The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less

The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less

by John Robbins

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345520234
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/25/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 525,565
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John Robbins is the author of the million-copy bestseller Diet for a New America, which became a PBS series. He is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award and the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award and is the founder of the nonprofit organization EarthSave International. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He has appeared on many television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show. He lives in Soquel, California.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Rags and Riches

Recently, Lexus spent many millions of dollars on an ad campaign that wasn't exactly subtle. The ads trumpeted: "Whoever said money can't buy happiness isn't spending it right." The message, of course, was that you can buy happiness, providing you spend $50,000 or so on one of the company's luxury cars.

This kind of thing happens at all ends of the economic spectrum. Yesterday, I saw a McDonald's ad on a billboard. Several of their coffee beverages were pictured, along with the bold and prominent question "Who says you can't buy happiness?"

Similarly, years ago when I was working for my father and the ice cream company he cofounded and owned (Baskin-Robbins, 31 Flavors), the marketing department came up with what they considered a brilliant idea for a new advertising slogan. The new motto was to become the centerpiece of the company's marketing efforts. It was to be featured in radio, TV, and newspaper ads and displayed prominently in many of the retail stores. The new slogan was "We make people happy."

Both the marketing executives and my father were delighted with the proposed new motto. I, however, was not, and our differences sparked an intense conversation.

"What I like about the slogan," my dad argued, "is that we are communicating fun and happiness. That's what people want."

"Yes, people want to have fun and be happy," I agreed. "But it's not actually accurate. We don't make people happy. We sell ice cream."

"Don't get technical," he reprimanded. "You're making things too complicated."

I, of course, loved ice cream, to the point that I sometimes devoured a quart at a sitting. I knew intimately most of the hundreds of flavors the company had brought to market over the years. I thought many of the flavors were wonderful, and I'd had a hand in creating a number of them.

Up until this moment, I'd had no problem with the company's other advertising slogans. In fact, I was delighted that a huge photograph of me as a child, smiling while eating an ice cream cone, was prominently displayed on the wall behind the counter in hundreds of stores. And I happily sang the radio jingle that had been the centerpiece of ad campaigns in previous years: "Look for the sign with the big thirty-one-It's Baskin-Robbins, where ice cream's fun!" But there was something about this new slogan that disturbed me.

"Happiness is something we create by how we live our lives," I reflected. "It's something we bring about by living with respect for ourselves and for others. It's not something that can be bought and sold. We sell a product that is fun and provides temporary pleasure, but that's not the same thing as making people happy."

My dad was far from pleased. "What do you think you are, a philosopher?" he scolded. "Stop analyzing everything. We're talking about an advertising slogan, and you're making it into some kind of deep abstract discussion. Cut it out."

"What's the point, then?" I asked.

"The point is to sell ice cream."

"That's what I'm saying. That's what we do. We manufacture and sell ice cream. It takes a lot more than an ice cream cone to make someone happy."

"They can also buy quarts, half gallons, and ice cream cakes."

My heart sank. I knew he was right, in terms of what would effectively sell the product. This was, after all, what advertisements are meant to do. Customers appreciated the experience, the image, the feeling of being happy that Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores represented. I knew the slogan would be effective. But still, something bothered me.

The forging of a conscience

Despite my concerns, the company adopted the motto, and "We make people happy" went on to become one of the most successful marketing slogans in the history of the American food business. Successful, that is, in terms of increased ice cream sales. Baskin-Robbins, founded the year I was born, was rapidly becoming the biggest and most profitable ice cream company in the world.

I, however, remained troubled. I knew how high ice cream is in saturated fat and sugar, and I was coming to see the link with heart disease. An ice cream cone never killed anyone, but the more ice cream people eat the more likely they are to develop health problems, and the company naturally wanted to sell as much ice cream as possible. It was disturbing to consider that people might suffer more heart attacks as a result of the company's meteoric growth.

In 1967, my uncle Burt Baskin, the company's other founder, died of a heart attack. A big man, he was only fifty-four years old. I was overwhelmed with grief for the loss of my beloved uncle and increasingly troubled by the existential dilemma I was facing.

I asked my father if he thought there might be any connection between the amount of ice cream my uncle ate and his fatal heart attack. "Absolutely not," he snapped. "His ticker just got tired and stopped working."

It was not hard to understand why my father wouldn't want to consider that there might be a connection. By that time he had manufactured and sold more ice cream than any other human being who had ever lived on this planet. He didn't want to think that ice cream harmed anyone, much less that it had anything to do with the death of his beloved brother-in-law and business partner. But I could not keep from wondering.

My dad had groomed me since my earliest childhood to one day succeed him at Baskin-Robbins. The company was expanding rapidly, with annual sales in the billions of dollars. But despite the considerable lure of great wealth, I felt called to a different way of life, one whose purpose wasn't focused on making the most money but on making the biggest difference. Every new generation has an instinct to step out on its own, but what was stirred in me felt somehow much deeper than a stereotypical father-son generational split.

As a teenager, I had read the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who challenged the relentless pursuit of money and social status. "I love to see anything," he wrote, "that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth." Seeing people too often make themselves what he called "slaves to the acquisition of money and things," he suggested that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without."

Thoreau's books inspired me to think about topics that were never discussed in the household in which I grew up-issues such as the importance of contact with the natural world, self-reliance, personal conscience, and social responsibility. Meanwhile, I was living in a home with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool and a soda fountain that offered guests all thirty-one flavors. My father was proud of his Rolls-Royce and the many expensive classic cars he collected. His yacht was named The 32nd Flavor.

If money and ice cream were all that was needed to make a person happy, I would have been jubilant. But I wasn't, and my distress kept growing stronger. I had the distinct impression that even though humanity now had the potential to live upon this earth with more ease and comfort than had ever been possible in human history, we were collectively moving farther and farther away from that possibility.

I thought that Gandhi was right when he said that there is enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed, and so it pained me to see how often money was becoming the goal of our lives, rather than a tool in service to our ultimate goals.

It would be twenty more years before the hit film Wall Street would appear, in which the lead character Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, would fervently declare that "Greed is good." But it was already clear to me that the pursuit of a prosperity driven by voracious consumption was taking root, and that it beckoned the eventual destruction of much that is good in our spirits and our world. If these trends were to continue, I feared, the global economy would become gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its inequalities.

I was born at the pinnacle of the old good life with its promise of unlimited consumption, and was poised to champion it into a new generation. I could not have forecast the collapse of major financial institutions that predatory lending and unrestrained greed would precipitate in the economic crisis that began in 2008. But I knew that ideas and ways of treating people and the earth were spreading over the world that were socially unjust, spiritually unfulfilling, environmentally unsustainable, and morally bankrupt. It was dawning on me that I would have to change my life to the core.

I did not find it easy, however, to explain my thoughts and feelings to my father, a conservative businessman who never went a day without reading The Wall Street Journal. He had come of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while I was becoming an adult in the 1960s. Our lives were shaped by very different times.

"It's a different world now than when you grew up," I told him. "The environment is deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities. Every two seconds a child somewhere dies of hunger, while elsewhere there are abundant resources going to waste. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. We live now under a nuclear shadow, and at any moment the unspeakable could happen. Under these circumstances, can you see that inventing a thirty-second flavor would not be an adequate response for my life?"

A choice for integrity

It was my father's dream that I would eventually take over the business, and he offered me an opportunity that would surely have meant a life of immense wealth. But something deep inside me kept pulling me in a different direction. Money, it seemed to me, was valuable only as a means to other ends, and I rebelled against the mind-set that made people measure their self-worth by their net worth. I wanted to use my life to help bring about a world of greater respect, understanding, and integrity.

When I was twenty-one, deeply troubled by the damage I saw being done to our world by the forces of materialism and entitlement, I not only told my father that I didn't want to work with him at Baskin-Robbins any longer, but also that I didn't want to depend on his financial achievements. I did not want to have a trust fund or any other access to or dependence on his money. I wanted to discover and live my own values, and I knew that I wasn't strong enough to do that if I remained tethered, even a little, to my father's fortune.

My father was hurt and angry, and felt justifiably that I was rejecting his life's work. He also thought I was making a huge mistake, and he didn't hesitate to tell me so. "You're obviously intelligent," he said, shaking his head. "And you're obviously sincere. But you are also obviously insane."

It was very painful for me when my dad's disappointment turned to bitterness. I never wanted to hurt him, and his disapproval and anger were hard to take. I found it difficult to talk with him about why I needed to make such a radical break, and why I needed to walk away so totally from the business he had worked so hard to build and the money he had worked so hard to earn. I didn't fully understand it myself. It was ice cream he was selling, after all, ice cream that I loved eating as much as anyone. It wasn't a health food, but it certainly wasn't evil. It's not like Baskin-Robbins was manufacturing plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.

Yet still, something in me was calling me elsewhere, and like a caterpillar called to spin its cocoon and enter a transformational process, I could not deny my destiny. If I were to refuse that call, I might end up rich, but I would surely end up untrue to myself and unhappy. To live against our innermost values can make us sick. It also can lead to disingenuous, counterfeit, or artificial lives.

It would be many years before my dad and I were able to reconcile, but I am glad to say that we eventually did. There came a day, for example, after years of struggle, when he told me that he had come to respect me for the choices I had made. "You marched to a different drummer," he said, and there was even some approval in his voice.

I was grateful for his acceptance and respect, and touched by his recognition that I had never meant to hurt him but had instead been following a call that existed within my own nature. Ironically, it was Thoreau who first coined the phrase "a different drummer," in what has become one of the world's most time-honored quotations: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Life after ice cream

After walking away from the ice cream fortune, I now had to work my way through my studies at the University of California, Berkeley. I did this by washing dishes twenty hours a week and taking on a variety of other part-time jobs. I must admit, too, that I had another, somewhat less admirable source of income. I won enough money in poker and bridge games that, along with the other money I was earning, I managed to pay for all my expenses in my final two years of school and to save a few thousand dollars as well. This savings then allowed me to take the next step in my journey.

After graduating in 1969, I moved with my wife, Deo, to Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Columbia, where for less than $2,000 we bought several acres of land in a remote corner of the island. Here, more than a mile from our nearest neighbor, we built a tiny one- room log cabin in which we lived for the next ten years, 1969-1979, growing most of our own food. Our only furniture was a little table, two chairs, and a bed, which I made out of materials left over from the cabin-building project. We had no closets, but that was not a problem, because we each had only a single set of clothes.

It may be cliché to say so, but though we had little money, we never felt poor. In fact, I now look back at those years as among the richest of my life. We had good work to do in a beautiful and pristine environment, with clean air and water, and deep silence in which to meditate. We had by then adopted a regular practice of doing yoga and meditating for several hours a day, which, along with the joy of our relationship, nurtured an inner richness in our lives.

I felt alive in a way I never had before. When I awoke in the morning, I was glad and grateful, and when I closed my eyes at night I was at peace. For the first time in my life, I felt at home in myself. Having made a clean break from my family's expectations for my life, I was now free to be myself, to search for and discover my values, to bring my life into harmony with the real purposes for which I had been born.

From the Hardcover edition.

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"There is today a profound hunger for precisely the information, the advice, and the perspectives in The New Good Life." —-Vicki Robin, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life

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New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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