventure culminated in the presidency of the United States.
Today, too many men live the modern version of “the strenuous life,” which is more aptly termed “the stressful life.” Instead of adventure, it’s one marked by overwhelm. Men are strapped to their desks, tethered to their smartphones, a beep or chime away from their next dose of anxiety. They get consumed by careers they dislike to buy things they don’t need for the purpose of impressing people they don’t care about (or even know). And they’re suffering the consequences.
More than six million men suffer from depression. Suicide among men has risen dramatically since the year 2000, and in the year 2017 men died by suicide 3.5 times more often than women. Approximately one in five men develop alcohol dependency during their lives. Mental health trends among men continue to trend in the wrong direction.
Exhausted, pressured, restless, searching—what else can one feel while running in the rat race? How do I know? For years, I was sprinting to keep up with the pack. From a top law school to a top law firm, which led to a too-big house and too-little time for much of anything, something had to give.
What changed? The weight of it all nearly crushed me. But I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. When you approach rock bottom, you are afforded a clear view of the fate awaiting you. By falling, as opposed to remaining afloat on auto-pilot, I had the chance to correct course before it was too late.
My safety net? I found minimalism, 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 content and fulfilling life.
A Stubborn Journey Toward Minimalism
The truth is, however, I didn’t find minimalism. My wife did, then introduced it to me … again and again before it stuck. Along with my tendency toward chasing shiny new objects, I’m pretty stubborn. Over time, my ego and self-worth got wrapped up in what I had—not who I was. My wife perceived this and saw minimalism as an escape hatch, but I resisted.
Minimalism seemed like a quirky idea propagated by people who resigned themselves to a Spartan, white-space existence. It appeared devoid of the color and excitement that pop culture, marketing, and social media heralded as essential elements of the modern good life.
And, if I’m being totally honest, as reflected by the Facebook pages, groups, and comment threads associated with members of the minimalism movement, it seemed that far more women than men were on board with the minimalistic life.
As much as the promises and principles of minimalism resonated with me, I did not embrace it, in large part because my identity as a husband, father, and working professional felt threatened by its implications. Why settle for less when everything in society suggested that I should be striving for more?
Yes, these feelings are admittedly old fashioned, and not even relevant to my circumstances, given that my wife is every bit my equal partner (and then some) in all aspects of our marriage, including our respective financial contributions to the household.
Nonetheless, these feelings (irrational as they may be) are real, so I don’t see the point in pretending otherwise. I have always prided myself on my ability to simply outwork any challenge, and I foolishly believed that embracing minimalism put my identity at risk by signaling vulnerability to the world. And vulnerability, at least in the pre-Brené Brown era, was not something I felt comfortable showing.
It took time, study, and reflection, but ultimately, I overcame the resistance, scaled back, and began to realize the benefits of a life with less. I became a better husband, father, and professional—a better man—in the process. I’m far more present, aware, and happy.
As a result of my transformation, I’ve come to believe that more men need minimalism.
The Dangers of the Hedonic Flywheel
Too many of us are chasing rainbows that we’ll never reach. We strive and grasp for more but regardless of how far we get, it doesn’t lead to happiness. Each new level of achievement becomes the new baseline.
Many believe that a material possession—be it a house, car, or new set of golf clubs—will lead to contentment, but save for a fleeting rush, it ends with remorse every time. Some of us think “only if I get that promotion …” or “when I meet the person of my dreams …”—but our happy future doesn’t materialize the way we expected. Author Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy,” which is the belief (almost always false) that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy.
In short, we keep sprinting on the “hedonic treadmill” and never get anywhere. We merely adapt to our new circumstances and keep searching for more. However, the “treadmill” as a metaphor doesn’t convey the whole story. If you’re on a treadmill you can simply step off.
Getting trapped in the rat race is better described as being strapped to a “hedonic flywheel.” A flywheel is a heavy, mounted wheel that takes a great deal of effort to push. As you keep pushing, the flywheel gains speed and eventually it has powerful momentum. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to stop.
A life animated by the pursuit of more money, possessions, and social status is a dizzying life on the flywheel. It’s one that goes round and round, faster and faster, but never gets any closer to happiness and contentment.
Through living a more minimal life, I was able to stop and take stock. What I found was that I still wanted “more”—just of a different variety. I didn’t know it at the time, but a British philosopher prescribed exactly what I was looking for nearly 100 years ago.
A Life Full of ‘Zest’
Bertrand Russell was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He grew up in a wealthy household in the United Kingdom but was deeply depressed as a teenager—even suicidal.
He navigated his way into adulthood despite his depression. As he made his way through the world, he was struck by his observation, which seemed counterintuitive to him at the time, that many of the wealthiest people he met also seemed to be the unhappiest. This confused him and he set out to find an explanation. In 1930, he revealed his findings to the world in his classic book, The Conquest of Happiness, which was Russell’s attempt at explaining the root causes of both happiness and unhappiness in life.
In particular, Russell found that “zest” was the common mark of a happy person. “Zest,” by definition, means “enthusiasm, eagerness, energy, and interest.” For Russell, having zest for life meant living with vigor, taking interest in the world around you, seeking out adventure, and living with a sense of enthusiasm. According to Russell, “What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life.”
I didn’t have a word for it at the time, but looking back, zest was the very ingredient that was missing from my life when it felt at its most monotonous. The days dragged by while the years seemed to fly past. I spent more time living through a screen than appreciating the wonders of the real world. Ambition and consumption blurred my vision to other possibilities.
By adopting a more minimalist lifestyle, I began to see what I was missing.
As a family, we cut back our possessions and financial obligations. We pared down our businesses, ditched our physical office space, and transitioned to a virtual working environment. This created space and time, which allowed me to pursue the outdoor activities that I love, and in the process rediscover a passion for life. I began to live with more zest and never looked back.
I know I’m not alone in my struggle with these issues. There are countless men who feel overworked, overstressed, and are drifting through their days. They feel sluggish from the weight of the expectations that society has foisted upon them. They see minimalism as a way out, but can’t muster the fortitude to make the changes necessary to transform their lives.
Obviously, women grapple with these issues, too, and I hope they can draw some lessons from my missteps. However, if my own hard-headedness is any indication, and given the staggering increase in mental health conditions among males, a message targeted more directly toward men is needed.
Transformation is not easy. I know this from experience. But I can say with certainty that there’s only one way off the hedonic flywheel, and it’s by taking a leap of faith into a more minimalist lifestyle. Once you regain your footing, 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 zest and passion for life come from its simplest pleasures.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand and blog called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in northern Michigan.