City lifestyle combined with a pandemic is a recipe for a mental health disaster.
At first, it seemed like living a quiet life would be easier under lockdown. We were confined to our houses and limited social circles. Some of us stopped commuting to work. Many activities disappeared from our calendars simply because they had to.
If it made our lives seem quieter, it was only for a moment. Soon, we started experiencing more noise than ever. That noise is now more persistent in our minds than on the busy streets.
Pandemic-related stressors, such as job loss, financial hardship, restricted personal freedoms, or isolation are just a few factors that — according to this article published in The New England Journal of Medicine — “undoubtedly will contribute to widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness associated with Covid-19.” To deal with that distress, many people came up with ideas to keep themselves “sane and productive.”
We started baking bread and working out. We jumped at the opportunity to rethink our lives. To finally write that book, or lose those extra 10 pounds. Meanwhile, we brought our work and social meetings online, spending even more time in front of screens than before.
That doesn’t exactly sound like living a quiet life, does it?
Especially for those in big cities, life may be noisier now — not quieter. And the bigger the town, the more intense the change caused by the pandemic. Isolated in our apartments with few reasons to go outside, we start ruminating. We create a new kind of noise because that’s the only way we know how to cope right now.
Life in a big city was never conducive of a quiet life. But with the pandemic, there’s a whole new level of challenge added.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to make your life quieter. And, you don’t have to move to the countryside for that. A quiet life is created from the inside out, and not the other way around.
Let’s try to find out how.
What a Quiet Life Is Made Of
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes… Including you.” — Anne Lamott
I find Anne Lamott’s observation really fun. First, it’s because this is literally how I deal with technology failures 90% of the time. The Internet isn’t working? I’ll unplug the router for a few moments. My computer is lagging? The “restart” button is my friend.
On the one hand, I laugh at my “fixing methods.” I’m not tech-savvy at all and in most cases, switching something on and off is the only strategy I have. But it also amazes me how often that strategy works. And not just for our devices — but also, for mental health.
In essence, living a quiet life is characterized by one thing: the ability to unplug whenever you need to. On the outside, this can mean a lot of different things, for example:
- Taking a break from work when you’re tired.
- Making sure your daily to-do list isn’t overloaded.
- Maintaining healthy relationships that balance commitment and boundaries.
- Choosing when to pay attention and when to tune out.
- Being able to hear your inner voice without confusing it with the voices of others.
On the inside, however, quiet life is pretty straightforward. It’s about how you relate to your thoughts and feelings. It’s about what you do with your mental clutter when it’s overwhelming. These internal skills determine whether or not you’re living a quiet life.
Of course, certain circumstances — e.g. being in a beautiful nature place — may support your peace of mind more than others. But they never guarantee it. Many people go on holidays to a natural paradise only to realize that, no matter how beautiful the landscapes around them, they can’t relax. The noise running in their minds doesn’t let them feel quiet.
Psychologist and writer Nick Wignall points out that our mental noise is, at the core, a question of attention. He says that “the habit of worry is essentially a failure of attentional control.” When we put that together with what Anne Lammot said about unplugging, we get quite a simple recipe for living a quiet life from the inside out:
You need to learn how to control your attention in such ways that it allows you to unplug.
I know, I know — this isn’t always easy. But the modern city lifestyle can make it even harder.
The Two Fears That Stop You From Living a Quiet Life
A few years ago, Whirlpool ran a fun lifestyle survey in the UK.
According to the data cited by JMM PR agency, it showed that “90 percent of people surveyed wished that they had more of a quiet life.” Interestingly, it was the younger people who valued a more peaceful lifestyle. As many as 80 percent of 16–29-year-olds reportedly were “making sure they can spend some quiet time alone.”
Now that says something about the lifestyle we desire. Living a quiet life with enough chances to unplug seems to be something a lot of people long for.
It’s no secret that a big city lifestyle isn’t very natural to humans. First off, it limits our connection with nature which we know gives us all kinds of psychological benefits. On top of that, the human brain hasn’t evolved to operate in such populated settlements. According to the Dunbar number, we can handle around 150 personal connections at most.
But big-city life does more than just create a hostile environment for our brains. How we design our lifestyles in a city also perpetuates two big fears. Those fears drive us into endless activities — both physical and mental — that stop us from living a quiet life.
The first kind is the fear of missing out, also known as FOMO. Because there are so many possible ways to spend your time in a city, you’re tempted to tick them all off. The more happens around you, the more pressure you feel to cram more activities in.
The second type of fear that prevents you from living a quiet life is the fear of not being good enough. That fear stems from a deep belief that to feel worthy, you must earn it. And how do you earn it? Again, by engaging in more activities.
This way, you reinforce the idea that your self-worth is conditional and based on what you do — rather than who you are.
When we’re driven by those fears, we don’t always see how much we sacrifice. We think that by “doing all the things” we’re getting the most out of life. But as you’ll read on The School of Life’s blog, “It is easy to measure how much money we are making. It’s much harder to notice how much calm we lose in the process.”
When we live in a big city, we’re especially prone to those two fears running our lives. That’s because urban societies operate like this — they frame constant motion and “doings” as a mark of greatness. The more opportunities we take, the less we miss. The more we accomplish, the better people we become.
But there comes one day when your perspective shifts. You realize that one thing you really don’t want to miss out on is… a simple, quiet life. Your priorities change and you start seeing what life is all about.
But how do you bring that quiet life into being?
How To Live a Quiet Life in a Big City
“We aren’t required to “make peace,” but simply to realize it (…). When we’re unable to feel peaceful, it’s because our current experience of peace is obscured by physical, mental, and emotional reactions to our discomfort.” — Michael Brown
Living a quiet life and experiencing peace are interwoven. One cannot exist without the other, and when one is present, the other naturally follows.
In the quote above, Michael Brown, the author of The Presence Process, is getting at something important. Peace of mind isn’t something we need to “manufacture.” It already exists. And, you don’t need to move out of the city to experience it.
A peaceful and quiet life is available to you all the time, anywhere. You access it as soon as you change your responses to inner discomfort.
In this case, that discomfort is usually FOMO or the fear of not being good enough. When you don’t want to face them, you come up with activities to distract yourself. Paradoxically, those activities drive you further away, not towards, a quieter life.
To have a quiet life, you need to strip things off, not add new ones. For that, all you need is a skilful use of your attention. This way, you won’t jump at just about any activity simply to escape your fears. You won’t feel compelled to clutter your mind.
Nick Wignall calls this attentional skill mental minimalism. On his blog, he writes:
“Mental minimalism isn’t about getting rid of negative or distracting thoughts or feelings (you can’t, nor would you want to); it’s about strengthening our capacity to control when and how much we choose to attend to and engage with these thoughts and feelings.”
In other words, this is about how deliberate you are in your inner life. Surely, you often can’t help nagging thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. You can, however, learn to decide how much they get to you.
By practising mental minimalism, you take a step back and observe your mental events as if they were a movie. Then, you pick the essential ones — and don’t engage with those that undermine you. Just like with minimalist home design, this isn’t simply about throwing away as many items as possible.
The tidying up expert Marie Kondo would tell you this. Her philosophy isn’t about getting rid of things. At the core, it’s about keeping them — but only those that spark joy.
All You Need to Know To Live a Quiet Life
It may seem like a quiet life is hardly attainable these days — especially for those who live in big cities. Increased isolation combined with many stressors and uncertainly creates lots of noise.
Luckily, much of this noise comes from our minds — and this means that we can be in charge of it.
At the core, quiet life isn’t about what happens on the outside. Sure, a serene countryside landscape may help you feel peaceful. But, it can’t guarantee it. No matter how beautiful your life looks on the outside, it’s still possible to experience noise inside.
On the contrary, inner peace can be attained by skillfully managing your attention. This approach is bullet-proof because it depends on your attitude. One technique to achieve that is practicing mental minimalism.
This, however, doesn’t mean getting rid of certain thoughts or mental clutter.
Mental minimalism is deciding which thoughts and feelings nurture you — and choosing them over the noise as often as you can. This won’t necessarily turn you into a Zen master overnight. It can, however, give you a few extra moments of peace, starting today.
This may not sound like a lot. But in the end, it’s precisely those moments of peace that build up a quiet life.
At Big Self School, we believe that outer impact starts with inner growth. To start living from the inside out, download our free checklist 7 Soul Needs You Must Meet To Avoid Burnout.