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Embrace Your Biology
To live a good life, nurture your body and relationships.
We all want to lead a good life. And for most of us, that means we want to be happy.
But what does that mean exactly?
More often than not, we equate being happy with feeling pleasurable sensations. It's what we mean when we say things like "I'm having such a good time!"
This is happiness of the hedonic kind.
It is us taking delight from pleasure.
Unfortunately, as great as it feels in the moment, this form of happiness is as fleeting as the sensations themselves and we run the risk of becoming a slave to them.
But there is another way of understanding happiness.
It's an outlook that ignores our feelings in the moment. Rather, it's rooted in our belief that our lives have meaning and purpose.
It asks us to zoom out from the daily grind and assess if we believe our lives to be intrinsically valuable.
This is happiness of the eudaimonic kind.
It is what we mean when we say "My life is good."
It's an enduring quality of being in 'good spirits' — no matter the ups and downs of life — because you've got your bearings right.
Irrespective of the difficulties of the journey ahead, you know in which direction to go.
This is what the Stoics believed to be a good, happy life — to live in harmony with ourselves and with the situations we find ourselves in.
So what can we do to find ourselves to be more in tune with that harmony?
We are biological
Become deeply aware that you are not a machine. You are a living being that is on its life course, somewhere between birth and death.
In spite of the huge technological advances all around us, you are still very much blood, flesh and bones.
You are composed of trillions of cells that power your body's various systems, which in turn interact in complex and interconnected ways in order to keep you alive.
You are the sum of this incredible and delicate balancing act.
That is why a good and happy life starts with taking care of your body. It starts with doing whatever is in your power to give it the best chance to thrive.
This means getting quality sleep, eating good food, and exercising enough.
Without quality sleep, your body won't be able to rest and regenerate.
Without nutritious food, your body won't get the nutrients and calories it needs to grow and function. (I include drinking clean water here too).
Without enough exercise, your body won't be stressed into growing, or at least, maintaining its physical functions.
These three interconnected pillars are the foundations of a good life.
As simple as they sound though, they take a lot of concerted effort to get right.
If you're anything like me, you're going to have at least one of these that needs improvement at any one time.
I'm still trying to get them right and why I always focus on one when implementing a new habit.
So keep coming back to this trifecta and continually ask yourself if one pillar could use some special attention.
Predictors of human flourishing
With this foundational layer set down, are there any other areas we can look at?
To help answer that, we can turn to studies on human health such as the Harvard Study of Adult Development. (It's also the source for one of the most watched TED Talks ever and of this great book, which I highly recommend).
Started in 1938, it is the longest in-depth longitudinal study of human life ever done. It has recorded in real-time the life experiences of three generations of participants and is still going strong today!
And what it has shown is that, above all, there is one thing that can predict levels of eudaimonic happiness.
The feeling of being connected to others.
Without others, we are nothing
In spite of personal preferences for introversion or extroversion, the truth remains that we are social animals. It's hardwired within us.
Throughout our evolution, we have learned to cooperate with others in order to compensate for our physical weaknesses and to ensure our survival.
Whether on a societal, tribal, or family level, we have come to rely on others and others on us for protection and support.
As the Harvard Study of Adult Development found, having positive relationships protects your mind and health from the challenges of life.
For example, the study found that people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.
Furthermore, when these people experienced physical pain, they reported no change in their levels of happiness.
Conversely, when those in negative relationships felt physical pain, their moods worsened, causing them additional emotional pain.
The stark conclusion is that people who feel more isolated from others see their health decline sooner. Not only that, the quality of their emotional lives suffers too.
Feeling excluded from others — either due to physical isolation or unfulfilling relationships — leaves us to emotionally fend for ourselves. That is a heavy burden.
Your mileage will vary, but we are just not built to handle isolation.
So nurture the relationships that are important to you. Nurture them with your time, energy and vulnerability.
Call your father, text that friend; play with your child.
Not only will you be looking after your health, you will be showing love to someone who just might need it.
And that is the most valuable thing I can think of.
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