What is life for? And how can we live it well? These questions keep coming up as Sophie and I cycle around Australia, interviewing people about simple living. We’ll arrive at someone’s house to talk about composting or gardening or building mud brick walls, and the conversation will evolve into a deep discussion on the meaning of existence.
The process was a little different with Dr Bob Rich, a psychologist who spent more than three decades living at a housing co-operative near Healesville, Victoria. This time I came intending to explore the bigger questions.
I arrived at Bob’s house at 5pm after jostling with trucks on the Maroondah Highway in Melbourne’s sprawling north-eastern suburbs. After I’d settled in with a glass of juice and a piece of chocolate cake, Bob said, “We did the same journey as you, just a generation or two earlier.”
In 1978 Bob was working as a research scientist for the CSIRO, earning $45,000 a year. It was a dream job, but it also took up all his time, and he felt guilty about earning and spending money that was inevitably funnelled to multinational corporations, which he thought were destroying the planet.
So he quit his job and, a few years later, started building a mud brick house at Moora Moora, a housing co-operative on Mt Toolebewong near Healesville, 70kms north-east of Melbourne.
He embarked on a new career as a writer, publishing regularly in Earth Garden and Owner Builder magazines, and co-authoring the Earth Garden Building Book, published in 1987.
Between 1978 and 2005 he and his wife raised three children while deliberately living below the poverty line, earning between $13,000 and $18,000 a year. “And we lived like royalty,” he said. His kids didn’t have as much in terms of material possessions, but growing up in a large community taught them practical life skills and the ability to negotiate with people of all ages.
While living at Moora Moora, Bob enjoyed a varied lifestyle, which he said is actually more fulfilling than an overspecialised existence. “Genetically, you are a hunter gatherer. You were evolved for that lifestyle.”
Based on anthropological research into hunter gatherer societies, Bob has compiled a list of things needed to keep depression at bay. But the list could also be used as the foundation for a contented life.
Here are the things you need:
• Healthy eating
• Adequate sleep
• Regular physical exercise
• Regular fun
• Social connectedness
And the things that have nothing to do with happiness, even though we think they do:
• Romantic love
• Physical health
• Absence of pain
• Freedom from stress
• Having a job
• Getting out of your job/marriage/stressful social situation
In November 2011, Bob and his wife moved from Moora Moora to suburban Healesville. They had found it difficult to take care of all their physical work at the community, particularly with Bob’s bad shoulder. Their new house is cluttered with the paraphernalia of a lifetime, as if all the possessions in a large home have been crammed into a much smaller one. But it’s clear that Moora Moora is still close to their hearts. Goodbye messages from Moora Moora residents are stuck to the fridge, and Bob still attends monthly community work days.
Bob has a white beard and pale blue eyes. When he talks he makes unbroken eye contact, which is a friendly, empathic scrutiny. He’s always smiling, always ready to chime in with a gag. After I told him I was a vegetarian cyclist who ate a lot of beans, he joked about my trip being “jet propelled”.
Bob’s advice for living a rewarding life is to be mindful of each moment, and not become too focussed on goals. He has an analogy he uses with his clients. In 2009 he dislocated his shoulder and, after he’d made an initial recovery, the physio asked Bob to play basketball with himself. The object was to build up strength, flexibility and confidence.
“All right, I shoot for the basket and get a goal. Beauty. I shoot for the basket and I miss. Is there a difference?” asked Bob.
“I’m training my shoulder. There’s no difference. So that’s a model for life.”
In other words, it’s the experience not the outcome that matters.
Bob has a final piece of advice, a sort of motto for living: “Two things matter in life. What you take with you when you die and what you leave behind in the hearts of others. Everything else is monopoly money.”
Greg’s many interviews have resulted in a book: Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race.