National Simplicity Day: How to live a simpler life, according to Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau lived on the northern shore of Walden pond for two years starting in the summer of 1845 (Picture: Denis Tangney Jr/ : Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Today is National Simplicity Day, an event inspired by the life and work of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862).

Thoreau’s most famous work is Walden (1854), an account of a two year period he spent living alone in a cabin – which he built himself – by Walden Pond, Massachusetts. Walden is about reducing life to its barest essentials.

In its emphasis on simplicity, and self-imposed challenge, Walden is the literary precursor to a particular type of memoir frequently published today in which the author sets themselves a challenge for a limited amount of time, whether that’s only eating food scavenged from Tesco bins or exclusively wearing trousers made from plants.

Thoreau’s injunction ‘simplify, simplify’ became so popular it was practically the ‘live, laugh, love’ of its day.

But although the classic image of him is that of an affable hermit pottering around a lake and muttering to himself about how trees are a great role model, his work actually has more of an edge than this suggests.

According to American essayist Mark Grieff, ‘Thoreau makes war on jobs; debts; houses; inheritances; governments; states.’  His work Civil Disobedience was a major influence on both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Writer Henry David Thoreau, circa 1879, looking like he’s done with your BS (Picture: Library of Congress/Getty Images)

Henry David Thoreau was a complicated man and reducing his body of work to ‘declutter your desk, guys!  #selfcare’ would be, well, reductive.  Despite what many of the people using the #NationalSimplicityDay hashtag would have you believe, Thoreau is not actually Marie Kondo.

So how, on this most sacred of days, can we apply his philosophy to make our lives better?

Be a lazy, unambitious piece of sh*t

The great man once said: ‘beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’

Thank you, Thoreau, for affirming my decision to never get a proper job, attend a funeral, or date anyone who works in fashion.

Quit your job

He also said: ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’

This would be a good text to send your boss when you finally snap and decide that the weather is too nice, and that life is simply too precious, for you to come to work today.

Get rid of all your stuff

In fairness, he actually is a bit like Marie Kondo.

He writes: ‘Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects, the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped….now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.’

As a preeminent scholar of Thoreau, who has spent as long as twenty minutes reading his Goodreads page today, I will put it into simple terms so you can understand: You can’t have a beautiful house if you don’t have a beautiful mind, bro.

So chuck all your stuff out and haul your lazy bum to a pond. Only then will you gain the wisdom to decide whether an ‘In this house, we do geek’ wall-hanging will be a tasteful addition to your bedroom.

At least I think that’s what Thoreau is saying.

Go outside

‘We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.’

Admittedly, ‘the tonic of wildness’ is harder to come by if you live in a big city. It’s true that Hampstead Heath can be pretty wild, but probably not in the way that Thoreau had in mind.

But getting out into nature, even for a walk in your nearest park, is undeniably good for the soul. Maybe leave your phone at home though, because wandering by a sun-dappled lake while checking who’s been viewing your Instagram story isn’t going to have quite the same restorative effect.

If you’d like some less esoteric advice, mental health charity Mind has some tips for practising mindfulness.

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