The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation
Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s quote “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” was an observation that most people live an empty life caused by unfulfilling work, lack of leisure time and misplaced values; money, possessions and accolades. Thoreau claimed the value we attach to possessions, money and status is wrong. Quiet desperate lives are routine and emotionless, moreover, a life of misplaced values will lead to unhappiness.

My life of quiet desperation

I have an unfulfilling job; days are filled with mind-numbing meetings, unnecessary emails and pointless PowerPoint slides. This isn’t special, according to David Graeber (author of Bullshit Jobs) a large proportion of today’s jobs are completely meaningless. A YouGov poll found that only 50 percent of people in the UK are sure their job makes some sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent are quite sure it doesn’t.

“Capitalism creates unnecessary jobs in order for the wheels to merely keep on turning.”

– David Graeber

Spending 5 days from 7 (~70% of my life) in a pointless and uninteresting job puts me in the quiet desperation category for sure.

The Joe Rogan Show

I came across Thoreau’s quote while watching the Joe Rogan show. Rogan says it’s one of his favourite quotes and has some inspiring thoughts that are worth listening to:

Joe Rogan’s favourite quote: ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’
Extracts from podcast

JR: It’s one of my favourite quotes ever. I’ve been that guy when you’re in a world where you can’t wait to just run away.

JR: You have to take the path that’s dangerous and most people want to take the safe path and end up with a life of quiet desperation and it’s hell … you end up selling insurance or some other shit you care zero about.

AJ: How do people get stuck there?
JR: Bills and commitments. You have an apartment you have to pay for, you have a car you lease, a wife you need to feed, you have your this and your that … your options are severely limited as you gather responsibilities.

AJ: But can people just make that change?
JR: Yes, you can but you have to plan it out. You have to put enough money aside to give yourself a window and you have to have a plan, and you have to work every hour outside of whatever shit job you do, to plan your escape like your life depends on it.

Escaping a life of quiet desperation

Thoreau believed we only need meagre comforts in life and he practised this by moving to Walden Pond. While living by a pond is extreme, I (like many) have too much stuff and life is too comfortable (quiet). Being comfortable with an easy life sounds nice, however, I’ve often thought it makes for a boring existence. This view is shared as the underlying thesis of The Comfort Crisis.

[The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter]

Discomfort is both physical and emotional. It’s hunger, cold, pain, exhaustion, stress, and any other trying sensations and emotions. Our comfort drive led us to find food. To build and take shelter. To flee from predators. To avoid overly risky decisions. To do anything and everything that would help us live on and spread our DNA …

So it’s really no surprise that today we should still default to that which is most comfortable. Except that our original comforts were negligible and short-lived, at best. In an uncomfortable world, consistently seeking a sliver of comfort helped us stay alive. Our common problem today is that our environment has changed, but our wiring hasn’t. And this wiring is deeply ingrained.

Advertisers tell us that it’s more money and more stuff that makes us happy but I believe it’s the opposite just like Thoreau. You appreciate more in life when you have less.

Escaping my life of quiet desperation involves throwing caution against the wind. No one wants to take the deathbed test and have regrets but the reality is we all do unless we are prepared to take risks.

And by “risks” it’s obviously nothing life threatening, but by modern standards, anything that takes us out of our comfort zone is considered risky. I need to escape my safe, comfortable job and do something completely different. Otherwise my quiet life will go unresolved.

I do love a good quote and ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” by Henry David Thoreau is one of my favourites. It makes you self-reflect. Do you lead a life of quiet desperation and what are you going to do about it?

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9 thoughts on “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

    1. Hi Kevin,

      The plan was to escape June-time this year, however, with the current coronavirus situation, stock market crash and general economic uncertainty, I’m holding off. It could well be that I’m pushed as mass layoffs start to happen! The majority of my income will come from a rental property and if there’s no one around to rent, then it becomes a problem! ..let’s hope it doesn’t get that bad.


  1. I rather like Bill Withers’ take on this quote. (‘The Bill Withers’ Story’). He continues from ‘quiet desperation’ with: ‘ I wondered what would happen if my desperation were LOUDER!’ (my capitals). I take it as one way to follow my dreams.

  2. It’s 41 years ago that Our english teacher came up with that quote and asked US what the meaning might be… Always liked that quote and still remember ist today

  3. The quote is great, because it articulates concisely the struggle and pain of life. It is great for the same reason Starry Night is great by Van Gough. There are also genius song artists that have expressed this as well, but one of the best is by U2 “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. This angst situation is complicated by the promises that, pursuing the major themes of life are the key; finding true love is one of the biggest themes. To be the center of attention with money, is another, in whatever form induced imagination conjures up; expressed succinctly in “Rhine Stone Cowboy.” There are people on all these different ladders that seem, or claim to have found a sense of value and usually, money is a big ingredient. The two scenarios are usually, like U2, not finding the dream or knowing what your own dream should be; or, suddenly finding a stage of performance that feeds that sense of worth and significance and usually power of some sort~~ and then usually becoming a narcissistic sensory addict of some sort. So the question kind of ends with, is it the goal, to have this sense of self fulfilled enjoyment, in whatever form it takes?
    It seems that the human existence is plagued by urge drive impulse mechanisms. If the human race were just a collection of carbon based life forms, we wouldn’t have a world with this many problems. Everything would be more cohesively managed, at least by the top life form. But, as it is, there really are paranormal layers to existence. It is the height of hubris for science to dismiss any and all metaphysical activity for the entire history of humanity. Through the years, conscience, creation, and history have pointed to God. Then, the central point of history is the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The level of activity in antiGod history, points to God. The level of fraudulent or dirty religious systems, doesn’t prove that God Christ doesn’t exist; it proves that there is a core of Truth, and the frauds are trying to clutter the field with decoys and repellant forms. The point of Christ, is to guide us in a mystic (spiritual) union with Himself…. and guide us out of this swamp morass that would dominate us from both the inside and outside. Union with Christ, asking Him to come inside us, is the path to peace and real significance. Eternal significance.

    1. Rogen doesnt have the foggiest notion what Thoreau is talking about and gets it precisely backwards. And his purpose and service to humanity is on the level of Howard Stern’s, not spiritual writers like Emerson and Thoreau. Yes, Rogen is just a narcissist and bore to any serious thinkers, and these programs are pseudo intellectual masturbation a couple rungs lower than the pseudo intellectual masturbator Dick Cavett or Tom Snyder and their ridiculous interviews with phony and ignorant lsd burnouts like yoko ono and john lennon. The ubiquitous Phony Christianity is at least far less a lurid sex carnival than beatnik, hippie and anarcho punk nihilistic destruction. Sorry if this offends, but Rogen and company arent shy about terming Christians idiots. Presumably he’s such a know nothing he has no clue Thoreau was a pantheist. Personally, I view Thoreau as misguided, just like the other transcendentalists. He can be seen as a precursor of the counterculture idiocy. By their fruit ye shall know them. Praise the Lord Jesus. And forgive them, for they know not what they do.

  4.……I was listening to this talk, and Thoreau’s quote is mentioned at the very end. I was in a dead-end job for 28 years, every day knowing it was art that I was born for. I got lucky, and a passive aggressive lawyer I got stuck working with actually set me up to be fired. It took nine months, but it happened. I believe God put that guy in my life, and it just happened to coincide with my selling my house and moving in with a friend of mine, to save money. And I had discovered an artist on the internet during my lunch breaks, a guy named Richard Schmid (, whose work was so inspiring that I had spent $500 to buy all the supplies he had suggested, and after work one day, I sat on my patio and did a small painting, and his techniques and teachings worked! Still, my firing was months away from that moment, but when it came, I decided I would not try to get another job being a legal secretary. Actually, I knew I could not do it, mentally. I was finished with that and could not bring one ounce of fortitude to it again. Long story short, I began painting and a door opened, some paintings sold, and I have made a living from art for the past fourteen years. It is meager, but it is quite enough for me. I have been “on endless vacation” ever since, although maintaining a strong work ethic, and thanking God for each successful painting sale.

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