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Since the clock went back an hour a few weeks back, I’ve been dreading the darkness that awaits after the work day is done. I’m not a big fan of November, at least until the holidays roll around. Being with family and having a few days off from the cube are like medicine. We just have to be careful at Thanksgiving not to bring up politics…
Long before I picked up on the early retirement scene back in the fall of 2014, I had developed an interest in optimizing life and lifestyle for health and happiness. There are countless books and theories by self-proclaimed experts to be entertained by. You might learn a thing or two, and even get some inspiration along the way. Titles like Play, The Four-Hour Workweek, and The Blue Zones all found spots on my bookshelf after a quick read.
The Big Fat Epiphany
In a personal quest to land on a lifestyle approach for a long, happy, healthy life, I’ve come to question the motivation behind early retirement and whether or not escaping the rat race is the answer, or simply a mirage.
With my proclivity to numbers and statistics, I tend to seek out empirical evidence to support theories on lifestyle optimization. When I first read The Blue Zones about five years ago, I was energized by the possibilities of simple lifestyle changes leading to happy and healthy longevity. Although a few lessons stuck with me, by and large, the lifestyle has remained elusive.
In The Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner set out to find places in the world where people live healthily into their 90s (or even 100s) at significantly higher rates than folks do in the U.S. The demographers found Blue Zones in a mountainous patch of Sardinia, the Mediterranean island of Ikaria (Greece), Nicola (Costa Rica), Okinawa (Japan), and Loma Linda (California).
What sets these Blue Zones apart from the rest of us?
- Diet. High in vegetables and omega-3 fats (olive oil, goat/sheep dairy). Zero processed (junk) food. Minimal meat consumption. Lots of beans or tofu. Red wine daily, in moderation (except in Loma Linda, where the Seventh Day Adventists avoid alcohol altogether.) A few cups of coffee or tea daily.
- Exercise. Built-in to daily life by walking or hiking to get from A to B. No gym memberships.
- Family. Families stay close and often three generations live under the same roof. No nursing homes.
- Community. Friends grow up together. They remain close. The community looks after each other, as sort of a built-in safety net.
- Purpose. There is no “retirement” per se. There are fields or flocks to tend, grand-kids to nurture, and chores to do.
- Pace. It’s slow. There is no rush. No hustle and bustle in these zones. Daily naps are the norm. Stress becomes hard to manufacture here.
Let’s pose the question: If you’re willing to follow the bullet points above in order to live happily and healthily into your late 90s (or older), does Early Retirement help or hurt that prospect?
We’ll tackle Diet first. This one seems pretty easy. There are a number of cookbooks all about the blue zones diet to help you create a diverse menu. You simply avoid the junk and go with the organic, omega-3 and mineral-rich foods. It’s a bummer that this diet runs counter to paleo and primal enthusiasm for meat, but we’re not too far off the premise: avoid processed foods, and stick with whole foods. Avoid cow’s dairy and limit breads to real sourdough (the fermentation apparently mitigates gluten.) As a bonus, we can still enjoy a few cups of coffee and a few glasses of wine every day.
Verdict: We can do this without having to retire early. Score!
Exercise is trickier. A good many of us have a cubicle problem (Sit and stare at screen for nine hours. Repeat daily.) We also have a commuting problem (Sit and stare at tail-lights for one or more hours. Repeat daily.) Now, you could always get a gym membership, but the time away from family and the frantic nature of our schedules can create stress that you’re actually trying to shed. In our house, the Mrs. and I have free gym memberships and we work-out there regularly. It works out alright for her because she works part-time, but it’s still not easy. Blue Zones living requires the time to get in some serious walks and hikes, outdoors.
Verdict: Early retirement frees us from cube-sitting and car-sitting and will definitely help us find the time to get outdoors and walk, hike, or bike wherever and whenever we want. Except maybe when it’s 20 below and we’re buried in three feet of snow. Hoo boy…
Family comes first. Our day jobs can make it pretty tough to form the tight family unit we might aspire to. Nevertheless, it can, and does happen, even with both parents working full time. That said, if you have a desire to spend more time at home with the kids, as opposed to being stuck in traffic at 6PM, you may need to escape that cubicle.
Blue Zones communities often feature pastoral living, which isn’t necessarily going to work in our more modern society. Yes, it’s idyllic to have your kids working alongside you to shepherd a flock of sheep down the mountain, but let’s be honest, we can’t all be shepherds, and we don’t all live near mountains. The lessons still apply though – more time with family builds bonds, especially when you have the 1st generation playing an active, daily role in the development of the 3rd generation.
Verdict: Early retirement helps, but is not required. This one requires more of a deep look into our modern society, and a rethinking of how we value and care for our elders. It also requires our elders to maintain good health, so they can play an active and long-term role in helping to rear our children.
Building a strong community can occur, independent of early retirement. Our friendships often suffer as a result of the culture we have here in the U.S., where movement and migration is common and often expected. We uproot and move away for college. We uproot and move to find better jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s simply an output of the society we have built. I moved away for school, then further away to find work in Minnesota. But I’m glad to be where I am now. The friends I had growing up who live in different time zones are happy to be where they are. I’m just not sure we can establish “local tribes” that can survive more than a generation or two, not anymore.
On the positive, we can do more to strengthen community bonds wherever we end up living. Being active in our neighborhood groups and showing up on National Night Out is a good first step. Making real friendships with neighbors is another. Keeping in touch with friends over distance is extremely meaningful, and does offer a sort of virtual community support.
Verdict: Early retirement neither helps nor hurts. Whether or not we keep our cubicle jobs, we can build strong communities. Granted, a little extra time to focus on that would help!
Purpose is what gets us up out of bed every morning. The centenarian with a purpose is someone who’s relied upon to perform some task. It could be looking after great-grand-kids; simply providing wisdom and advice. It could be tending a garden or cooking meals. Regardless, there’s a reason to keep on going. This is a key point for those aspiring to retire early.
We have the gift of following others who blog about their post-retirement exploits and can inform whether or not there’s a real purpose in what they’re doing. I know I cite him a lot, but Mr. Money Mustache is a prime example. He retired at 30, but not to hang out in a hammock all day or play golf. He has dedicated his new found freedom to helping raise his son, build stuff, and, oh yeah, save the planet. (Big secret: He’s not about early retirement, he’s about removing waste from our society. Early-retirement is just a byproduct of his family’s super-efficiency.)
Verdict: Early retirement can help us find our purpose. If we feel like our current day jobs don’t give us purpose, other than to pay the bills, we need to figure out what our purpose is, and craft our goals accordingly. We don’t all have to take on the burden of saving the planet, but we certainly need to figure out meaningful uses of our time, well before we split Cubical Nation.
Pace. We’re gonna love this one. Those who thrive in blue zones have little regard for clocks. They sleep in a little, they stay up a little later, and they take naps. Keep in mind they do this while carrying on their lives with a purpose. You could easily figure they are living in a vacation-mode la-la land. But these societies have built-in safeguards against the hustle and bustle we know as the norm. You’d be hard-pressed to find an open shop during the early afternoon hours in Ikaria. It’s nap time.
Verdict: Early retirement can definitely help us with our pace of life. You probably can’t nap in your cubicle today: that’d be the easy ticket to an early cube escape, just not the one you’d planned on. Naps and lack of alarm clocks aside, early retirement gives you an opportunity to disconnect more from the technology that makes our lives a little less real every day. You’ll certainly give up your cubicle computer screen. Then, it’s up to you whether you continue to live with your head buried in your phone and your LED 50”. Blue zone folks spend their time connecting with their friends and family in real-time. Yep, the author has some work to do on this front.
Overall, early retirement can be a means to an end, if we aspire to a blue zones lifestyle. The themes are highly complementary. We need to slow down and take stock in what matters most. It’s not net worth, super saver deals, and side hustles. It’s family, community, and getting back to basics. If living to near 100 with good health is the reward, heck, sign me up!