7 Inspiring Quotes from a Philosopher Who Lived in the Woods for 2 Years

Here’s how you can apply his lessons

Photo by Jasmine B on Unsplash

Man is the artificer of his own happiness”, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, on 21 January 1838.

An essayist, poet, and philosopher, Thoreau actively sought the means to a happier life, both as individuals and societies. His book “Civil Disobedience” is one of the greatest pieces of American political philosophy, influencing people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau praised a simple life, focusing on the essential. In his self-discovery journey, he spent two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built with his own hands, near lake Walden, in Massachusetts.

“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”. — Thoreau

Thoreau came into my life when I was 21, about to graduate, and feeling lost. His raw wisdom helped me see the world from a new perspective and understand what matters to me. From then on, it has been easier to find my way in life. I hope he can help you the same way.

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

This quote teaches us to practice contentment, an emotional and mental state of satisfaction deriving from being at ease with what we have at the moment.

It teaches us to focus on what is, instead of on what could be. It is human nature to always aim for more, but what if we stop for a moment and appreciate what we have now? We might realize that we have everything we need.

How to apply it

Practice gratitude on a daily basis. Meditate for a few minutes, and follow it with a mental list of things you are grateful for that day. Or keep a gratitude journal and start your mornings listing three things you are glad to have in your life. The more grateful you are, the more you realize you don’t need anything else.

“It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his faith.”

This is how Thoreau puts this idea into words, but so many other authors have touched on this point. My favorite quote on the subject is by Confucius: “The man who says he can and the man who says he can not…Are both correct”.

Our thoughts about ourselves impact our actions more than we imagine. They determine the chances we take, the decisions we make, and the way we deal with anything that comes our way. Having strong self-esteem and thinking highly of ourselves sets us up for success.

How to apply it

Start by accepting yourself, no matter who you are. Believe that you are worthy of love, success, and happiness.

Every time you come across a challenge, imagine how you would tackle it if you were the person you aim to be. Then, act exactly that way. Step by step, you will become that person.

“The world is but a canvas to our imagination.”

So many people fall into the trap of not following this teaching.

Humans are not made to be born, study, get a job, get married, have kids, live a succession of similar days, and then die. Life is a gift. Following the path that everyone else has taken before, just because it is the conventional thing to do, is committing the terrible crime of throwing that gift away.

Life can be so exciting! But you need to work for it. Let your imagination run free, let your dreams be wild, let the life you create for yourself be built on your own terms. Life is a playground, don’t be afraid to play the game.

How to apply it

Think about what you would do if you didn’t have to work and worry about money. Be bold, everything is allowed! The list you will end up with is composed of the things that give meaning to your life. You might not be able to quit your job straight away but think of ways to incorporate these items into your life. Sometimes, little changes can create outstanding results.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

We all have 24 hours in a day, and if we are lucky, we live for around 80 years. 700,000 hours. It might sound like a lot but, the second you are born, the countdown starts.

Time is the only resource you can not buy. Regardless of how much money you have, you don’t get to live longer. Before you take up anything in life, consider how much time it will take out of your 700,000 hours. Is it worth the investment?

How to apply it

Practice saying no and don’t be afraid to disappoint others doing so. It is your life, your time, and you should not waste it on something that is not meaningful to you.

Learn to prioritize. If you only had a year to live, would you spend time doing this on your list? If not, you probably shouldn’t do it anyway.

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not a fish they are after.”

Many of us go through life following the conventional path, without questioning it. We do as we saw our parents do, and our grandparents before them. We look at our peers and try to fit in, replicating what everybody else is doing. Sometimes, we waste our lives chasing things we never wanted in the first place.

Why do you want what you want? Are you guided by intrinsic or extrinsic motivational factors? Will you be happy when you reach your goal?

How to apply it

Before you work hard on anything, ask yourself the above questions. If the answer lies in external factors, you are chasing the wrong fish. It will not taste good when you eat it.

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.”

You learn from the moment you are born. The problem is that not everything you learn is of service to you or the world. You might fall into misleading thought patterns, take false assumptions as unshakeable truths, and strictly follow beliefs that don’t apply to every situation.

You need to learn to unlearn. But this is a hard process: it forces you to let go of your past assumptions and beliefs which, in many cases, have been with you your whole life. Questioning this feels like questioning your whole being. It’s a personal attack. Worse: it’s a personal attack you do to yourself.

But it is only when you are open and humble enough to let go of the established truths that you begin to see the world with your own eyes, forming up your own vision of life.

How to apply it

Be open to others and to new ideas, foster curiosity, chase the unfamiliar and expose yourself to new situations as much as you can. Only then will you deconstruct the social constructs in your head. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but it will be worth it.

“Being is the great explainer.”

Try reading the best books about love, and get familiar with the greatest love stories of all time. Then, fall in love. Which of the two experiences will teach you what real love is?

You can learn precious lessons through the lives of others, but nothing can replace first-hand experience. You live, you learn. It’s that simple.

How to apply it

Be open to experimenting. Try to go through as many different experiences in life as possible. It will open your mind in ways you never imagined and make you a much better person.


Fortunately, you don’t need to build a cabin in the woods and seek refuge there to become a happier person. You can do it by incorporating these teachings into your daily life, slowly changing your views of the world, and replacing old habits that don’t serve you.

These quotes teach you to think for yourself and carve your own path in life, instead of following other people, social norms, and useless conventions.

As Thoreau wisely stated, it is up to you to create your own happiness. Remember, you only have 700,000 hours, so you might want to start now.

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