9th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hongkongers may, by now, have questioned the path they are on. Amidst the city’s frenetic pursuit of wealth and status, some may have wondered whether the ambitions they have long embraced are ideal for their happiness. Perhaps they have toyed with slowing down, adopting a simpler life away from the race. But even as this appealed to them, the siren calls of a bigger flat, a better car, or this season’s must-have bag lured them back. Deep down, they recognised that while they crave more meaning, abandoning the material pursuit entirely seems too drastic a change.

If this resonates, there is the perfect solution: the medium chill lifestyle, which Hongkongers could embrace today with ease. To live it, they need not flee to the mountains nor forswear all modern conveniences. There is no angry struggle against the rat race as with minimalism, nor must they ruthlessly cull possessions. This way of being is more a casual “No thanks, I don’t think I’ll bother with that” shrug towards ambition’s relentless demands.

The unlikely, reluctant hero is David Roberts: a tall man with a bushy black beard, clad in regular blue jeans and a plaid shirt. Raised in a monotonous, lower middle-class Tennessee town of big-box stores, “it was very dull,” he recalls of his youth. Now he lives an understated life in nondescript Seattle, with wife Jennifer, their two children, and respective jobs at a coffee importer and environmental website. They take relaxed holidays, hang out watching television, and teach their boys to read. Very content, they gave little thought to their way of living until Dave’s college friend Teo contrasted it.

Chan was “working 80-hour weeks, half that on the road, with barely enough time at home to maintain a relationship with his dog, much less a romance. The goal, he said, is to grow like crazy, get bought out by Google, and retire at 40. ‘It’s the big chill, man!'” Dave wrote of their talk. It prompted introspection: why had Chan embraced punishing ambition while Dave and Jen had not?

As Jen reflected, “Chan had all this money…He was going for the big chill – to burn hot and fast and get to a place where he could just relax and rest. We just didn’t have that sort of energy, the sort of drive to put it all out there. I guess we just wondered: how come we didn’t have that much money? And what did that say about our values?”

Dave’s answer was simple: “If we wanted, we could both do the ‘next thing’ on our respective career paths…We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger apartment..All that stuff people with more money than us do.

“But…meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around…with the kids, reading…Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around…with the kids.”

Since Chan dubbed his approach the “big chill”, Dave coined their way the “medium chill.” At first glance, it may seem a throwaway idea, a manifesto for slackers summed up as “Don’t worry, be happy…You can just chill.” If that’s all there is to it, is it really worth consideration?

The funny thing is, the medium chill is that simple. But its simplicity belies its radical importance. Far from apathetic cant-be-botheredness, it is a far more ambitious and active idea.

Imagine a Hongkonger’s boss offers them a promotion with a bigger salary and better title. They decline, saying they appreciate it but are actually quite content where they are with what they earn. Consider the boss’s stunned reaction and how their loved ones would perceive them turning this down. Wouldn’t they think the Hongkonger had lost their marbles, lost sight of the system we’re all part of? They’d worry the person had gone doolally, checking if they were ok with not being a go-getter on the fast track.

The Hongkonger could explain this wasn’t laziness but a modern lifestyle experiment, part of an emerging trend called the “medium chill”. An arresting image: the workaday, reluctant hero Dave Roberts, descending in jeans and flannel to save us from overwork’s perils. But will the masses heed his casual ways?

To assess if the medium chill could take off, we ask what any cultural forecaster would: Is it a real phenomenon, part of a long-term trend? Is it observable, easy to try, compatible with how we live now, and better than materialism?

The idea underpinning it has been around forever. It was likely a way of life since our ancestors emerged as modern humans some 40,000 years ago. Consider the anthropologist Geoffrey Miller’s vision of an average Paleolithic woman’s day in southern France:

“Every morning, she wakes gently to the sun rising over the six thousand acres of verdant French Riviera coast that her clan has roamed for generations…She spends half her time…gossiping with friends, breast-feeding, watching children. She flirts with hunters to get free-range meat…She works, around twenty hours a week, gathering organic fruits and vegetables.”

Life then sounds very medium chill. The idea persisted after agriculture’s birth 12,000 years ago until the Industrial Revolution. Work was what was needed to sustain the tribe, with periods of industry during planting and harvest balanced by ample downtime in summer’s sun and winter’s shorter days.

Industrialists shattered this equilibrium with their machines, factories and clock-time discipline, crusading against any who dared take it easy. Lengthening work hours, they paid wages enabling overconsumption – people earned more to buy more stuff from their new consumer goods factories. Crucially, they portrayed this incessant labour as virtuous and mapped a path from hard work to greater affluence which became every citizen’s responsibility to pursue relentlessly.

That was the dawn of our contemporary “always on” culture, where we toil not just for sustenance but to climb an infinite ladder of status, measured by our accumulated possessions. As we strive for perpetual promotion and consumption, any whiff of the medium chill feels like dereliction. Hong Kong’s hustle embodies this perhaps more than anywhere.

And yet, the medium chill keeps resurfacing amongst those disenchanted by the race. From Slacker culture to FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) adherents aiming to escape the corporate grind, many seek an alternative to the obsessive pursuit of wealth and status. They are what the philosopher Alain de Botton calls “status renunciants” – those questioning society’s “assumption that merited dominance and a full share of life’s harassment depend on our ability to accumulate over others.”

De Botton describes meeting one such person who had quit his job to embrace free living: “He lay on a sofa in a light-filled room with books piled at either end and a chess set open in the middle…I was struck by how composed and gentle he seemed, how untouched by the scramble for promotion.” Here was someone living a version of the medium chill.

That it keeps reappearing across cultures suggests an enduring human truth: while ambition and acquisition are strong evolutionary drivers, so is the pull towards a simpler, less feverish existence. It hints at our suspicion that there is more to life than Work Hard/Consume, more to human flourishing than outward Success.

The medium chill is thus no anachronism but reflects the tension in our nature between desiring stimulation/status and needing rest/balance. We cycle between these poles – pursuing ambition and then pulling back – life as a dynamic dance between striving and chilling.

Studies confirm the perils of overdoing either pole. While laziness can make us lethargic, research shows that too much work propels us into anxiety, burnout, and depression. John Pencavel of Stanford found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour week, negating any upside from overwork. The investment banker’s 80-hour weeks are likely damaging their health and productivity.

Meanwhile, materials from both spiritual and secular traditions – Buddhism to Stoicism to positive psychology – highlight the benefits of periodically downshifting from ambition and consumption. They teach the virtues of rest, savouring life’s simple pleasures, and focusing one’s energies on intrinsic rewards like personal growth, relationships, and finding meaning.