I’ve found the fountain of youth! You can, too!
“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” — Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy.
“Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with; Are the things you need the least.” — Bob Dylan. Lonesome Day Blues. Love and Theft.
I know this may sound like one of those late night infomercials but please bear with me. I promise I won’t try to sell you anything.
You know the kind of ad I mean: the type where a 75-year old guy with bulging biceps and ripped abs and (optional) handlebar mustache holds an unappetizing glass of green goo up to the camera while flexing his muscles and smacking his lips, swearing up and down that this here powder or juice or shake or algae or elixir saved his life and made him stronger than Superman, faster than Sonic the Hedgehog, more energetic than Popeye, more virile than Hugh Hefner, and happier than a clam.
There’s no shortage of these infomercials on the internet and every one of them includes a similar guy (or gal) trying to sell you something. It may be proteins or probiotics, Kombucha or beet juice, the keto diet or the paleo, the “natural homeopathic” solution or the “scientifically proven” pharmaceutical formula (you can tell these apart easily by the visuals even if the audio is turned off: incense burning softly in the background vs. white-clad “doctor” pointing at anatomical diagrams).
It may be liquid or it may be solid. It may even be gaseous (remember the craze around Oxygen bars?). Buy our astrological magic decoder ring and, we promise, you’ll have self-actualization in thirty days or less or your money back! Guaranteed! Delivered overnight for four easy payments of $29.99! Eternal Youth. Happiness. Bliss. Muscles in all the right places. Fat be gone. Drink this, eat that. Think this, say that. Do all of the above and maybe, just maybe, western civilization will deliver salvation to your doorstep.
Here’s the thing. They’re all the same. They all want to sell you something they can’t scientifically measure or accurately deliver, let alone guarantee. If I’m willing to drink this disgusting algae, that almost guarantees that I’m worried about my health and looking for ways to improve it. What are the chances that I also started walking or practicing yoga every day? Or that I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine? Or that I got a promotion at work and my mood improved in general?
How do you know that the drink is what caused my health improvement and not all those other factors? How many long term double blind studies did you do, with what size population, across which demographics, and how many peer reviewed research papers did you publish in reputable journals before you decided to unleash your “revolutionary” solution on the masses?
It doesn’t work. Period. I don’t care what “it” is. The belief that a single isolated magic solution can solve all our problems, be they physical, psychological, or spiritual, is simply flawed. No single solution will lead to the right answer just like no single factor got you to where you are now.
Our lives are a kaleidoscope of experiences, each of which contributes to our overall health. The only way to “fix” ourselves is to fix all the things that affect us everyday: diet, exercise, sleep, personal and professional relationships, mood, finances, etc. Every one of these is a critical factor in our wellbeing and none of them can be ignored.
When it comes to our mental and physical health, it’s all or nothing. You can do a thousand ab crunches a day, drink algae drained from a magical swamp for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and meditate all day but still feel terrible inside if you’re working at a dead-end job or stuck in a toxic relationship.
Did you remember to make up with your sister? Do you have a mind numbing job? Did you stare at your Twitter feed all day? Did you eat nachos for dinner and wash it down with a beer? Do not collect $200! Do not pass GO! Start from the beginning. Remember: It’s all or nothing.
I won’t lie to you. It’s not going to be easy. It wasn’t easy for me. But you knew that too. If you’ve been sitting on the couch eating potato chips, binge watching Game of Thrones and Real Housewives for the past decade, no beverage, diet, exercise regimen, or metaphysical guidance is going to get you to where you want to be.
The work you need to undertake is much harder than that. And yet, in a way, the overall answer, once you see it, is also much simpler than that. It’s all of the above. It’s your diet and it’s your exercise and it’s your mindset and it’s your continued education and it’s your social engagements and it’s your familial support and it’s your stress level at work and it’s your genetic factors and it’s your spiritual wellbeing and it’s your every experience since you popped out of the womb and it’s your traumas and it’s your healings too.
It’s every one of those and it’s more. Screw up any one of them and you are, to use a medical term, royally screwed. Your whole being, body and soul, suffers when any one of these factors is out of sync.
You need to rethink your whole approach to mental and physical health. This is something I did half heartedly, in fits and starts, and over multiple decades. But it wasn’t until I changed everything that I started seeing results. And then the changes came fast and strong, again and again, and they became much easier once I made one big change.
A little introduction to the author seems apropos at this juncture.
I’m a retired 58 year old software guy. I’m lucky enough to have done everything early in life. I finished the last three years of high school in one year, entered college at fifteen and graduated two years later with two Bachelor’s degrees. I then held increasingly successful roles in the software industry for the next 35 years before retiring at 51. The last seven years have been the best, happiest, most blissful, most transformative of my life.
Ten years ago, I was a successful software executive, managing thousands of people, building world changing software, getting promoted every year. I was at the top of my career and near the top of the industry. I worked on everything from supercomputers to personal computers to the core of the internet, at everything from startups to international conglomerates. I’m proud of my career and what we, as an industry, have accomplished. In the span of a few decades, we’ve made a profound impact on the lives of practically every single human being on the planet.
So here I am, successful as measured through any objective criteria, and yet… and yet… I look and feel twenty years older than my physical age. I feel miserable. I feel alienated. I’m tired. I’m depressed. I’m withdrawn. I’m overweight. I’m hunched over with back pain. I get by on three to four hours of sleep a night as I jump on international flights to Beijing and Bangalore, as I get on conference calls from Berlin and Barcelona. Is it any wonder I’m exhausted at the end of the day? Is it any wonder my brain is incapable of rest?
Humans, social anthropologists will tell you, didn’t evolve in this environment. Hunter gatherers of the past, which all of us were for hundreds of thousands of years, spent an average of four hours a day “working” and twenty resting. It’s only been a few thousand years (a proverbial millisecond on the genetic clock) since we became “civilized” and settled down in villages and cities. And it’s only been a few hundred years, since the dawn of the industrial age, since we dramatically increased the pace of progress, far surpassing the ability of our genes to adapt.
Back to our story. Fast forward a decade and I look at least a dozen years younger than my age. I’ve lost forty pounds and have no trouble keeping it off. I have six-pack abs. I lowered my cholesterol without the use of drugs. I never get angry or frustrated. I don’t remember the last time I had a cold. I sleep eight hours a night. My resting heart rate is 35 (the average for all humans is 72)!
So how did I do it? How did I find the fountain of youth? It wasn’t any one thing. It was everything.
I’ve completely revamped my diet and am almost entirely vegetarian. I stopped eating bread (even though I love it). I stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine. I switched from running to cycling: it’s much easier on the body and improves the abductor muscles which, in turn, help with lower back pain. It’s also a great cardio workout, hence the low resting heart rate. I stopped watching TV and movies, freeing up many hours a day for other activities. I started meditating twice a day. I started doing yoga every day. Finally, and most importantly, I took a giant step and retired, leaving behind megatons of stress and anxiety.
I can list all the other changes I’ve made but the main point is this: There’s no single silver bullet, no magic elixir, that will solve all your problems. You need to change all these things: diet, exercise, personal and professional environment, social pastimes, stress level, outlook on life, and more. And you need to stick to it for extended periods of time before you can expect results.
The problem with the magic elixir approach is that it gives us the excuse to say: “Well, I tried. I did whatever they told me, I drank whatever they gave me, and here I am: still depressed, still sitting on the couch, still surfing the web, still eating nachos. Nothing changed. I didn’t get better. I give up.”
Lest you get demoralized and say this is all too hard or point out that most people don’t have the luxury to retire in their early fifties: There is one thing you can do, regardless of everything else, that will make a huge impact on your life. Reduce your stress level by any means possible.
Most of the chronic diseases of modern humanity are caused, or exacerbated by, the massively increased and relentless level of stress in our lives and we don’t even realize it since it’s become the new norm for almost all of us. We may think we can ignore all the warning signs and push ahead but do so only at our own peril.
Go read Gabor Mate’s magisterial “When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress” and Bessel van der Kolk’s wildly popular “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”. I promise they’ll change your view of the root causes of many of the ills of our times and point the way to a healthier and happier lifestyle.
We’ve lost our way. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we come back to what’s natural and serene, the sooner we stop abusing our bodies and our minds, the sooner we will heal our souls, the happier we will live, the longer we will prosper.
Take my word for it. I did it and so can you.