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. Which is the underlying thesis of The Comfort Crisis by Micheal 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.
[The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter]

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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4 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.

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