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middle way (samatā)—which states that nirvana can be achieved by walking the line between sensual indulgence and withdrawn asceticism—neither too much pleasure, or too little.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 you can help with global warming

The apocalypse is upon us, and it’s going to be about as pretty as a car-ravaged possum. Environmental scientists have been desperately screaming at the world for years about global warming, and despite their best efforts, we’ve ended up with a final, ominous plea for change. Without immediate and expensive corrections, there’ll be “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. The warning couldn’t be more be vehement – if we want to survive, we’d better start making some changes.

It’s easy to feel small and insignificant in the face of such a task, but 7 billion people can make a big collective impact. Change can only start with us.

“Change only happens when individuals take action. There’s no other way, if it doesn’t start with people.” – Aliya Haq, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Below are some effective ways that you can help to combat climate change.

Your food

Agriculture is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, with a large portion of that coming from livestock. Our eating habits are incredibly important in the battle against global warming.

The primary thing that we might consider is eating less meat, a hard thing to do because it’s so god-damn delicious. Reducing the meat in our diet has a ton of benefits: lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and cancer; you’ll save money, and you won’t be contributing to an industry that treats animals in a horrifyingly cruel way. Farming livestock is also badly inefficient, because the animals need to consume more food than they actually end up producing. Not to mention the cow’s prodigal farting capabilities – humorous to witness, but awfully damaging to our planet. Until lab-grown meat becomes an affordable possibility, you might want to consider opting for some alternative forms of protein for your meals.

It seems obvious, but actually eating the food that you buy is another big improvement. Roughly a third of the food that we produce gets thrown away. A third! That’s an appalling amount of waste, especially when you consider that somebody dies of hunger every second that passes. The next time you’re whining about some minor inconvenience, remember that fact. Wastage can be prevented by buying the amount of food that you actually need (saving you money), and refrigerating or freezing your leftovers for another time.

Food transportation is another factor in this equation, and it can be combatted by choosing to buy locally-sourced food. This is great for the environment, and you’ll be supporting local farmers instead of handing over your hard-earned cash to the voracious supermarket giants. A quick search in Google should illuminate the locations of local farmer’s markets.

Finally, choosing to eat organic food reduces the need for heavily polluting modern industrial practices, and the animals get treated more humanely. Smiley animals are the best animals.

Your home

Cutting down on your power-usage is an effective way to give climate change a mighty kick in the testicles. You might consider switching to a utility company who has an excellent green track record, or be particularly mindful of purchasing energy-efficient appliances.

Does your apartment really need to sit at a frosty, penguin-pleasing 18 degrees? Just a few degrees of difference can save you a lot of money, and you’ll be helping to fight global warming in the process. Similarly, consider clothing yourself in a hoody instead of blasting the heating during winter months.

Some appliances are as hungry as an Iranian at the end of Ramadan, and these should only be used in emergencies. Your dryer is such a device; if possible, hang your clothes out instead. The water heater is another voracious appliance, which can be called into action less frequently if you take shorter hot showers. Or even better, heed the benefits of cold showers and switch to those instead.

Perhaps the most obvious thing that you can do is to recycle. Stop being lazy and walk to the recycling bin.

Your purchases

Stop buying so much unnecessary shit. The short-term pleasure that you feel when making a purchase could be resulting in long-term pain – accumulating stuff has shown to cause a decrease in well-being, and the third-world factories that pump out the limitless, cheaply made junk that you’re buying will continue to be profitable. Don’t continue to feed the beast. Consider becoming a cool-headed minimalist.

“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden

Your protestations

Sadly, our governments have a great deal more power than us, making them the most effective weapon against climate change. They won’t make alterations unless prompted by the people who they govern – us. Engage with your local MP and address your growing concerns. Join or arrange a protest, amplifying your voice to a roaring chorus. Remember that ultimately, power lies with the people. If enough of us shout, we will be heard.

Just 100 of the world’s companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Unless we start protesting against reckless organisations such as these, nothing will happen. Profits will continue to rise, and our planet will choke more fiercely.

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It isn’t too late for us to save our planet, but we must start making immediate changes. The little blue and green globe that we live on cannot continue to be suffocated by our negligent behaviour. The time to act is now.

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Why we fail to improve

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The more recent development of the pre-frontal cortex serves to regulate our behaviour (among other things), and this is why we’re so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We ultimately have two minds, often engaged in bloody battle. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fantastic metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” – Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after gobbling down an unintentional doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it engrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us.

Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification – social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into addicts who start twitching unless we get our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most – the one thing that you’d love to start doing – and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years; prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

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