Meditations on Life and Happiness: The “Simple” Triad of Health

A conscious life, to be well-lived, must have a guiding principle. Else, that precious gift of the universe is squandered in a reactive cycle with its environment, and the unique control of a conscious mind – free will – lies unused and wasted.

There are many guiding principles, but one that aligns with the zeitgeist of the 21st century — and indeed with human biology – is thus: seek to maximize happiness. Be vigilant that you do not idle on local maxima, but instead use all the resources around you to seek the highest peak on the invisible, unknowable terrain of the future.

Vigilance and wisdom are also needed to avoid the other trap: throwing away a great thing in pursuit of even greater heights, and in doing so losing sight of the goal: to maximize happiness. This metric is a summation across your entire lived life, and a life spent in miserable pursuit of happiness is a poor life indeed. In this way, life is a calculated gamble. You try to hike along a ridge of success to find the mountain peak of bliss and hope that any descent is merely one side of a narrow mountain ravine; a blip, rather than a steady slope down into the foothills of mediocrity.

It must be noted that there are other guiding principles to choose from. Prosperity for your descendants, maximization of total global welfare, establishing an eternal legacy for your name in history, seeking to live in accordance with your religion. Life is meaningless without assigned value, but any principle will do. Indeed, you could try to live all of them. But maximizing happiness has the added benefit of feeling good – a circular argument, but we must accept that our consciousness runs on an imperfect substrate of hormones and neurotransmitters.

What resources can we harness in the pursuit of bliss? We live in a time of near-boundless knowledge, and one must simply be willing to reach out and grasp it. Happiness is of the mind, and the mind is of the body, so we should first begin with the body. How can the mind thrive if the body is sick?

Scientific research confirms some ancient principles and gives them falsifiable form. Bodily health is surprisingly simple, despite the complexity the body. After all, we have evolved to be healthy in as many situations as possible. Catch enough good sleep, eat and drink properly, and exercise. Following these three straightforward principles yields massive results, yet nearly everybody fails to do it.

Roughly 50% of people report not getting enough sleep. 35% of people report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair”. 67% of people who aren’t getting “good” quality sleep also report “poor” or “only fair” overall health. Getting enough sleep increases your expected lifespan increases by 10 years, and lack of sleep is heavily correlated with mental health issues.

36% of Americans are obese, and 75% of Americans have an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruit, dairy, and healthy oils. Nearly everyone exceeds recommendations for added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat. Only 50% of Americans meet the suggested level for aerobic exercise: 150 minutes of moderate-level exercise a week. That sounds like a lot, but that is only 20 minutes of walking a day, or 10 minutes of running a day. All-cause mortality is 35% lower for these physically active people. Conversely, obesity is a horrible condition that lowers your quality of life across the board.

Yes, these statistics are not rigorous, nor definitive. In addition, there are many difficult-to-change factors that confound execution of the “triad” of sleep, diet, and exercise. Men are more likely to have sleep apnea, and women are more likely to have insomnia. Lower income and less educated people are more likely to have low quality sleep. It is easy to see that this can become a vicious cycle, considering that nearly half of Americans are medically underinsured, and 40% of underinsured individuals report delaying required care. Health problems cause lack of high quality sleep, and not getting enough good sleep hurts the body’s ability to heal. Meanwhile, mental ability and willpower are reduced by lack of sleep, which when combined with health problems makes it difficult to hold a steady, well-paying job. And thus, this theoretical individual remains poor, underinsured, sick, and tired. Being poor sucks.

But even among the educated, liberal techno-elite of West Coast cities, we fail to consistently follow the simple triadic principles. We spend money hand-over-fist on “healthy” food, all while gaining weight. We constantly tell ourselves that we need to hit the gym more often. We may even blame our mental shortcomings on missed sleep the night before. But there is no excuse for squandering the monumental privileges of this life. We are college-educated, we make at least 2 to 3 times as much as the impoverished individual previously described, and we typically have had adequate medical care throughout life. Not only have we been led to water, as the proverbial horse, but we are being met with a deluge; we have been thrown bodily into a pool of clean, delicious water. All we must do is open our mouths and drink. And yet, we don’t.

We stress-eat, or we eat out of boredom. We eat too much of our purported health food because we lack the discipline to stop. We skip sleep to medicate away our profound emptiness of purpose with alcohol and psychoactive drugs, or hyper-stimulating entertainment. We complain that we lack the time to exercise, or moan about the wrist, back, and neck pains that come with our jobs. Instead of seizing the obvious and easy solutions before us, we commit our time, energy, and money to a secular religion of consumption. We fritter our days away praying in sad cathedrals of our own construction: buying the latest iPhone, seeing the latest blockbuster movie, playing the new popular videogame, spending an afternoon scrolling through the endless stimulation of Twitter and Facebook. Better yet, we seek to resolve our guilt by insisting that obesity isn’t a problem and that mental health issues are an inevitable result of a broken social order.

An unhealthy body leads to an unhealthy mind. In the new generation of upper and upper-middle class adults, mental health issues like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and loneliness occur at more than twice the national average rate. These issues then generate new somatic issues like headaches, stomach aches, and body pains.

Despite personal wealth, despite being well-educated, despite living in a wealthy society, we do not live in an environment conducive to health or happiness. Just as the archetypical impoverished fellow in America is trapped between poor education, low income, bad parenting, bad childhood habits, unhealthy food options, and untreated chronic health conditions, so is the archetypical member of the tech elite trapped by FOMO, social media algorithms, society’s metrics of success, and ubiquitous advertising. Fortunately, we have the good fortune to be able to control our environment.

Is sitting all day at your job giving you back and neck pain? Is staring at a screen destroying your eyesight? Some of that may come with the territory, but much more of it is avoidable. Get up and walk around the office at regular intervals. Get a standing desk. Take a twenty second break to rest your eyes. We’ve heard it all before, and yet we don’t do it.

Perhaps your job won’t allow you to switch between sitting and standing as your body desires, or you are simply too busy to take five minutes to walk around every hour. Ok, so go walk for twenty minutes when you get home. Too tired? Do it anyway. Even that brief exercise will boost your energy levels when done consistently. Better yet, take that walk in the morning, which also helps align your circadian rhythm and improves sleep quality and consistency. Improved sleep will bring more energy and better health, which will make the regular exercise even more invigorating and enjoyable. We’ve heard it all before, yet we don’t do it.

Stop drinking soda, control your insulin cycle. Wean yourself off caffeine to enable a regular sleep schedule and to boost your sleep quality. Limit your alcohol and drug consumption and wean yourself off any chemical sleep aids (including THC and CBD); they near-universally decrease your quality of sleep. Drink more water. We’ve heard it all before, yet we don’t do it. We’ve literally been led to water, yet fail to drink more of it.

If you don’t already pursue a healthier, happier life by implementing these simply practices, dear reader, you probably aren’t going to start as a result of reading this. Many people will agree with the goal of maximizing happiness and agree that all of the things I’ve mentioned are good, healthy habits. People are educated on the necessity of sleep, diet, and exercise. But we live in a local maximum of happiness. Alcohol and drugs feel good, while exercising the discipline to drag your ass out on a 20-minute walk is hard. Enjoying the hyper-stimulation of a movie or videogame feels awesome, while getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep is incredibly boring. Eating good food activates neural pathways that look an awful lot like those activated by good sex. So, why shouldn’t I eat a delicious “healthy” snack that is still packed with more sugar and fat than occurs in any natural food, thereby hyper-stimulating my caveman limbic system?

Well, if your life’s guiding principle is to maximize happiness, and you know for a fact that a glorious peak of bliss lays just across a small gulley of effort, then you should not rest on your small mound of dopamine no matter how high it feels at the time.

Fortunately, in a psychosomatic miracle of free will, we are not bound to continue this unfulfilling trudge. We can exercise conscious discipline and jump the track. We can push slowly but surely on the flywheel of happiness. Soon, a healthy lifestyle will turn from sheltered flame to raging fire, from an endeavor we must actively foster to a pillar of life we can lean on. We must simply make the decision to escape the biological determinism of our current situation and work around our psychological and physical shortcomings. Let’s use our big brains and avoid being controlled by our dumb bodies.

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