This is a guest post from my (soon-to-be real life!) friend Ms. ONL. As per usual, my friends keep writing posts that seem to fit perfectly with what’s going on in my life. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.
Happiness is something I have always been focused on, even from an early age. I blog about early retirement, but to me, early retirement is just one of many possible ways to live your best life and experience lasting fulfillment – key ingredients in happiness.
Like a lot of kids who grew up in the Midwest, I got shipped off to camp each summer. And that was often the highlight of my year – I loved the chance to be outside, to try different activities, and to exist in a world more defined by kids than by adults. It’s where I truly learned to love the outdoors and developed my sense of adventure.
But camp wasn’t just about canoeing and capture the flag and arts and crafts. It’s also where I developed my love of nature writ large, and started to think of myself as an environmentalist. I ate up the transcendentalist poetry that they fed us practically every day. You could not get through a morning taps at my camp without hearing a little Thoreau or Alcott. As you’d guess, the famous snippet from Walden was a perennial favorite:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 2
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” became almost a mantra of mine, even before I knew what “deliberately” truly meant. And it was a clear directive: 1. Go to woods, then, 2. Live deliberately. Cause and effect. Or, in other words, Want to live deliberately? Then you need to be in the woods. So simple.
And during those long days at summer camp – which later stretched into whole summers as a camp counselor – I was living that directive, and feeling some of that peace, that sense that I was using my days the “right” way, sucking out all the marrow of life. And once I’d moved far away from my little summer camp, I kept following Thoreau’s words, kept confronting those essential facts of life in ever-more-extreme places, learning to bushwhack and rock climb and backpack long distances at altitude.
Perhaps more than the adventure and possibility of the outdoors, that poetry drove me to get outside, seeking that transcendence that Thoreau and Emerson had found. I looked for it deep in canyons, I looked for it on mountaintops. I looked for it in campfire after campfire, and on long, punishing hikes. And I always felt amazing in the wilderness, because that’s the power of nature. It heals us and inspires, at least while we’re in it. But then I always had to go back home to the city.
Happiness and Fear
Looking back, I know I was chasing happiness, hoping the next outing would be the one when it really stuck, which was odd because I wasn’t unhappy. I was just seeking something bigger and brighter, a supercharged version of the happiness that I felt. Or perhaps I was doing the exact inverse: chasing away the fear that I wasn’t really living. That thought, “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” haunted me when I was in the office, worrying that I was frittering my limited time days not really living. And so I kept looking to the woods and mountains for validation, building up that mental checklist as though I might one day have to prove it. “See! I really did live life to the fullest!”
That pursuit of happiness in the mountains continued after I met my now-husband, Mr. ONL, though he saw our adventures in less philosophical terms. He liked to work hard, to feel his heart pounding. He liked to feel strong and capable in the nature from which humans have worked hard to insulate ourselves. He liked to stand in places few people have stood. He liked the surge of adrenaline that came from scaling a ridge at 14,000 feet. While my aspirations in the mountains were lofty, his were more grounded.
Eventually, though, life happened. Our careers took off and our lives got more full. We bought our first place and had our weekends consumed with home improvement projects. Work travel made it tougher to carve out big chunks of time for adventures in the mountains. We still made skiing in the winter a priority, but let several years pass without taking on a climbing expedition or an extended trek in the wilderness.
And we felt that absence, each in our own ways. I started equating everything that went along with work (living in the city, commuting, stress) with unhappiness, and the woods and mountains stood in stark contrast to that. Mr. ONL felt the absence in age terms – watching the years pass quickly, and worrying that his best athletic days might be behind him. We both started wondering if the answer – the thing that would bring us lasting happiness – was to move to the mountains while we were still young enough to enjoy them.
The Big Move
Not long after we had that idea, as if by magic, we both got the chance to start working for our companies remotely, and we jumped at the opportunity. After spending our whole lives in cities, we began planning to start the next phase of our lives in the mountains.
As an idea that began seemingly by magic, it’s perhaps no surprise that my thinking about what our new life would be like was a little magical, too. I had this idea that the mountains equal happiness, and that our happiness would multiple ten-fold just by changing the scenery around us. I thought we would be outside every day, that we would never watch TV. That we’d have this simple, deliberate life :::POOF!::: just because we’d changed our geography. We were following the directive, after all! 1. Go to the woods, 2. Live deliberately.
Of course that’s not how it happened. There was still reality to contend with. We still had our now-quite-stressful careers, complete with frequent work travel that became more time consuming when we started flying through a small regional airport instead of the major hub we’d previously lived by. We still had to be reachable outside of the 9-to-5 window, so our home couldn’t be some wifi-free haven in the forest. Everything we’d had as a stressor in our lives in the city was still a stressor in the woods of our mountain town, except traffic. We were still our same selves, after all, and the only thing that really changed was our location.
But from that disappointment came an important lesson. We realized that we’d been looking for happiness outside of ourselves – as a checklist of athletic accomplishments for Mr. ONL, and as the result of this mythical “deliberate life” for me. We’d fallen prey to the fallacy of “If we do X, then happiness will follow,” a common trap for many of us.
It didn’t happen overnight, but we’ve come to embrace the fact that happiness isn’t something we achieve, or that happens through cause and effect. Happiness is something we create in the present by simply choosing to be happy. We can make choices that align with our values, we can ruthlessly edit down our lives to eliminate the non-essential and the needlessly stressful, and we can climb all the mountains and hike every trail on Earth, but looking for happiness as something external that will happen only after we’ve done those things just defers the choice of being happy to a later time. We’ve learned to choose happiness now.
My New Mantra
I still think about Thoreau, and still love Walden. But my mantra has changed. Rather than thinking of a deliberate life or happiness as things that will follow from making certain choices, I ask myself what I enjoy most, what fills up my soul, and I make space for those things. Living in the mountains does that – I feel grateful every day to wake up to a view of tall trees and craggy peaks. Life here isn’t perfect or stress-free, but once I accepted that, I found a lot more gratitude for every aspect of it.
Now, when I’m on the trails, miles from the road, I think to myself: I went to the woods… because I love the woods. I’m thankful to have learned that following that love is the most deliberate way I could possibly live.
Ms. Our Next Life blogs about early retirement, happiness, and adventure at ournextlife.com. She and Mr. ONL will be unmasking themselves when they retire next year. You can also follow their adventures on Twitter @our_nextlife and Instagram @our_nextlife.