The Woods, Mountains and Happiness Within

The Woods, Mountains and Happiness Within

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.

The Lesson

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 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.

  • Wow, that last paragraph: did you really just outdo Thoreau on one of his most memorable lines? I love it! There’s no place or job or activity that will bring us happiness all by itself. Those things help, no doubt — but in combination with the conscious choice to find fulfillment in them.

    • Haha — I *obviously* did not outdo Thoreau! But I’m going to take that as a big compliment all the same. :-D And you’re right — it’s so easy to fall into the “If I do X, then I’ll be happy” trap, and I’ve for sure put myself there more than once.

  • Sigh. One day, I’ll be able to clearly articulate my thoughts about Walden and Thoreau. You’re so right that happiness is, largely, a choice. I love the authenticity here, and the idea of doing something because it speaks to you. So significant.

    • When you get those thoughts out, please let me know! :-) And I agree with your *largely* caveat, too. It’s mostly a choice, but certainly some circumstances make it much harder to make that choice! But either way, it’s not much of a destination. :-)

  • Thanks for sharing your story about why you “went to the woods” and how your view of happiness has changed since then. I love Walden too!
    I think moving to a particular area/type of area is a very common way to pursue happiness. I always wanted to move somewhere warmer and sunnier, imagining that the sun would lift my spirits forever. I didn’t move away, though, because I realized it was relationships and purpose that brought me happiness. Not that I need others to make me happy, but I can do what’s within my control to bring others happiness, and that is very joyful.

    • I’m not gonna lie — living in a sunny place DOES make it much easier to start out each day in a positive mindset. :-) I have struggled when I’ve lived in bad weather places — and at least now if it’s cloudy, it usually means it’s snowing, and that’s always a good thing that makes me feel excited. But I LOVE that you’ve found happiness in the people and relationships, and not looked to a place to provide that for you. And even better that you think about not just your own happiness, but how you can help provide that for others, too. :-)

  • I’m nothing but smiles , Ms ONL I personally feel this is the best piece I have written from you. There was so much emotion through the captivating words you chose and really enjoyed your “life summary” . I feel aligned with your story, thoughts and message ~ thank you !

    Then to you Cait, thank you for making this guest post a possibility . The change in feel and subject matter of your website lately I am loving.

    Best Wishes to you all

  • Beautiful! I definitely let my surroundings dictate my happiness far too often. If I’m in Austin, I’m obviously not as happy when I’m in Denver, or at home, or wherever. A longing for elsewhere often steals my present happiness. But it’s stupid because wherever you go, there you are! This piece is great at shining a light on that

    • Thanks, Kara! I think you put it so perfectly, and you’re right that longing to be elsewhere steals our present happiness. Our job is to find (or choose) happiness within ourselves, and we’re always there! ;-) Now put me in a hot summer swamp and see if I say the same thing. Hahahaha.

  • So true that you have to find your happiness from within and not from your surroundings. I lived in a mountain town too but can say that the view of the mountain from the grocery store always gave me a smile that the city never could!

    • I would never try to argue that there aren’t some major perks to living in the mountains. :-) But I know unhappy people who live here, too! Mountains might be awesome, but they don’t cure everything magically.

  • Great guest post! I am totally guilty of the “if I do this, then I’ll be happy” mentality. Thank you for the reminder to find happiness now.

  • Such an amazing post. I feel the same draw to the mountains. Perhaps visions of days spent in the great outdoors and leaving all of my troubles behind. The ultimate pursuit of happiness. I can’t out run life’s problems but like you I can fill my soul with the great outdoors. I find it flexes my mindful living muscle and that can trickle into all other areas of life :)

    • Thanks, Sharon! If only the mountains could truly erase our troubles — then they really would be magical. :-) I do think they provide perspective and help us see that many of our stresses are trivial, which is a huge value nonetheless. And amen to filling our souls with the great outdoors!

  • People chase happiness for years and for miles. Simply choosing to be happy is such an important message. And as you are drawn to the mountains, we are drawn to the beach. Maybe when we get to the mountains out west for the first time – we’ll change our minds :)

    • The mountains in the western half of the continent ARE pretty inspiring. :-) But I get the draw to the beach, too. And there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that certain places are more conducive to your happiness, or at least help you put things in perspective and realize that not all troubles are of equal weight. But yeah, the happiness chasing — I’ve done as much of it as anyone, but I convinced we don’t end up any happier for having chased it. :-)

  • That is so powerful. Many of us say “if we do X, then happiness will follow.” Life is all about happiness, defining it is so hard. I resonate a lot with that quote because I spent a good chunk of my time (probably all my waking moment) doing one thing that I thought would bring me happiness but in the end I figured out that what I was doing wasn’t for myself but it was to make myself look more impressive to others. I’m so glad I figured that out when I’m in my 20’s so I wouldn’t regret it later down the road. Thank you so much for the post, Ms. ONL, it gives me a great reminder of what I should be working towards.

  • This post rings so true. We just spent 10 days backpacking in the woods and I felt the peace fade away as we drove back home. I’m so grateful that we have been making changes to our ‘normal’ lives to make them more like our dreams, though it’s a work in progress.

  • Beautiful post. you inspire me so much! I plan to start a shopping ban on September the 1st. I plan on telling my family and friends so that I do not stray. Hope to visit my brother next summer in Florida. Haven’t seen him in a while due to my awful budget. I pray that you have a 2017 Budget work book.The 2016 is so inspiring. Have a great travel and God bless!

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