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?