What Makes A Good Life?
The last couple of years I’ve thought a lot about life. That’s the thing about achieving financial independence — once you no longer need to work there’s plenty of time to sit around and just think about life.
Sometimes those thoughts are a joyful appreciation of how wonderful life can be. Other times I might daydreaming about how life would change if the stock market went into a deep correction and then stayed there for a decade.
(Hint: It wouldn’t be fun)
More often than not however, I find myself asking the question: What makes a good life, actually good? Is it more money? A bigger family? A smaller family? A nicer car? A paid-off mortgage? Less house? More dinners out? More vacations to exotic places?
There’s many options. We could ‘tweak’ life in countless ways to improve its general satisfaction.
But on deeper contemplation I’ve come to realize that most of us have absolutely no idea what actually makes life good.
Imagine for a moment, you’re sitting on a tropical beach somewhere. White sand and turquoise blue waters surround you. There’s hardly anyone else around — just a few tourists relaxing on the beach far away, and a local fisherman on a pier in the distance.
You’re sitting under the shade of a palm tree (keeping cool) with a frosty beverage in hand. There’s a light breeze which makes the tropical air very comfortable.
Even better — there isn’t a thing to worry about. No work emails to answer, no cell phone calls from the boss, no deadlines. Just you and the day. Perhaps after you finish that tasty beverage you’ll go for a relaxing swim or maybe try learning to surf. You think to yourself, “I could do this every day.”
Or, maybe your the kind of person that would prefer being outside a small Paris cafe, sipping a delicious coffee and nibbling on a delicate croissant. Keeping you company is a friend, telling you about all what’s new, hip, and wonderful in the city of Paris.
Perhaps after your coffee, you’ll both do a little shopping and familiarize yourself with these things in person.
Perhaps you’d rather find yourself hiking through the pastoral Spanish countryside, traveling between the small towns, only stopping to take a photo or draw the wonderful landscapes in a sketchbook. When not hiking, you stop in small villages to drink the local wine and enjoy the local tapas with your hiking buddies.
After a long warm day of sunshine and hiking, the wine and conversation are pleasurable diversions. The feast goes late into the night. The wine glasses are refilled frequently and smiles abound. But there’s no need to worry — You don’t have to get up early for work the next morning. You’re free to rise whenever you like.
Depending upon your personality, any of these three mental images could sound like a pretty good life. Pick your favorite scenario. Doesn’t it sound like a great way to live?
Are you certain?
Have you ever asked yourself why we find these lifestyles “good”? Are we somehow genetically programed to enjoy these things, or are they programmed into us like robots?
The general desirability of these scenarios could just be the result of a lifetime of marketing…
Mental Model Marketing
The thing is, most of these so called “desirable” lifestyles are just forms of consumption. They sound like advertisements from a travel brochure.
Is that what makes up a pleasurable life? Consuming? I hope not.
Long before humans ever traveled the world on jets, people were still able to lead satisfied lives. Did we forget how?
Did we forget there’s more to life than experiencing different vacation packages? Through the wonders of television, magazines, the internet, and social media, we have the message of consumption constantly programmed into our brains as being “good”.
We’ve been told these things are desirable for so long it’s no longer readily apparent to our addled minds what is actually good in life.
What’s Good For You
How about we start by taking consumption off the table. No coffees or frosty beverages, no fancy meals or tapas parties.
Then, let’s remove the exotic locations. No white-sand beaches, no Paris cafes, and no quaint Spanish villages.
There’s not a lot left in these experiences once you’ve stripped out the marketing. That said, I think what remains is the stuff that truly matters. The little things that bring joy to our hearts and fills our lives with satisfaction.
Here’s some of the elements that stand out to me:
- Freedom. This desire seems almost universal to the human condition — we all want the freedom to do whatever we want in life. Free to make choices, and free from the demands of a boss or corporation.
- Socializing with friends and family. Almost every model of “a good life” I can think of involves plenty of socializing with friends and family. Like it or not, humans are pretty social animals. We tend enjoy the company of others and this leads me to believe that socialization is an important factor in leading a good life.
- Spending time outdoors. Yes, time outdoors! Time under the sun and the sky. We spend so much time in indoors these days, it’s actually destroying our eyesight. Humans seem to desire going outside on a very primitive level — Almost any ‘vacation’ package you can dream up includes spending significant time outdoors. When we look at the world’s blue zones, extremely happy long-lived individuals almost universally spend a TON of time outdoors.
- Learning something new. It doesn’t matter if it’s learning from a book, trial and error, or learning at the foot of a master, people love to learn new things. We’re curious creatures, and we want to learn new skills! Unfortunately the demands of our modern lifestyle give us very little time for learning that isn’t part of our employment.
- Sharing a good meal. While technically eating is a form of consumption, if you look at any culture around the world, sharing a good meal makes people happy. I’m not sure if it’s the food that’s most important or the sharing, but the two go together like bread and butter. We all have to eat to survive, but isn’t life better when we share with others?
- Creating something of beauty, or utility. In the modern world, people do still make things, but it’s often done at the command of our corporate masters. Rarely do we do create anymore just for the joy of creating. It’s too bad — That feeling of accomplishment when you finally complete a project is fantastic.
See what I mean? Hardly any consumption is required for the things that really matter. The best things in life are free after all … or nearly free.
The trick is unlearning what we already know about leading a good life, and then re-valuing what we already have.
Revaluing Your Life
While I don’t have an easy 5 step process to reprogramming how everyone values their lifestyle, I can tell you the process takes years.
The Tako family started our version of this process by seriously cutting back on our media consumption. We canceled the netflix subscription and simply turned off the TV. We’d rather be doing something else.
When the weather is nice, we try to do more outside — walking around our neighborhood, hiking on local trails, gardening, or simply playing with the kids outside. When our rainy Seattle weather isn’t so nice we tend to read books, or work on passion projects. Projects where we create something.
How we socialize with friends has changed too. It used to be on the weekends that we’d meet up with friends at a local restaurant. Now, we make delicious food at home and invite our friends over for dinner parties and board games.
(Note: I shared photos of our recent sushi party if you’re curious)
These sound like small changes, and they really are — but over time the changes compound. If anything, I think they might have even helped us reach financial independence faster.
The Tako family isn’t some model of perfection of course — we’re still working on this process of valuing the right things in life. It’s not easy, especially when we’re not entirely in control of all the elements.
After 9 months of rain in the Pacific Northwest, I still find myself wanting to travel to a tropical location (like our Hawaii trip or Okinawa trip) in order to get outside and just enjoy a little sunshine.
What I really should be doing is deciding where we want to move — We can’t change the weather but we can change where we choose to live.
(Like I said, we’re a work in progress!)
There’s simply no need to buy into all this “consumption madness” in order to lead a very satisfying life. Turn off the mental images of white sand beaches, French cafe’s, and Spanish tapas. They won’t do you any favors. If anything, they’re just distractions.
So tell me in the comments, what is it you value most in life?
35 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Life?”
A great thinking exercise. I think you nailed it with your #1 – it’s freedom. Both in a political sense (living in a free country) and in a personal sense (to be able to do what you want because you’re FI). We in the USA are so spoiled, as much as we bitch and complain about things we live in a VERY free country and have the freedoms and liberties to do what we want. To work hard, become rich (or FI), and enjoy life. Without the government getting in our way, or telling us what to do, or like many countries penalizing us for what we say or what religion we choose. Life is good!
Indeed! Life is pretty awesome!
We’ve all been sold a dream that we now come to hold dear and believe is the true source of our happiness. What’s sad is even when we achieve that dream, in one sense or the other, we move on to the next, and start dreaming of things we currently do not have…
I feel like true happiness comes from within ourselves, not these other external sources of validation. I do think being free is probably the one thing i truly aspire to, and hitting FI will certainly help me get there.
But i do try to remind myself, that as difficult as it may seem, i can choose to be happy now. Even from the confines of the hamster wheel of the 9-5
Great points HLT!
You’re spot on. I value all the things on your list highly too. However, I’d like to add to the list. I like having some downtime and I enjoy mindless entertainment once in a while. We watch DVDs from the library and that works very well for us. We don’t have to deal with commercials. There is no waiting for the next episode. I just watched Season 1 of Stranger Things. It’s mindless entertainment, but it was a lot of fun. Didn’t cost much money. I voted for the library bond so it cost something, but everyone pays into it.
On your list, I really need to improve on learning something new. I want to, but it’s not a priority. I probably need to change my mindset about learning and prioritize it more.
Sure, there’s room for vegging out once in awhile!
The older I get, the more I realize that I value achieving things. For me, financial Independence was easier than most because I enjoy creating more than consuming. Whether it be building a business, or writing a blog.
As you mentioned, freedom is the key. Freedom to explore your passion.
For me, creating has a much higher value than consuming these days too. Anyone can spend money to buy things, but how many have the skills to create?
Well put Tako. I’ve never had the travel bug – it actually makes me a little irritable. It has always seemed like a form of consumerism to me. I’m still figuring out what the ‘good life’ means for me personally.
I’m still figuring it out too. You could say that until we achieve real freedom we really don’t know what we want.
You can learn, socialize, enjoy the outdoors, enjoy freedom and learn New things through world travel or staying at home…MR and GCC do both … home schooling frees you up to do the full time travel option…I like meeting folks from churches from around the world… etc etc FI gives you that choice…
That’s great Michael! I don’t think home schooling is for us, but it’s fantastic that some people can do it!
Re: Sharing a good meal
One small step toward “the good life” for us recently has been to enrich meal time with music:
We just finished a delicious home made Chinese meal, and we included some of Pandora’s Chinese selections to go with it. Last week we had a fantastic Italian meal, and Pandora, believe it or not, has a channel named “Italian Cooking Music” which made the whole experience so much more special.
Well, that and some candles – simple, yet fun. A small thing.
Great idea Bob!
I agree that you don’t need to travel to lead a good life but for me, the six elements for the good life are heightened when I travel. My brain is having to learn very quickly to figure stuff out but is storing away lots of new information to boost creativity and understanding in many aspects of my life back home.
I agree that we can get into a rut if we always do the same thing and stay in the same place all the time. Sometimes it’s good to mix things up!
Hi Mr. Tako,
r u moving to sunny HI? I love PNW rainy weather though, staying long in anywhere sunny drives me nuts. hehe.
about the ingredients of a good life… I agree with you that freedom + sharing with people you care about are major ingredients of a good life.
Probably not moving to Hawaii, no. 🙂
Life is awesome when you make it be.
Yes it’s as simple as that. 🙂
We are meant to be free but we are being tied down by consumption of things, climbing the corporate ladder, accumulation of meaningless things, and many more. When we remove these things, life takes on a different perspective.
Yup yup! You got it Bob!
I have also spent a lot of time thinking about what the good life means to me, and what I want from life now that I’m early retired. I’ve been reading philosophy (to help answer those questions) and found one book particularly similar to the themes in your post, “How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life” by Robert and Edward Skidelsky. It goes through historical answers to the good life question in different cultures combined with economic theory for those times. It also has a large section on marketing the good life for corporate profit. You may like it, too.
I’ve been selecting a theme for each year, instead of using resolutions, which has been helpful in focusing my efforts. This year the theme is “learning.” I’ve learned to make yogurt and soap, study Spanish every day, and learned to knit. I agree with you that continual learning makes for a good life.
Thanks for the book recommendation Sharon. I’ll look for it.
Great list and food for thought.
I think being able to create and be free to spend your time are two of the top things that make a good life. Also most importantly, good health. Something we take for granted until it is taken away from us.
Absolutely. That’s another way to value those things which are important to a good life — could you live without them? If they’re truly important you most likely would not.
As you age, time becomes more important than money. If you have the money, you begin paying for things that save you time. For example, you may have a lawn that requires mowing, watering, edging, tree trimming, hedge trimming, etc. You have have at one point enjoyed these tasks, You may continue enjoying these tasks until the day you die. However, if you are like me, you don’t enjoy these tasks. These are chores to be accomplished, no different than vacuuming or laundry. One day, you decide that you don’t want to spend X hours per week on lawn maintenance. Instead you choose to pay someone $Y to do lawn maintenance for you. In your youth, you would have never considered spending money in this manner (i.e. paying someone to do something you are capable of doing yourself). As the years progress, you consider it a bargain to get out of the chore at a cost of $Y/month.
The other thing I have learned is that traveling is an experience worth the expense. You can quibble about how much traveling should cost – hostel vs. hotel, public transit vs. cab, coach vs. first class but it is almost 100% certain that traveling costs more than staying at home. Then you just apply the previous paragraph. In your youth, you would schedule an itinerary with 3 layover and coach seats in order to save $400 on airfare. Now, you gladly pay more for non-stop and first-class seats because you don’t want to waste 12 hours in airports and your knee gets stiff you if you sit in coach seats for hours.
The point is that what you value changes over time. Your 30 year old self may look foolish to your 50 year old version.
For the record, I wasn’t quibbling over prices … but I don’t deny that what people value can change over time.
Maslow’s theory on hierarchy of human needs has already revealed that consumption lives in the lowest level of human needs. The joy brought by consumption builds up quick and disappear quick. The real joy comes from exploration for curiosity, creation or making impact for self-proving and helping others, devoting to some endeavor, etc.
I remember once a child ask his dad what is the best career in the world. His dad answers that would be doing math, especially pure math. Because you only need a pen and a paper and a lifetime will elapse very quickly.
That is what I mean by real joy.
Food, outdoors, and family, you’ve nailed it. And the Pacific Northwest is pretty freaking awesome this time of year. The nine months of rain just means we appreciate the sun that much more once it finally returns.
My husband said to my father in law on Sunday, “the rich have money but the wealthy has time” and it gave my FIL a good laugh. He really liked that and it’s true. Plus FIL is successfully retired so he has lots of time with the grandkids. It made me think about family and how much I missed…his. We’re working on a comfortable FIRE for him so we can move closer to his family. I think close (but not right next door) would be a good life 🙂
Yay, Lily commented! 🙂
It’s nice to have family nearby, especially when you have kids. There’s always someone nearby to watch the kids or help out when you need an extra hand.
How far away do your inlaws live?
I can attest to creating things and relating to people as the main sources of my happiness. And when I can do all that while travelling, even more happiness (especially since it saves me money–another source of happiness). Experience over things always wins in my books. And in terms of human relationships, the quality of the relationships matters to me more than the number of relationships.
So creating + relating + travel/new experiences = happiness for me 🙂
We all have different values (and they also tend to change over time), but being able to live a life that’s aligned to your values is the best life.
Freedom is sweet. And all the peripherals that comes with it.
Now that I am away on sabbatical from work, I am happy, more radiant, healthy, less stress from all the countless deadline from work.
And most importantly, the freedom to engage in whatever activity you feel like doing, without answering to anyone.
That is divine!
For me freedom is what makes a good life. Money comes and goes. i was very poor growing up and we do quite well now. I am not happier because I don’t have too many money worries anymore, but I am happier because I am free.
As a freelance web designer I can travel as much as I can and raise my daughter without having to rely on relatives or nannies. My husband is also self-employed and enjoying this lifestyle of ours.