People are born into a wide variety of circumstances. Our families and communities are a unique combination of demographics — income level, nationality, religion, ethnicity, profession, and health factors, for example.
These factors work together to create our perception of what’s “normal”; our baseline calibration in life. This is largely where we get our ideas about acceptable standards of living, the meaning of life, our capabilities, our worth, and our place in the world.
Most of us never stray too far from the cultural standards we were raised with. It’s easy to believe that our way of life is “just the way life works” — a universal norm — but if we’d been born to another family in another location, we might have radically different expectations of what it means to live life as a human.
In addition to these environmental factors, we also have genetic attributes that help shape our inherent preferences in life. Some people are naturally highly social; others mostly want to be quiet and alone. Some people are content to enjoy a life of relaxation while others are high-energy and never want to sit still.
If you’re lucky, you will have been born into an environment that is a good match for your internal preferences. If so, you can thrive inside the pattern that was set for you.
For most of us, though, there’s at least one aspect of our lifestyle that doesn’t sit well with our intrinsic needs. There might be some other way of living life that matches our personality better, but we don’t know it yet because we’ve never tried it; it’s currently outside our comfort zone. It’s hard to pull away from the familiar in order to find out what unknown magic we’re missing.
If we want to be as happy, healthy, and effective as we can be, it’s important to learn how to adjust our lifestyles to match our internal preferences. This means growing comfortable with the process of recalibrating our expectations.
What methods are available for recalibrating one’s self?
Rumor has it some people are disciplined enough to identify a change they want to make, come up with some series of small actions that will help them accomplish their desired shift, and execute consistently over a prescribed period of time until they achieve their goal.
That sounds like a nice, gradual, gentle way to get there. Do that, if you can! But that’s not what this article is about. Personally, I’ve often found that style to be prohibitively difficult. I’m unlikely to regularly choose to get outside my comfort zone. I’ll probably give up or lose interest.
I usually do better when I throw myself into a situation where I have no choice but to cope with my new reality until I adapt to it. You could call it learning the hard way, because there is often a difficult adjustment period and perhaps a bit of misery involved; but it can also be easier, in a sense, because I don’t have the option to neglect my learning. I have to change in order to survive. The immersion can also result in a more thorough shift of my perspective.
For those of us who need to learn the hard way, I’m a big advocate of these dramatic, temporary lifestyle changes that are guaranteed to shake up the way we see the world.
Once you’ve experimented with a new way to live your life, you can make the decision of whether or not it works for you. Maybe you fall in love with it and you change your lifestyle forever. Maybe you find a happy middle ground between the new experience and your old life. Or, maybe it reassures you that you definitely liked the way you were living before and you should stick to that. In any case, the extra data helps ensure you’re choosing the path that’s right for you.
What kind of lifestyle experiments am I referring to? It depends on your interests, needs, and preferences.
If you grew up being taught that sex is wrong and now you want to get over your fear of it, maybe you need to try being more promiscuous for a time. If you have prejudices towards foreigners, maybe you should travel internationally. If you’re scared of sleeping outdoors, maybe you could join a group of friends on a camping trip.
The biggest experiment I’ve tried was quitting my job and spending 7 months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile footpath that stretches from Mexico to Canada. I had an opportunity to recalibrate my life in several ways. I’ll give you two examples from that time.
1. Just how social am I?
I am a relatively introverted person. I can comfortably go days without speaking to another human. Throughout my life, though, I never had the chance to be alone for very long — because of school, work, marriage, and the like, I was constantly interacting with people.
Because alone time was such a rare thing, I savored every opportunity to enjoy it. Overstimulation was all I knew, so I figured my true preference was not to be around other people at all. I had fantasies about disappearing into a forest and becoming a hermit.
This changed when I went through a 6-week period of isolation. I hiked several hundred miles alone and very rarely encountered another backpacker. At first, it was no problem; but as the weeks went on, I was surprised to discover that I could sense a yearning inside me to have a conversation with someone. Feeling starved for interaction was a completely new feeling for me that I didn’t know I could experience. When I finally had a chance to talk with another hiker for a couple hours, it felt like a big relief.
Turns out, I don’t exist at the hermit extreme of the sociability spectrum. Despite my introversion, I value my interactions with others, and I suffer if I’m alone for too long. This is useful information. When I finished my hike and returned to society, it was with a renewed sense of appreciation for my friends and the opportunities I had to spend time with them. Now, I recognize my loneliness more easily, and I make efforts to find the connections I need.
2. Do I really need to live indoors?
Like most Americans, I was raised to think my dwelling place needed to be a permanent structure, a traditional building. My options were to live in a house or an apartment… and that’s it. Anything less would be seen as tragic and wrong. That’s what I was accustomed to and accepted as the standard, but I always had a yearning to play with alternative living arrangements.
When I spent 7 months living out of a backpack, and found that those months were the best time of my life, I realized I could indeed be happy living without sticks and bricks.
What do I really need shelter for? It needs to keep me dry, warm, and cozy; protected from the elements. Turns out, a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad can provide those things for a total weight of less than 5 pounds and a one-time cost of well under a thousand dollars.
A tent is certainly at the minimal extreme of the shelter spectrum. It might be the cheapest and most portable way to live, and it worked for me for several months, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of cooking, hygiene, or personal space.
In between a tent and a mortgage there exists a wide spectrum of options for the openminded. You could live in a van or an RV, a yurt, or a tiny house of some kind, for example.
When I finished the trail I started to wonder: what if I lived in a vehicle full-time instead? That would be luxurious compared to my tent, and I still wouldn’t have to pay rent; which would mean I wouldn’t have to work as much. It could be a happy medium.
After living in a hatchback, then a minivan, I settled on a 23' shuttle bus. I got it for less than $3,000 at an auction. I have a kitchen, a real bed, space to stand up and walk around, solar panels, a sound system, a refrigerator — all the things that are important to me. I can stock up on food and water and drive into the desert for two weeks at a time, living quite comfortably.
I’m content with a much more minimalist shelter than I knew was possible growing up. It allows me to prioritize the values of freedom and flexibility in my life, which adds to my happiness. I might never have thought this was a viable option if my standards had not been recalibrated by living in a tent for several months.
Some of these re-calibrations are easier to make in one direction than the other. I grew up knowing what it was like to be comfortably housed, so exploring the opposite reality of houselessness only required me to give up something I already had. In contrast, a homeless person cannot spontaneously decide to be rich enough to try owning a comfortable house.
I think it is especially valuable when people in privileged categories expand their perspectives by living on the less privileged side of the spectrum. It’s interesting to find ways that your life can be better when you simplify and make do with less. Or, you might realize how grateful you are for the privileges you enjoy, and develop some compassion for those who lack access to them.
Life is short, as they say. If some part of your life feels poorly calibrated, you might as well take the risk and have a wild experience in the other direction. If the desire has burned inside you for a long time, it’s probably worth paying attention to.
Click here to sign up for my mailing list and be notified right away when I publish future articles.