John Robbins is no stranger to starting over. The author of bestselling Diet for a New America and one-time heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune walked away from his family money at age 21. He chose to live simply with his wife on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Together, they spent only $500 a year.
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Then, many years later, after becoming rich through his success as an author, Robbins unexpectedly lost his wealth again, this time to the Bernie Madoff scam. The loss was especially hard because Robbins had put much of the money away for his twin grandchildren who have special needs. "At first, I felt such enormous shock that I genuinely wondered if it might kill me. The anguish was so intense I could hardly sleep, and when I did, my sleep was roiled with nightmares," Robbins writes in his new book, The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less.
To him, the experience underscored the need to redefine what it means to live "richly." He wants to help replace our "culture of excess," as he calls it," with "more of a high-joy culture." Says Robbins, "We can actually have a higher quality of life even though we may have a lower standard of living." Robbins urges us to shift our definition of success to focus on beauty, kindness, and love, instead of money.
To do that, he recommends making hundreds of lifestyle changes, both large and small. Here are some of his suggestions:
Think about what's really important to you. The first step toward living the "new good life" involves asking yourself "what really makes your life worth living and what really adds to the richness and quality of your life?" says Robbins. It's not about depriving yourself of material pleasures, but about having less stress and more "true wealth" by living generously and joyfully.
Recover from losses with gusto. As Robbins knows from having his own savings completely wiped out, "you have to cope, not mope." He recommends embracing newfound vulnerability and feelings of helplessness to find your inner strength. In fact, material losses can offer a chance to rethink one's priorities. "When you eliminate wasteful spending in every area of your life, you can focus your spending and your attention on what truly adds value to your life. The way you spend money and the way you spend your time can both become more intelligent and more productive," says Robbins.
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Consider creative housing arrangements. Robbins lives with his wife of 44 years as well as his son, his son's wife, and their twin 9-year-old sons. "Living in a multi-generational household can work if there's an alignment of values and if you respect the differences between you. It's actually how people have traditionally lived," says Robbins.
That includes living in a smaller house that you might think you need. While homes have long been treated as a symbol of success with a "bigger is better" approach, Robbins counters that by suggesting that people treat their homes like temples, regardless of size. He recommends reducing energy costs by boosting insulation, keeping your refrigerator organized and running smoothly, and avoiding air conditioning. To stay cool in 100 degree heat, Robbins wears wet clothing. Sounds eccentric, but he swears by it.
Shift your definition of success. Instead of associating success with money, Robbins would like to see it associated with being emotionally balanced, loving, creative, and artistic. "Defining success only in monetary terms has created a culture of greed that has separated us from each other and become a threat to the global environment," he says.
Reconsider your car needs. Robbins believes the vast majority of Americans underestimate the costs of owning a car. They factor in the monthly loan payment but forget about the cost of parking, tolls, routine maintenance, and accidents, for example. If people calculated the true costs of car ownership, they might own fewer vehicles or none at all. Robbins adds that less car use also means more time because you avoid traffic. "When you drive less, you save money and get more exercise. You restore vital connections with people, nature, and community. And you participate in something much bigger. You help reduce our dependence on imported oil, cut down on air pollution, and slow global warming," he says.
Chose your location wisely. Avoiding cars is easier, of course, if you live near public transportation or in a central, walkable area.