What makes a good life? Now there is a question with universal appeal! Who wouldn’t want to know, in advance, what types of things would make them healthier, happier and more fulfilled?
Unfortunately, research shows that we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy. I call this the “I want to be rich and famous and then all my problems will be solved!” fallacy.
Just because we’re not good at predicting, however, doesn’t mean that we’re destined to a lifetime of trial and error in search of the holy grail of happiness. There is plenty of research on what works. Indeed, one of the longest studies has been going on for the last 75 years.
It’s called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Started in 1938, the study follows two groups of people. The first group was made up of 268 Harvard sophomores. The second group was made up of 456 young men from inner-city Boston.
Every other year, researchers follow up with the surviving study participants and interview them extensively about everything from their finances and careers to their relationships and social activities. Then every five years, they do an extensive evaluation of each participant’s health, including x-rays, blood tests and echo cardiograms.
Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study (he is the 4th over the past 75 years), detailed some of the key findings in his excellent TED Talk. Here is a summary:
- Relationships and social connections are really, really good for us. They make us happier and healthier and they help us live longer. Those in the study with good relationships experienced all of those positive outcomes. Those in the study who described themselves as lonely, however, had a shorter life expectancy, reported being less happy and had worse mental and physical health.
- The quality of our relationships makes a big difference. The better the relationships, the more positive benefits people experienced. Participants who were the most satisfied in their relationships in their 50s were the healthiest in their 80s.
- Good relationships protect your brain. Participants who reported having good relationships and being in healthy marriages had minds that stayed sharper longer and they performed better on memory tests.
So back to our original question. What makes a good life? Rather than focusing on wealth, career or material possessions, the Harvard study shows that we would do well to focus on close, healthy relationships. Again, Robert Waldinger: “…over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.” Keep that in mind as you live life and plan for retirement.
I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a bestselling classic, but I must confess that I wasn’t a huge fan. It did have a few great nuggets that made me think, however, and today I’d like to share a short passage from the book that could have a profound impact on how you approach retirement. Consider it Zen and the Art of Retirement.
In the passage, the main character is talking about the problem of value rigidity, which refers to our tendency to cling to certain preconceived ideas of what’s important and what’s not, even when events or circumstances change. To make matters worse, we sometimes put a high value on things that we shouldn’t and then stubbornly cling to our error. Here’s the text followed by a few takeaways for your life and retirement.
“All kinds of examples from cycle maintenance could be given, but the most striking example of value rigidity I can think of is the old South Indian Monkey Trap, which depends on value rigidity for its effectiveness. The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped…by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it. The villagers are coming to get him and take him away. They’re coming closer — closer! — now! What general advice…not specific advice…but what general advice would you give the poor monkey in circumstances like this?
Well, I think you might say exactly what I’ve been saying about value rigidity, with perhaps a little extra urgency. There is a fact this monkey should know: if he opens his hand he’s free. But how is he going to discover this fact? By removing the value rigidity that rates rice above freedom. How is he going to do that? Well, he should somehow try to slow down deliberately and go over ground that he has been over before and see if things he thought were important really were important and, well, stop yanking and just stare at the coconut for a while. Before long he should get a nibble from a little fact wondering if he is interested in it. He should try to understand this fact not so much in terms of his big problem as for its own sake. That problem may not be as big as he thinks it is. That fact may not be as small as he thinks it is either. That’s about all the general information you can give him.”
Here are three important takeaways from this story:
Sometimes, especially during times of change or major life transitions (e.g. retirement), we need to revalue things so that we can realign our actions and beliefs with our new life. Said another way, the types of things that are important to us in the new life stage are likely different from the things that were important to us during the previous life stage. We need to decide what those new things are and elevate them to their proper position. If we don’t, we’ll cling to things that used to be important to us (e.g. work, certain relationships, houses, how we spend our free time, hometowns, etc.) and our tight grip on those keeps us stuck in the monkey trap, unable to pursue our new plans.
Sometimes holding the tangible thing can cause you to lose the intangible. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things, but everything we own takes some of our time and some of our money. If we focus too much on the tangible (houses, cars, gadgets, etc.), that leaves little time and money left over for the intangible (travel, experiences, hobbies, relationships, pursuits, etc.).
Sometimes we don’t understand how much we value the intangibles until we lose them. I was reading a study recently that listed out the types of things that were important to retirees. Number 1 was financial security (no surprise there). Number 2 was health. In the story above, the monkey got the rice, but it cost him his freedom. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely made sacrifices to my health as I pursued wealth (a.k.a. career). I’m sure you have too. We work hard. We’re busy. No time for a healthy lunch. No time to exercise. No time to get enough sleep. We take our health for granted. In our own way, we’re grabbing for the rice, but if we’re not careful it could cost us a major intangible like our health, and consequently our freedom to pursue many of our retirement plans. We may take it for granted now, but it will be sorely missed when it’s gone.
How can we avoid monkey traps?
What that question is really asking is this: How can we tell if we’re hanging on to something trivial at the expense of something important? How can we tell the genuine from the counterfeit? To answer that, let’s look at an example from the Secret Service. In addition to protecting the President, the Secret Service is in charge of protecting against counterfeit currency. When they’re training new agents to recognize counterfeits, they don’t sit them down in a room with a bunch of counterfeit bills and point out the flaws.
Instead they sit them down in a room with currency experts and pristine examples of genuine bills. They go through every detail. Why it’s there. What it represents. How it deters counterfeiters. How difficult it is to reproduce. How to look for it. They learn what the ink looks like. They learn what the paper feels like. They learn what the bill smells like.
By studying what makes a bill genuine, a funny thing happens. Without ever studying the counterfeits, agents can spot them from a mile away because they know what the genuine bills look like. We can do something similar. If we sit down and decide what’s genuinely important to us—what we value above all else—then when imposter opportunities come along, we will be able to recognize them for what they are. Then rather than shoving our hand inside and grabbing for the rice, we’ll keep right on walking because we have a clear idea of what we really want out of life and we’re taking those plans very seriously. If we can all do that, then we’ll be well on our way to an intentional, meaningful retirement.
If you’re like me, you want to live a long, healthy life, filled with purpose and surrounded by those you love. What are some practical ways to make that dream a reality?
Best-selling author Dan Buettner, along with a team at National Geographic, think they have the answer. They scoured the world for communities of people that lived longer, healthier lives and then researched those people to determine what they were doing differently than the rest of us. His team came up with 9 key traits.
Move naturally. None of the people studied by Buettner exercised in the way that you and I have come to think of exercise. They didn’t run marathons, lift weights or do CrossFit. Instead they moved naturally. They walked, climbed stairs, gardened and/or road their bike for transportation. Movement was a regular, natural part of their day.
Have a purpose. Apparently, if you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, you’re much more likely to be alive to get out of bed in the morning. Buettner points out that the people in the Blue Zone of Okinawa Japan have even given this a name. They call it Ikigai. It means “a reason for being” or “a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.” What is your Ikigai?
Find ways to relax and shed stress. Buettner’s researchers found that when you’re in a hurry and stressed, it triggers an inflammatory response in your body. That inflammatory response can lead to all sorts of health problems and diseases. By finding ways to relax and de-stress, Blue Zone people live longer.
Eat less. Those who live longer tend to eat less than the rest of us. Buettner points out that it takes your stomach about 30 minutes to tell your brain that you’re full. Blue Zone people naturally recognize that and stop eating before they’re full. The Japanese even have a name for it: Hara Hachi Bu. It’s a Confucian teaching to stop eating when your belly is 80% full.
Eat more plants and less meat. Blue Zone people aren’t typically vegetarians, but they tend to eat a more plant based diet, especially beans. They eat meat, but usually only 4-5 times per month.
Drink in moderation. Those who drink in moderation tend to outlive teetotalers. The antioxidants and resveratrol in red wine, for example, have been shown to improve artery health and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Consume too much, however, and the negatives outweigh the positives.
Have faith. Buettner and his team found that those who attend some sort of faith based service four times per month tended to live, on average, about 14 years longer than those who didn’t.
Live close to and be committed to loved ones. Blue Zone people tend to live close to their loved ones and they are committed to those relationships. They have a healthy marriage. They keep parents and grandparents close by and they help them as they age. They have their children nearby and have a good relationship with them.
Have a strong social network. Blue Zone people tend to have strong friendships. Not only that, but their friends tend to support healthy behaviors and they are a positive influence—both mentally and physically.
On the surface, Buettner’s research seems like common sense—eat right, get exercise, have friends—but I think that misses the main point. The power of those behaviors only shows up when they become lifestyle habits. The people in the Blue Zones do those things every day for a lifetime. So if you want to gain some of the same benefits (regardless of where you live), consider how you can design your lifestyle, environment and daily life to incorporate those 9 things regularly.
If you want to read more about Blue Zones, Buettner has two books based on his research:
Note: I periodically recommend books to readers and I belong to the Amazon Affiliate Program. That means that, at no additional cost to you, Amazon will pay me a few cents if you purchase a book through one of my links. Obviously I’m not doing that to get rich, but because I believe in the things I recommend. Please don’t buy anything unless it will help you accomplish your goals for a meaningful retirement.
In 8 Habits of Successful Retirees I talked about what actions, habits and behaviors make for a great retirement. But sometimes being successful at something is as much about avoiding the bad as it is about doing the good. With that in mind, here are 5 behaviors that will ruin your retirement.
Poor time management. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said “I keep track of minutes like a banker keeps track of money.” He wasn’t just referring to games either. His practices were scheduled down to the minute too. His reasoning was simple. He had 5 two-hour practices each week over the course of a 21 week season to coach his players. That is 210 hours or 12,600 minutes of practice. That time is easy to waste if you’re not very, very intentional. The same is true for your retirement. You will have a very limited time in retirement, even under the best of circumstances. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to waste days, months or even years (See also: The surprising truth about how retirees spend their day). Keep an eye on the clock and be very intentional with your time.
Waiting for permission. Too many of us sit around in life waiting for someone to tell us it’s ok to do something. Call it the inertia of permission. It can kill your retirement. Chances are good that you don’t need anyone’s permission to do what you want in retirement. You’re a responsible adult. You live in a free country. You (hopefully) have financial independence. As long as what you do doesn’t break the law or hurt someone else, just do it. Don’t wait around for someone to give you a green light. You don’t need it. Give yourself permission and get going.
Assuming. We make lots of assumptions. We assume that we won’t develop crippling arthritis in our feet. That we won’t have a heart attack walking to the front door. That we won’t be diagnosed with a life changing illness like cancer or diabetes. That we won’t get divorced. That a friend or loved one won’t die. That we won’t lose our job. Those are all things that haven happened to clients of mine over the last year and when they happened, they wiped out dozens of opportunities from each person’s “To-do” list. If you assume that the opportunities available to you today will also be available to you tomorrow, a year from now or ten years from now, then you’ll tend to put things off. One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained from working with hundreds of retired clients over the years is that these “unexpected” things happen to everyone. Don’t assume that you’ll always have time. Live your life like your opportunities have an expiration date, because they do.
Confusing “Past” you with “Future” you. Retirement should be a time in your life when you do the things that you’ve always dreamed of. For you that might be travel, leisure, adventure, volunteering or learning a new skill or hobby. When given the opportunity to actually do those things, however, people will often talk themselves out of it. They say something like, “I’ve never been one to…” or “That’s not me.” Well guess what. That might not have been you when you were working 60 hours a week and raising 3 kids, but your circumstances have changed. You need to get rid of limiting beliefs and redefine how you see yourself. Maybe you ARE the guy who becomes an expat to Ecuador. Maybe you ARE the lady who takes up skydiving. Maybe you ARE the couple that sells everything and starts a B&B in Oregon. Past you does not equal future you.
Not leveraging the first half against the second half. I have a friend who works at IBM. Early in his career he changed positions within the company as often as possible so that he could get a broad set of skills and experiences. His goal was to take that varied set of skills and experiences from the first half of his career and leverage them into a successful management position during the second half of his career.
We should all be doing something similar in life. By the time you reach retirement you’ll have about sixty years of hard won knowledge, skills, wisdom, insights and experiences. Use those things as leverage to define, shape and create a successful retirement. You know what works and what doesn’t. You know what makes you happy and what doesn’t. You know who matters to you and who doesn’t. Put that knowledge to good use.
Have a great weekend!
Photo by Nick Kelly.
We put a lot of emphasis on saving enough money for retirement, and rightly so. Money is important, but as I’ve said time and again, retirement is more than a math problem. One negative side effect of our obsession with our “number” is that we forget (or never decided) what we wanted all that money for in the first place. With that in mind, here are 5 things that are more important than (or at least just as important as) money to a happy, fulfilling retirement.
1. Health. Emerson once said, “The first wealth is health.” You don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy a nice walk on a beautiful day. Conversely, you can have millions, but if you’re constantly in pain or physically unable to do even simple things like walk up stairs or pick up your grandkids, then the options available to you during retirement will be small indeed.
2. Curiosity. Thomas Hobbes once said, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” Lust is an emotion or feeling of intense desire. Curiosity, therefore, is a lust to know “Why?” and “How?” It’s an intense desire to learn, explore and discover. It’s a passion to do and be. It’s an appetite for experiences and an interesting life. Money can’t buy that.
3. A willingness to act (a.k.a. Be intentional). Donald Miller once said, “If you happen to be sitting in the theater of your mind, watching through the camera lenses of your eyes and the story you’re watching isn’t very interesting, there’s something you can do about it. You can edit it. You can change it.” You are not a passenger on the plane of your life. You’re the pilot. Some initiative and a willingness to be proactive can often go a lot further than a few extra bucks in your bank account.
4. Relationships. David Rockefeller once said, “I am convinced that material things can contribute a lot to making one’s life pleasant, but, basically, if you do not have very good friends and relatives who matter to you, life will be really empty and sad and material things cease to be important.” I can’t add much to that.
5. Time. Carl Sandberg once said, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent.” Carnegie had more money than you. Kennedy had more power than you. Clark Gable (or Grace Kelly) was better looking than you. Elvis was more popular than you. Shackleton had a more adventurous life than you. Would you trade places with any of them? No, because they ran out of the one commodity that makes any of those things worthwhile: Time. Time is your most important asset, but you have less of it now than when you started reading this article. It is your only asset that never grows. Use it wisely.
Photo by Nick Kelly
Greetings from the Vee Bar ranch in Wyoming. The family and I came here for a long weekend to do a little skiing at the Snowy Range and to check Wyoming off our list of states visited. We’re trying to get our daughter to all 50 before she graduates from high school. The Cowboy State is number 21.
I’ll write more about that in a future post, but today I wanted to write about something a little different: how to find purpose in retirement. One of the most popular posts I’ve written at IR is 15 Practical Ways to Live a Purposeful Life. One of the most popular books in recent memory is The Purpose Driven Life. Neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.
In other words, we’re hard wired to want purpose and meaning. That need doesn’t somehow vanish when you enter retirement. If anything, I’ve noticed that it gets stronger. When I talk to clients that have been retired for awhile, the desire to find purpose and to leave some sort of legacy that outlasts them is important.
I’m starting this series of Saturday bucket list posts and I want them to be fun and encouraging, but with this first one I thought I’d just point out that your list doesn’t need to consist entirely of bungee jumping and exotic travel. As Shakespeare once said: “Leisure is a beautiful garment for a day, but a horrible choice for permanent attire.”
Don’t get me wrong. You should absolutely do fun and interesting things. Splurge on yourself. Be a little selfish. Those things are great, but don’t forget to add items to your list like giving, serving and volunteering as well. Maybe that means doing something like my retired friend Dan who spent three months volunteering on Mercy Ships in the Congo. Maybe that’s building houses for Habitat for Humanity like my client Bill. Maybe it means volunteering in your church or running for town council. Whatever it is, be thinking of ways to use your time, treasure and talents during retirement that will have a positive impact on others and will bring meaning and purpose to you. Visit our Pinterest page for more ideas on volunteering during retirement.
Since this series will cover things on my list, I picked an item that matches up with the ideas above. Over the years my wife and I have given to an organization called charity: water that brings clean water to communities in need around the world. The wells have huge health ramifications and also free people to use their time more productively than walking miles every day just to get enough water for drinking, cooking and bathing. In 2015 I’ll take revenue from the store at IR and fund one of those wells in the name of you, my much appreciated readers. I’ll update you later in the year on progress toward the goal. In the meantime, be thinking about what you can add to your own bucket list that would be fun but would also help you fulfill your purpose in life.
Have a great weekend.