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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

24 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

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