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Are You Leading a Life of Quiet Desperation?


Henry David Thoreau famously stated in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  He thinks misplaced value is the cause: We feel a void in our lives, and we attempt to fill it with things like money, possessions, and accolades.  We think these things will make us happy.  When they don’t, we just seek more of them.

Thoreau argues that the value we attach to possessions and status is misplaced.  They aren’t the key to happiness, and they may hurt more than they help.  To him, happiness lies instead in a simple life stripped to the essentials.  To find it, we must shed our false values and live austerely, with no luxury and only meager comforts.  Thoreau attempted to do just that in his minimalist excursion at Walden Pond.

Thoreau’s basically right: Misplaced value contributes to “quiet desperation.”   But it’s not the end of the story: it’s possible to value all the right things and still lead a quietly desperate life.  What Thoreau’s missing is resignation.  We lead lives of quiet desperation when we resign ourselves to dissatisfaction.  Quiet desperation is acceptance of–and surrendering to–circumstances.  Quietly desperate lives are frustrated, passive, and apathetic.  They’re unfulfilled and unrealized.

Pay attention to the following signs of a quietly desperate life.  You might be leading one if:

  1. You’ve worked hard to reach a place of comfort and security — but you’re still dissatisfied.  You’re comfortable, but you feel trapped.  Every path away seems to go downhill.
  2. You’ve convinced yourself you’re not talented, creative, disciplined, or lucky enough to pursue your dreams.  You think you’re not one of the chosen few, so you’ve resigned yourself to mediocrity.
  3. You’ve accepted the power your fears hold over you, and you work within their constraints.  You concede to your fears rather than confronting them.  You refuse to do anything scary and new.  
  4. You’re your own worst naysayer.  You focus on how your plans will fail rather than on how to make them work.  You expend great energy rationalizing inaction.  You’ve decided your past failures predict future ones.  
  5. You’ve adopted a fatalistic attitude.  Rather than working to improve your situation, you sit idly, hoping to get a lucky break.  Rather than working to help yourself, you wait for others to help you.
  6. You’ve decided you missed your chance.  You’re too old, too committed, or too set in your ways to turn back now.  Instead you sit and watch younger and more-free people do what you want to do.

I’ll address each of these points.

Comfort and security are curses in disguise.  They’re like a warm blanket on a chilly day — it’s far too easy (and tempting) to stay with them.  When you’re dissatisfied, you need to venture out into the cold unknown, even if that means a short-term decline in your happiness.  If you don’t, you’ll die comfortable — and still dissatisfied.

Thinking you lack talent, creativity, discipline, or luck is never good reason to resign yourself to mediocrity.  Assume for a minute you do lack these things.  Does that mean you should give up?  No, it doesn’t — you’ll always feel better doing what you know you should do, even when your results aren’t what you’d like.  Now consider that you’re probably underestimating your potential — everyone is insecure, and it’s impossible to know what you can do without putting in the effort.  Talent and creativity don’t spring spontaneously from nothing, especially when a difficult skill is involved.  Self-discipline is entirely about implementation right now — you can be self-disciplined today even if you haven’t been for the past 10 years.  Luck is malleable — we’re all lucky in some ways and unlucky in others, and we can create our own luck.  Even if you’re unlucky in every way, that still isn’t reason to give up.

If you’ve accepted your fears, you’ve accepted your life as it is now.  If you love every part of it, great — but if you don’t, you’re stuck.  It’s often difficult to confront fears, but it’s never impossible.  The good news: they’re entirely internal.  You can’t always change the world, but you can change yourself.

Naysaying is attractive because it encourages inaction; it allows you to be lazy and avoid the unfamiliar.  But it’s a terrible way to spend time and energy.  Don’t use your power against itself.  Spend your time thinking about how to make your plans work, not about how they won’t work.

Fatalism is another excuse for inaction.  You don’t have control over everything, certainly, but you do have control over some things.  Spend your time thinking about the things you can change — and work to change them.  If you sit and wait for something good to happen, you’ll probably be waiting for a long time.

It’s true that some things are easier when you’re younger.  But that’s not always the case — being older has its own set of advantages.  Age and commitment may mean you have to make adjustments to your plans, but there’s always something you can do.  Start slowly, and work from there.  Don’t use them as an excuse to be lazy.

Quiet desperation is dangerous.  It tends to feed on itself as time goes on.  It’s never unconquerable, but extraordinary energy can be required to defeat it.  Don’t resign yourself to a life of dissatisfaction.

Written by miketuritzin

April 2nd, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Articles

36 Responses to 'Are You Leading a Life of Quiet Desperation?'

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  1. I really like your blog.


    24 Sep 09 at 10:55 pm

  2. Thanks, hy!


    24 Sep 09 at 11:11 pm

  3. I would say bro whatever you stated is just awesome do not have words to describe


    13 May 10 at 9:33 pm

  4. Thanks. Those are the words I needed to hear today! I am bookmarking this page so I can read it every day for a while.


    22 Jul 10 at 7:31 am

  5. positive blog like it!!!


    9 Feb 11 at 7:04 pm

  6. This article was exactly what I needed to read. Thank you for the inspiration!


    4 Sep 11 at 7:39 pm

  7. And what of those who don’t have the time nor money to follow their dreams? What of those who have mouths to feed, who have to provide a roof over other’s heads? Those who can’t afford to quit their soul destroying job? Who have the talent but not the resources? The people who other people depend on for food in their belly, a roof over their head?

    I would *love* to quit working this dead end, soul destroying job. I would love to go back to college, to get my degree as I had planned, and make my living doing something I love, something I am good at. But I can’t afford the tuition fees, and there are people who need this crappy wage I earn to eat, to live. I am not selfish enough to throw away their future for my own wish fulfilment; I am responsible for them, and I do what I do out of my love for them. Had I wish life turned out the way I wanted it to? Sure. Do I wish that some day I can find my way out of this? Certainly. But until tuition fees drop to zero, or until I can find a job that doens’t need me to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to provide the best I can for my family my dreams lie in my children: I hope & pray to God every day that because of my own sacrifices they will have a better life than mine, that they will be in a position where they can follow their dreams, rather than having to live a life of quiet desperation in the hope that hte next generation will do better.


    30 Nov 11 at 3:46 pm

  8. Nice article. You forgot one thing, people lying to themselves… more so than they do to others. A classic example of living in a fantasy world and masking their frustration or inadequacy in life. Take for example people who hate their day job, but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. They’ve zoned out so much that they actually convince themselves how bored theyd be without their meaningless day job. And pretend on how much they love their crappy jobs when everybody around them knows how much they hate it. It’s pretty painful to watch.


    23 Jun 12 at 9:36 am

  9. Okay, so how do I, a 45 male with a wife, a child, a mortgage who is looking forward to possible foreclosure and liens and who is having doubts and frustrations in terms of spiritual life and creative hobby (like writing), get out of this mindset. My fear has always been that I am living a mediocre life. Hard to think otherwise when I look around me.

    Matteo Masiello

    26 Nov 12 at 1:20 pm

  10. Thank you for taking the time to explain this so eloquently.


    3 Feb 13 at 11:01 am

  11. This desperation is often driven by the individuals need to provide for their family. Most men assume the responsibility to house them, feed them, provide them clothing and to promote their well being both physically and spiritually.
    Has resources become more finite and means limited by economics the more difficult this becomes and the result is men become more desperate to find fulfillment. Add to this mix the change in societal mores where we men are now judged by physical image and monetary successes. It no longer matters how big your dick is but by the amount of monetary and physical possessions you have accumulated, often at the expense of the families emotional well-being. It is of no small concern and I am not surprised by the moral decay of American Society.


    1 Jul 13 at 10:46 am

  12. Happiness is in inverse proportion to the gap between ambition and achievement. To get rid of desperation either up your game or lower your sights. Better still do both.

    Pete Duncan

    7 Jul 13 at 5:42 pm

  13. I really like what you said here, Mike. I am currently trying to become more aware of what my values are, so that I can live a life accordingly to what matters to me, and that would make all the difference. By the way, I am working with a book called “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life”. Excellent book, you should take a look. Thanks.


    11 Aug 13 at 8:14 am

  14. This blog has hit me quite hard. It’s not about the questions it doesn’t ask. but more a rallying cry to take action. Even in the most simplest way. It’s not about grandiose statements, but more a reaffirmation that you do have the power to affect change in your life, no matter how small. You can build and rebuild, that’s what this has inspired in me. Thanks for the leg up, I feel more positive now than I did 15 mins ago. Cheers.


    14 Sep 13 at 12:17 am

  15. I feel that desperation comes when we can’t seem to find an elegant solution to our problems or concerns. I recently read a book entitled Money, Greed and God. It has some great insight and I strongly recommend the read. One of the points it makes is of Capitalism. It mentions that we will never run out of money as long as we have the creative ideas that provides for a need.

    Creative problem solving requires the time, time to clearly define the problem, brainstorming for possible solutions either by yourself or in a group, executing the plan and then an evaluation of the process. For more on this read Bolton’s book on “People Skills.” I still refer to this book five years after my initial reading. The main problem I see in the desperation several individuals have mentioned above is the lack of resources. Time to think, plan and reflect for a better outcome seems to be the greatest one.


    5 Nov 13 at 9:40 am

  16. You have provided a thoughtful response to one seeking how to address the situation and mindset of leading a life of desperation when one may conclude there is no way out, due to advanced age and/or circumstances. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this problem; thinking about ones I know who came through their desperation to the other side and others I have known who did not. It’s all about choosing the path of fear or faith to me. Sometimes you need to go in another direction yet you need to be pointed in the right direction. Your thoughtful discourse will no doubt aid fellow life’s travelers. Insightful and practical. Thank you! I am going back to bed now.


    12 Dec 13 at 12:45 am

  17. There’s NO way anyone is completely helpless or powerless! You could even start a support group to support people in your predicament! Just take small steps to improve the situation or help some one not make the same mistake


    6 Jan 14 at 7:22 am

  18. Nietzsche said the following on this subject:
    Only individuals who have identified their genuine desires and who manage to act on those authentic desires are genuinely free.
    Human beings who do not want to belong to the mass need only to stop being comfortable: Follow their own conscience which cries out “Be yourself”.
    How can man know himself?
    What have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it?
    Your true nature líes not deep within you but inmensurable high above you.


    27 Mar 14 at 10:11 pm

  19. That was the best article I possibly could have needed and ever read. Everything matches for me on that since my divorce. Tried another recently and it made me even more apprehensive. Why bother it feels like in life now or has been.


    28 Mar 14 at 7:32 am

  20. What a happy accident finding this article was. I don’t know how it works but I’ve found that at times of crisis in my life some greater force takes over to guide me. I’m not claiming that this is anything spiritual or religious but I am convinced that there are things going on that I don’t fully understand. So, thanks for this article. I don’t know how long ago it was written and I don’t suppose that matters. It was there for me to find when I needed to find it and for that I am eternally grateful

    Steve Turner

    27 Jul 14 at 1:55 am

  21. I can relate to quiet desperation. I am educated and make enough money to help my kids w/school. But I complain about helping them, I complain about my life. So my answer is to buy expensive things and complain. the sad part is that I don’t know any other way. I always say you only live once so F it! I think that’s just my way of coping….


    29 Jul 14 at 7:13 pm

  22. This is a very insightful blog. I too am on a journey, furtunately I have pursued my dreams and believe strongly on living to your fullest and taking risk. On the other hand, I have a wife, 3 kids, mortgage, college costs blah blah blah, so my pursuet of my dreams must always be constrained by reality.
    I live with some degree of “quiet desperation”.
    Thank you for this blog.

    David L

    29 Aug 14 at 6:46 am

  23. I am a woman who after being divorced and financially independent have remarried and feel trapped, frustrated and profoundly unhappy. I took care of myself and my two children, now adults financially, emotionally and physically and somehow that was a great deal better than what I’m expected to do right now, which is pretty much smile and look pretty. I’ve always read the word “man” to mean person rather than male. Perhaps too much comfort and idolness is what leads to “quiet desperation” in both men and women.


    29 Sep 14 at 5:57 am

  24. Desperation is common in this life; my upbringing was shaped by working to avoid making strains on others. Carry the load yourself, so that the others won’t have to manage it… It’s an old custom. Add a harsh and hateful divorce, seasoned with a decent paying job, but under the hammer of supervisors whose style was to rule by fear – no small wonder that there is a stream of desperation. Yet, it seems now, later, that something like crustal rebound, in geology (after the melting of the ice sheets, with the land’s surface slowly rising back up, with the ice gone – is happening in this life. Less desperation, particularly if there is enough time to rebound a bit more…. But we do carry the desperation of carrying these loads, of living this life.


    23 Mar 15 at 8:08 pm

  25. Really good to find this article. I answered Yes to five out of the six signs above. I’m in a deeply unsatifying job but feel somewhat guilty about complaining as i know so many people who are out of work or slave away in hot factories for half of what I earn. I sit at a desk. Have done for 25 years. Anti-depressants get me through generally, and I have to take beta blockers to get through meetings without an anxiety attack. Now I write that down, it doesn’t sound good, does it?? I understand the fear factor mentioned in terms of taking life risks, even though I am single, albeit with a mortgage. I’m gradually working up the courage sell up, freeing myself of the mortgage shackles and finding adventure, or at least something that I can look forward to waking up to. Cheers.

    Adam Worthing

    21 Jun 15 at 5:53 am

  26. Thank you Mike for writing this almost eight years ago. Today it made an impact.

    A Rabbi friend of mine wrote:

    [That] daily during our morning services (Minyan – a gathering of 10 Jewish men) a prayer for the day ahead is recited. This morning just prior to reading the daily prayer, I was pondering the question of what God wants from me, or in essence from society. This question comes to the forefront of my mind during those quiet moments when I am attempting to reinforce my relationship with God and my inner core. In this moment of self-reflection, the prayer for the day was beginning to be recited. Within the prayer, which is taken from Psalm 82 we read, “Champion the weak and the orphan; uphold the downtrodden and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; save them from the grip of the wicked.” (Psalm 82: 3-4)

    Here was the answer to my question; in order to strengthen my relationship with God, I must strengthen my compassion and commitment to my fellow human beings. A relationship with God can only be strengthened when we see God within every individual, thus the need to champion the “weak, orphan, downtrodden and destitute,” for it is only when we find God in this world will we be able to connect with God in the deepest regions of our minds and soul.

    Not to get all religious and perhaps this is part of the answer or at least an immunization of living a life of quiet desperation.

    I am completing my doctoral dissertation and find that #2 and #3 are a constant force in my life. I will finish and it isn’t so easy to wrestle with those bears.

    Jerry Appel

    21 Jul 15 at 8:39 am

  27. Interesting blog post but somewhat unrealistic in this day and time. In a perfect world all of us would follow our dreams and prosper in life both mentally and financially. But what about illness? What happens when you work to the point of exhaustion keeping on for one more day which turn into months, years and decades? All in the hopes of reaching that final moment of sheer bliss? Im sorry, but as a Marine Corps veteran and former blue collar electrician working in the United States Ive found the “pie in the sky” does not exist. It seems the only way to achieve that is to reap your rewards by using the backs of others to achieve those dreams. And that in itself while being rewarding financially I find it would probably be hard to live with myself.


    26 Oct 15 at 5:32 pm

  28. I am a 68 year old woman, who’s retired and alone,. I believe I live a life of quiet desperation. I spend a lot of time alone. I go to the gym every day , twice a day, to feed my head, as I tend to get depressed. When I go out socially, it’s usually with my sisters, or with married couples. It seems there is no single people. I feel. I’m attractive and active. But I can’t shake the loneliness.


    1 Dec 15 at 7:56 am

  29. Joyce, I empathize with you as I can truly tap into those feelings of loneliness you are having. I know this may not bring you much comfort, but I wanted you to know that your feelings are not confined to your age or to the fact that you are retired. Life can still happen….perhaps it lies in reshaping your thoughts. I am 44 yrs old and am a city girl with a lot of energy and vibrancy. My job caused me to move to a very remote island almost nine years ago. I cannot begin to describe how depressed I got as the first three or four years went by. I had my children with me but it never made it any different. I longed for the things I used to do. There is no dramatic theater here for me to go watch a play (which was one of my favourite past-times before I relocated) or even a movie theater to go see a good film. There is nothing but God’s awesome greatness in nature around me. When I moved to the island, when asked by my friends and family back home to tell them what the place was like, I would say, “It is nothing but bush…and more bush. Everything moves at snail’s pace and I’d be lucky to see ten vehicles drive by the main road within an hour!” Of course, I didn’t quite know how to be at peace with this slow-paced, laid-back, inactive atmosphere…..until I actually asked the universe to help to reconstruct my mind/my thoughts. Over time, I found that the desire to look at life through different lenses have thwarted those feelings of loneliness. I now spend time on the beach just a stone’s throw from my yard and it is amazing how inviting, calming, fulfilling, therapeutic,….and just absolutely emotionally and mentally empowering this experience has came to feel. I began to feel differently about the remoteness of the island and of the isolated feelings I used to get. I have met so many persons who have come from the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, etc, just to get a taste of this island. Imagine that!…..people who clamor for what I would have once rejected. I have met a number of awesome people and have made some great friends. What is best is that no one cares about age. The young, the middle-aged, the so-called-elderly….you name it….this is the place where none of that matters when we get together and sing, and dance to island live music playing, or just sit around cracking jokes or sitting in silence as the musical orchestrated sounds of the sea rushing in and then away from the shore feeds our auditory aesthetic pleasure….causing us to just enjoy life. We all commune each day at our favourite place known as the Barracuda Beach Bar which is located at a vacation spot called the Pelican Beach Hotel. Life still happens, Joyce. It is you, us, each person, everyone…who has/have to make it happen. Otherwise, we will be consumed with those very feelings of quiet desperation. I hope you can, in fact, discover how to shake the loneliness.

    Marguerite Anderson

    14 Dec 15 at 5:01 am

  30. To the author: Mike, I truly enjoyed reading your article. I first came upon the concept when I studied an American play called, “A Raisin in The Sun”, many moons ago while attending college. The dilemma is real… many of us do, in fact, lead lives of quiet desperation. Lorraine Hansberry opened my eyes to the gradients of this dilemma when she exposed the preoccupations of Walter, Ruth, Mama, and Beneatha. Thanks you for outlining some signs which will help others to identify this dilemma in themselves.

    Marguerite Anderson

    14 Dec 15 at 5:15 am

  31. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Indeed. Quite serendipitous how I stumbled upon this today. You find what you seek.

    This will be something I save and reference for years to come.

    Thank you for writing this.


    27 Mar 16 at 5:29 pm

  32. This topic of “quiet desperation” came up in my AA meeting last night. Someone thought it was a quote from the AA Big Book, but looks like it’s from Thoreau. At any rate, thank you for the wonderful blog and all the responses. I feel a sense of gratitude because I am at a point in life where I’m taking some chances. My father died three years ago and I often wear his watch now. It reminds me of the value of time and how we each have only a limited amount of time on this earth (except, I suppose, for those whose faith includes reincarnation, etc.). I’m a psychologist and last year, I took a chance and left my full time job with its benefits to go full time with what had been my little part time private practice on the side. Sure, I worry about money stuff (mortgage, taxes, CPA fees, health insurance), but I’m also in charge of my own time and can design and build the type of practice I want. I’ll be 49 in a few weeks and have gained some financial stability, and I’m single, no kids, in good health (knock on wood), and have all the undeserved privilege that comes with being a white man in our culture; so I know it may be easier for me to take these risks than others. And yet I fearfully waited for a long time, living in all that quiet desperation while the clock kept ticking and life kept passing by. I’m glad I’m taking these risks now. If not now, then when? I really have no excuse not to, very little to lose, and all to gain for however many more years I may have on our tiny fragile little blue planet.


    31 May 16 at 7:52 am

  33. thanks!

    btw, HDT did not miss resignation. The full quote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”


    13 Jun 16 at 4:11 am

  34. Good, thought-provoking read. Although there are many great comments, I am only going to mention two. One by Caitlin, dated November 30, 2011, the other by Dave, a former Marine, dated October 26, 2015. I mention these only to ask this question of the article’s author, Mike Turitzin: How do you answer those? I love what you wrote, but I would enjoy reading your response to them. They ask real “living life in today’s high-speed, high-tech world questions. I think it would be interesting to hear/read a response to them.

    Dan Brannan

    29 Jan 17 at 6:45 am

  35. Encouraging work. Succinct and elegant.
    Thank you Mike!


    17 Dec 17 at 12:24 pm

  36. Thank you all for all of the interesting perspectives. I divorced recently and am somewhat lost. People are genuine when trying to help u out of divorce funk by taking you to parties and new people and all of that. Just not my need at this time. Money and being good at something have their place. There is some stability in these things. But from what I can tell we all need to have someone to love that loves us back. Someone to share the journey with.

    Bob Rader

    6 Jan 18 at 1:15 pm

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