Walden Pond is a beautiful swimming hole in Concord, Massachusetts, not too far from Boston. On the north end of the pond, a trail through the woods leads you to the original site of Henry David Thoreau’s famous “tiny house” – a ten by fifteen foot cabin. He lived there for two years beginning in 1845, spending his time reading, writing, thinking, growing his own food, and making a few friends (yes, there were neighbors).
Thoreau removed extraneous stuff so that his mind could grow. “Our life is frittered away by detail,” he wrote. “Simplify! Simplify!”
His friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, busted his chops by noting that “One ‘Simplify’ would have sufficed.” True, and funny — but Thoreau did have a point. And his point is even more relevant in today’s digital age.
As the world around us grows increasingly complex, we crave simplicity more than ever. The rate of technological advancements in communications is startling. We now have constant access to an infinite sea of information. There are many positive aspects to all of this, but Thoreau had the foresight to see that there is also a flip side to such progress. “Men are becoming the tools of their tools,” he observed. He was right. We all know there’s a fine line in modern life between the gift of connectivity and the pitfalls of infomania. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Thoreau, “to see if I could learn what life had to teach – so that, when I came to die, I would not discover that I had not lived.”
We are not suggesting you pull up stakes and drop out of society completely. But we can all take inspiration from Thoreau’s core principle of simplicity. There’s a reason practices like meditation and yoga have become so valuable to so many people today. We have a yearning to clear our minds while strengthening our bodies and spirits. Less is more when it comes to our daily schedules, our communication devices, the ingredients in our food, our choices for design, our architecture, and virtually every other aspect of our lives. Try sitting through a PowerPoint presentation riddled with bullets of tiny text, and then feel your shoulders relax and your mind open wide when the next slide on the screen is one simple, colorful image presented to illustrate one, smart point. Similarly, complex musical arrangements can awe and amaze us, but few things go straight to our hearts like a single, raw acoustic guitar.
The pull of the great outdoors is as much about what’s not out there as about what is. When we’re able to get outside to explore the trails and the trees, take a dive into the ocean, or come up for air in the mountains, our bodies and our minds say “Thank you.” Yes, there’s gratitude for the palpable beauty of autumn leaves, crashing waves, or spectacular peaks rising above the tree line. But our senses may be most grateful for the release – from the gripping intensity and fractured focus of our modern lives.
Fresh air and a bit of unmarked time can do us all wonders. Imagine uninterrupted time: you and the people you love outside, just talking, roaming, playing. Physical clutter, mental clutter: gone. That’s what Nature can do for us all.
Your personal connection to nature might be found in nearby woods, a lake, your own backyard, or a public park in the city. A single favorite tree to lean on can do the trick. Recognize how healthy and necessary it is to ditch the modern world’s frantic pace and complexity on occasion. Mother Nature is always at the ready to help clear your noggin and refresh your senses.
Decide what and who is most important in your life, and say yes to them. Say no to everything else. “Yes” is one of the most powerful words in any language, but “no” can be equally helpful when applied to extraneous clutter: physical stuff, calendar fillers, and general infomania. Clothes you haven’t worn or toys your kids haven’t played with in over a year? Give ‘em away. (Hold on to the ball and the big box — those toys never get old.) Social obligations that drain more than they fuel your positive energy? Politely take a pass.
Aggressively cut down your media consumption, screen time, emails, and meetings with people who light up a room when they leave it. Pull back from the negative news cycle, choosing to get what you need in brief from a reliable source. Set specific limits for yourself on times and frequency of digital communication. Try to unplug a good hour or two before bedtime. Digital screens, including smart phones, make falling asleep harder and lead to less restful slumber. Make some of these adjustments and you’ll instantly see the benefits. You’ll find you have more clarity – and more time for the people, projects, and hobbies you love.
Take It Outside.
Sexy ads and short-lived fads will always peddle nonsense as substance and keep some people on the hamster wheel chasing external status symbols. For most of us, the things that actually make us happy are the same things we loved as children: fresh air, laughter, and playing with family and friends. Get outside to breathe, clear your mind, and enjoy those simple pleasures. And while you’re not keeping up with the Joneses, they’ll be jonesing for what you have: a life of true depth, joy and meaning… time-tested and Socrates-approved.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company.