The importance of a balanced life

tightrope-walker.jpgImage from Oxford Dictionaries

It can be tough trying to live a good life. Most of us want an existence that favours our own happiness and contentment, but struggle to achieve them, repeatedly falling off the proverbial wagon into gluttony, lethargy, burnout, or any other calamitous outcome. We can be way too hard on ourselves, pursuing idealistic lives that are wonderful in theory, but unrealistic in practice, with every failure followed by the harshest of self-criticism, and then dismal self-loathing. Voltaire famously said that “the best is the enemy of the good,” summing up perfectly what we should be aiming for—not perfection, but good.

This is the idea of living with balance—not an idealistic dream in which you exercise six times a week, eat only the healthiest of foods, and spend every spare minute learning, but a life in which you exercise just enough, eat healthy foods just enough, and spend just enough time expanding your brain. A balanced life is achievable because it acknowledges your weakness for couch-lounging, fatty foods and trashy entertainment, while recognising that you’re also making the effort to accomplish healthy goals. It’s the patient, sympathetic teacher that you had at school, as opposed to the cane-wielding psychopath who would happily tear shreds off you for the slightest indiscretion.

History is peppered with stories and philosophical concepts on the importance of living with balance. Greek mythology tells the tale of Icarus, a prisoner on the island of Crete whose father fashioned a pair of feathered wings in order to make their escape. He offered his son a stark warning: “don’t be complacent and fly too low, as you’ll drown in the sea. Also don’t get too cocky and fly too high, as the sun will melt your wings.” This is clear advice to maintain a balance between the two—the course in which both extremities are avoided, and survival is ensured. Icarus ignored his father, melted his wings in the heat of the sun, and drowned.

Greek philosophy offers us the golden meanadvising to navigate the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Socrates himself taught us that a man should know “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” Buddhism has a similar concept—the middle way (samatā)—which states that nirvana can be achieved by walking the line between sensual indulgence and withdrawn asceticism—neither too much pleasure, or too little. There’s examples from Islam too, with theologian al-Ghazali believing that “what is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes.” Even the Temple of Apollo was inscribed with “nothing in excess.”

 

A balanced life is vital for happiness, so how does this translate for modern folk? There’s a few key areas things to consider.

Exercise

Unless you’re training for an ultra-marathon, you probably don’t need to run fifty miles a week. A common reason that people fail to maintain exercise habits is because they set the bar too high, filled with excited motivation during planning, but succumbing to crippling laziness when the time arrives. Starting small is a great way to build long-lasting habits—a short run a couple of times a week, with gradual increases of distance.

Exercise needs to be balanced with relaxation. Our muscles repair themselves when we’re resting, allowing us to recover for another session. Too much exercise will result in exhausted burn-out, and too much rest in negligent, wheezing infirmity. Exercise and rest go hand in hand, and we must find the right balance if we want to maintain excellent physical health.

Food

It’s obvious that you should take the advice of every doctor, nutritionist and personal trainer on the planet, and eat healthily. But unhealthy foods are damned delicious, and by depriving yourself of them all the time, you’re missing out on a great deal of joy (and mental health benefits). Extreme, unbalanced approaches usually end in failure—95% of people who undergo weight loss diets end up regaining the weight within 1-5 years. There’s also the risk of developing a debilitating eating disorder, which is eight times more likely for weight-loss dieters.

All you really need to do is make yourself a healthy eating plan that consists of actual food instead of pre-processed garbage, and allow yourself a few delicious treat meals to satiate your natural cravings. You’ll undoubtedly fall off the wagon, but provided you’re sticking to it for the most part, you’ll have a good balance between healthy and unhealthy food, without having to become a mini-Hitler and goose-step your way to failure.

Entertainment

When it comes to entertainment, we’re spoiled as toddlers at Christmas. Netflix offers us an immense selection of movies and shows across an eclectic range of genres, wrapped up in a user interface that is ridiculously easy to use. These days, we rarely have to wait from week-to-week to watch a TV season, instead slithering into our well-worn sagging spot on the sofa, and consuming the whole lot in the course of the day, only rising to grab food from our poorly underpaid Uber Eats driver.

Our phones are also brimming with entertainment—Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, WhatsApp, Twitter—most of them designed to trigger our dopamine response, and keep us hooked.

There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment, but when we spend large portions of our day mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or sit for hours staring at trashy, mindless TV shows—glistening trails of drool running down our chins—we’re sacrificing precious time on activities that allow us to grow as humans: reading, writing, cooking, spending time with friends, meditation, hiking, painting, designing, or any other creative activity that requires patience and effort.

It’s vital that we become more conscious of how much time we spend entertaining ourselves with mindless junk, in order to create space for activities that make us more compelling, complex, and fufilled humans.

Relationships

Solid personal relationships are a key component of a happy life, with the potential to proffer us with extra years, fight off stress, and improve our immune system. Lonely people are more prone to depression, pain, fatigue, and tend to have higher blood pressure in later life.

We need good relationships if we want to be healthy, but it’s crucial that we carve out regular chunks of time for ourselves, so that we maintain a sense of freedom. Being in a stifling relationship—in which your partner or friend is so reliant on you that they’d crumble into dust on your departure—can have the unfortunate effect of making us feel like a superior parent, rather than an equal. Time spent with friends must be balanced with time spent for ourselves—there’s nothing wrong with rejecting a social invite if you’d rather stay at home and finish off the bewitching book that you’ve been reading.

Work

Unless you truly love your work, or are temporarily under pressure to get something done, every additional hour spent at the office is wasted time that could be spent on activities that actually make your heart sing. You probably don’t need to work until 7pm every night in the hope that your boss with lavish you with additional riches, because believe it or not, more money can actually damage your good character.

A good work/life balance will help to keep your stress levels in check, while furnishing you with the time needed to pursue habits that are good for your wellbeing, not just your wallet.

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A good life is achievable, we just need to construct and maintain a careful harmony between the various aspects of our lives—a juggling act that requires practice, and regular assessment. Living with balance is allowing yourself to indulge in unhealthy pleasures, comfortable in the knowledge that you’re regularly doing the right thing, and so staving off shame-inducing guilt. Instead of a rigid strictness—highly tense and susceptible to breakage—living with balance makes us softer, more agreeable, and more likely to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves, giving us the breathing room that we need to be healthier, happier humans.

How pleasure is destroying our planet

If the boffins of the world were able to invent a machine that magically pulled everyone’s desires from their heads, analysis would likely show a motivating force more prevalent than anything else: pleasure. It pervades and influences much of our lives, acting as a primary catalyst for seeking out thrilling sex, delicious food, hypnotic music, and a glut of other experiences too numerous to mention. Sigmund Freud, the pioneering psychoanalyst who may have been a little too enamoured with his mother, developed a “pleasure principle” theory which posited that people have an innate desire to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. His insights demonstrate that pleasure is a huge and inescapable driving force in our lives.

Leap back a couple of millennia, and observe a philosophy that had pleasure as its primary goal: hedonism.

“Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night […] These things alone are the concern of men.” – Siduri

The hedonists believed pleasure to be the highest good, and a legitimate goal of human life. This might be construed as a mortally selfish philosophy, but social obligation and altruism were still considered important, containing hedonistic value in themselves. The world’s most famous wanderers – the Jews – also believed that mankind was created for pleasure, with “Eden” being a translation of the Hebrew word for it. This is the reason that God placed Adam and Eve in the perpetually pleasurable and shameless Garden of Eden. If it wasn’t for that pesky danger noodle sweetly hissing into Eve’s ear, we might not have ended up in such a terrible mess.

In many people’s minds, pleasure is synonymous with all things good. It’s the toothy grin that appears on your face whenever presented with a freshly roasted joint of lamb; the satisfaction that follows after realising that you’ve created an excellent piece of work; the erection that springs to life when presented with something soft and curvy. All truly awesome experiences, to be sought after and savoured. The problem occurs with imbalance, when your primary aim is solely pleasure and nothing else. Attempting to shut out every other emotion aside from pleasure is laughably foolish, sickeningly unhealthy, and completely unrealistic. Our minds and bodies are magnificently complex; we’re equipped to experience a huge range of astonishing, varied emotions, including those interpreted as negative. Many of these unfavourable emotions have a immense measure of utility, which if we just looked a little closer, could be employed to our advantage. Attempting to live your life at one end of the scale just results in disillusionment and burnout. You must take the good with the bad.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’?” – Nietzsche

Pleasure and displeasure; joy and suffering; up and down – these aren’t mortal-enemy dichotomies, they’re part of a single, unbreakable scale. It’s impossible to eliminate one without the other. Remove pleasure, and displeasure must go along with it. What a dreadfully boring, grey world we’d live in if we just experienced pleasure and it’s accompanying emotions. It’s a place similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, a society in which negative experience is expelled, but at the expense of truth; of how our lives should be honestly lived.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A modern version of this idea can be found in the movie Demolition Man, which takes place in a “happy joy joy” dystopian future. Ironically, the entire movie is a gluttonous guilty pleasure.

One of the biggest issues to arise out of pleasure seeking at all costs is economic materialism. Buying stuff provides us with temporary pleasure, and this drives our capitalist economy at an increasingly devastating environmental cost. The relentless warnings from the scientific community don’t appear to be loud enough for our selfish ears, not when there’s pleasure to be had. How did humanity ever reach such a disturbing level of ignorance? The tipping point that we’ve reached can no longer be disregarded, and unless curbed, our greedy, implacable pursuit of pleasure will be what pushes us to self-destruction. Not only is this obviously our most foolish mistake, it’s also completely misguided, because accumulating more and more stuff has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. Hungarian economist Tibor Scitovsky named this a “joyless economy”, in which people eternally chase after comforts, to the detriment of happiness. Research also suggests that when we deny ourselves a pleasure, the next time that we obtain it, we savour it much more. You’ll appreciate your delicious coffee more intensely if you can muster the willpower to have it just once a week. By curbing our substantial impulses towards pleasure, we’re not only making ourselves happier, but we’re saving our planet in the process. This isn’t to suggest that we should become hunger-ravaged ascetics, holding a firm hand up against every possible pleasure that appears before us, but instead take a more cautionary approach in our lives, and consider your own happiness before dive-bombing into temptation. Your life probably wouldn’t be better if it included a petrol-guzzling V8, regardless of the narcissistic pride you might feel when your arm is perched out of its side-window. Neither will it be measurably improved with a pair of fetching designer glasses. These things are ultimately worthless, and just for show.

Pleasure is a good thing when pursued at a healthy and responsible level. Life would be much less exciting without it. But when it presents itself before us, we must have the mindfulness to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s good for us and our planet in the long-run. We have a choice to make: voracious in-the-moment pleasure, or a balanced forgoing that could slowly tip the environmental scales back in our favour, ensuring our continued existence on this glorious planet.

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