In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we talked about the struggle that our hunter-gatherer brains have in making sense of this modern world. At every turn, there seems to be a shiny object that we have been led to believe will be the silver bullet that brings contentment, but so often we are left with disappointment and distraction.
So, what will bring contentment? In my eyes, it’s bringing in the old 80/20 rule. What 20% of intentions will bring 80% of our contentment? Some of these intentions, like movement and connection are universal because we have evolved in such a way that our bodies and minds reward us when we engage in them. If we didn’t move, eat or pro-create, our genes would not get passed on. If we didn’t connect, we didn’t have a place in the tribe and we would die. Of course, the amount of movement and connection that each of us prefers varies, but by and large this principle holds true.
Other intentions are highly personal because they are based on individual values. One person may derive immense pleasure from wood-working, while someone else enjoys writing and yet another finds contentment in doing math equations all day. Some people want children and others do not. There is no universal right or wrong. There is only what is helpful or not helpful in achieving contentment for that particular person.
The following is by no means a complete list. However, these are the intentions that I have found to be the 20% that can result in 80% of our contentment. Entire books have been and continue to be written about all of them; thus, below is my attempt at providing a few key points on each.
Eat, Move, Sleep
This is the title of a bestselling book by Tom Rath for a reason. These are the big 3 in terms of bang for your buck when it comes to forming a solid bedrock for well-being. In my personal experience, if I’m chronically lagging in these areas, it’s hard to be anywhere near content.
Food has somehow become complicated. The best advice that I have come across is from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He states to simply “eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” Eat mostly real food from nature (not from factories) that your great-grandmother would recognize. Make half of your plate plants. Slow down, eat undistracted and stop eating when you are no longer hungry as opposed to “full.” The Okinawans, some of the healthiest people on earth, have a phrase Hara hachi bun me, which roughly means eat until you’re 80% full.
As we have touched on, we are not meant to sit idly all day. We are meant to move and nature rewards us for this by releasing endorphins into our system when we exercise. Yuval Noah Harari states in his fantastic book Sapiens that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were most likely as fit as ultra-marathoners because of the amount of activity in which they engaged to survive. We don’t need to go to those lengths, but we have to find a way to move our bodies regularly. Find what you love and exercise won’t feel like a chore. Exercise doesn’t have to be in a gym. It can be a walk in the woods or a game of tag with your kids. Then also incorporate some cardio, whether it’s a HIIT workout or a run outside. Waking up a little earlier and getting your heart beating for 30 minutes will do wonders for your brain. Personally, without it, I would be a complete train wreck.
There is a tongue-in-cheek “children’s book” called Go the Fuck to Sleep. We should follow that advice. Being chronically sleep deprived colors everything. Again, we are swimming against the tide because the Monday Night game won’t go off until nearly midnight, but is it really worth it to sacrifice tomorrow to see if the tight end on your pretend fantasy team catches six footballs in a game you don’t really care about? If you are like me and don’t sleep very soundly throughout the night, the 30- minute power nap with headphones and binaural beats is a game-changer.
This stands for caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar. I was hesitant to include this section for fear of it being received as “preachy.” So, full disclosure, I have or currently use all of these. I get it. They are enticing and feel damn good AT FIRST. But there is no denying that we are not designed to put them in our bodies every day. Just recognize where these are interfering with your life and make an adjustment.
Caffeine can be helpful in the right context, but for some of us it can be a “big cup of anxiety” and for many of us, it is the main culprit for why we aren’t sleeping. As Jerry Seinfeld said, “You don’t think there is any connection between this 24-oz. cup of coffee that we carry around with us all day and the fact that we need horse tranquilizers to fall asleep at night, do you?”
Booze. I know, I know, I like it too, but there is no getting around the fact that the body treats alcohol as a poison and responds accordingly. It attempts to process it as quickly as possible and releases a cascade of hormones to combat its effects. Alcohol is a depressant, anxiety is a cousin of depression. There is a reason that we wake up at 3AM after indulging too much, worrying about the shoes that we wore to the first day of 6th grade. It’s a result of the cortisol and adrenaline that our bodies release to offset the depressing features of booze. When the buzz is gone, we are left with a body full of “fight or flight” chemicals as they are the last ones to leave the party. “Hang-xiety” is real. We will sleep better and feel better overall if we can find a way to use booze like the recreational drug it is as opposed to an everyday mainstay.
Tobacco, we all know by now …
Sugar, it’s everywhere. We are DESIGNED to be addicted to it. It’s hard to be human! But as we all know, long-term it can lead to obesity, an increase in cancer risk and diabetes. Short-term there is some evidence that it can cause inflammation leading to an increase in anxiety.
Aristotle used the word telos, which refers to your unique ability or skill. He said if you can recognize your unique skill and practice it, you will reach your highest potential because the thing that you are good at is usually the thing that you enjoy the most. That can sound lofty, but imagine there is a gun to your head and someone says, “Three seconds to answer: What is your unique skill in this world?” If you were able to identify it, how could you do more of it? How could you find a group to do it with? Better yet, how could you get paid for it?
I think of one’s purpose as the reason to get out of bed in the morning. Victor Frankl, who created his philosophy after spending years in a concentration camp, states in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that there are three ways to uncover purpose in life: through love and contribution to family, community or friends; through contributing to your craft (ideally your work) or a hobby; and through deriving meaning out of the adversity that you face in life. The latter point is no lip service as Frankl’s father, mother, brother and wife all died in a concentration camp. The motivating factor that kept him going was to use his experience as an avenue to help alleviate human suffering. Talk about putting things in context.
This term was popularized by author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book by the same name. It’s the state of mind where you lose track of what you are doing. For maybe the first time all day, what you are doing no longer feels like a chore. It feels like joy — playing music, singing, cooking, dancing — could be anything and could be a number of things.
Lots of guys that I work with freak out and say, “But, I don’t know what I like!” And I say, “It’s ok, relax. This is an opportunity and you’ll have to try different things to discover or rediscover what you enjoy.” But, don’t just be lazy and settle for golf like everyone else if you don’t really like playing golf. It doesn’t have to be anything mind-blowing. In my backyard I have an old basketball goal that I bought for $50 and shooting free throws is one of the most enjoyable (and therapeutic) activities of my day.
Male loneliness is an epidemic these days. Used to be, we would naturally connect as we walked through the woods hunting or foraging. Nowadays, men rarely connect outside of superficial conversations when we are standing around drinking beer in the suburbs. Some important questions to answer, in my opinion, are:
- Whom do you truly enjoy being around?
- Whom can you just be yourself around with without putting up a front?
- How can you find some ways to hang out that don’t include drinking?
You may only find one, two or three of these people in your life and that’s really all you need. Then you can have a whole host of acquaintances, drinking buddies or guys you play poker with if you want. But make sure to invest 80% of your energy in the 20% of friendships that bring the greatest return. The best advice I have heard for making friends is to not try to be interesting, interested.
At some point, it finally dawned on me that relationships take work. You can’t be passive. Trust me, sometimes it feels like I miss more often that I hit and I’ve had my nights sleeping in the guest room. But relationships are something that we can all get better at with practice. Make your partner the most important person in your life, bar none. Sacrifice for that person by offering “silent gifts,” like going to the dinner party that you don’t really want to go to or taking on the home project simply because your partner is excited about it. You sure as hell don’t tell that person that it is a gift (Trust Me!) or do it half-assed; you show up and make the best of it because it is important to your partner. Other ideas:
- Do date nights twice a month.
- Pick up a small gift as a gesture once a month.
- Take time to talk each week. I suggest four questions that have worked well in my marriage:
- What’s going well?
- What could we do differently?
- What do you need?
- What are we doing for fun in the next week or two?
To mix two quotes I have heard separately from sources I do not remember — “Love is spelled TIME and attention is the most basic form of love.” If you are lucky enough to be a Dad, spend some time with your kids every day. Play with them at whatever game they want, knowing that soon you will be happy to just receive a phone call once a week. Know that you aren’t there to police every facet of their life or mold them. You are just there to support, validate and encourage them. Love them and accept them just for breathing.
It’s been said that almost everything works again if you unplug for a few minutes, including you.
Here are some ideas to get out of that negative, human mind (LINK HERE) and into the senses as often as possible.
- Spend time in nature as often as you can and pretend that you are your ancient ancestor on a hunt. You must pay attention to every single detail in order to track the game and be able to eat tonight. Try to start your day with a bath of sunlight. If you can, go outside for at least 20 minutes in the early to midmorning hours. Light exposure during the day is the single most important factor for sleep quality at night.
- Take time every day to breathe slowly, more deeply into the belly and focus on extending the exhale a few extra seconds to blow off extra carbon dioxide, which will have a relaxing effect. Use the 4-7-8 breathing technique when you are overly stressed, angry or craving to cool the mind and body.
- Find a good meditation app (I recommend 10% Happier to start and then Waking Up when you have the basics down) and shoot for 10 minutes each morning right before your 30-minute workout, 10 minutes at lunch and 10 minutes at night before bed.
- Learn the art of doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. The old-timers call is “just setting.” Just sit, preferably outside and do nothing, watch the stories in your mind come and go without acting on them. I have found peace often lies on the other side of them.
- Single-task from time to time. When eating, just eat. When driving, just drive. When going to bathroom … just don’t be gross and take your phone in there with you.
Meister Eckhart said, “If thank you is the only prayer that you said, that would suffice.” Although it does not feel like it sometimes, we are the luckiest humans to ever walk the Earth. If our ancestors could walk into a grocery store, they would be astounded by the abundance that we have. If they could step into our homes, they would be amazed at how we can dictate the temperature of the air at our will. You could go on and on with this list, but you get the point. The gifts are endless and just simply stopping for a moment and saying a simple “thank you” quietly can turn the mundane into the magical, especially when we consider how most of humankind have lived their lives.
Laugh, Play & Find Novel Adventures
The average 4-year-old laughs 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old laughs four times a day. That is a deadening statistic. Life for us is serious business. After all, there are terrorist attacks and crazy politicians to worry about 24 hours a day!
Try this: Breathe into your belly for 4 seconds and laugh all the air out of your belly. Really get into it and do it for 5 to 10 breaths. If you feel weird, get over it by recognizing that you are hacking your body and mind by pouring serotonin and endorphins into your nervous system.
Many of us lose our interest in playing as we get older. But playfulness, along with laughter, is the antidote to seriousness. There is a saying that it is easier to act your way into feeling than feel your way into acting. With that in mind, don’t wait until you feel playful to be playful because you may end up waiting forever. Be silly, playful and unpredictable with your co-workers, kids and partner as often as you can and see how that affects your mood.
Our brains love novelty. Our ancestors used to move camp every week, month or season depending on the climate and the food availability. We mostly stare at the same four walls, eat the same food at the same time and are as predictable as the clock that runs most of our lives. Find a novel adventure every week. Something simple — a new podcast, a new running route or a new restaurant. Pair up with a buddy and hike a new trail or try something brand new like playing paintball or a pick-up game of hoops.
This could easily fall under purpose as well, but I felt compelled to include it. It’s been said that the fastest way out of one’s own problems is through helping others. That is because selflessness is how we evolved. It’s the reason we are here today. Many have mischaracterized Darwin’s primary message of human evolution in On the Origin of the Species to be “survival of the fittest.” In fact, he spoke very little about aggression and mainly championed animals’ ability to cooperate and care for others. Our ability to take responsibility for our community and those who are in it is the main reason that I am sitting her typing this and you are reading it.
And the fact that you are reading it brings me joy and I’m very grateful to you.
If the hunter-gatherer within you is feeling stifled, reach out to talk how therapy could help.