The 4 Things You Need to Live a Healthy + Happy Life
And how to maximize all four so that YOU can live a healthy, happy live
“A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” — Albert Einstein
Years ago, my dad’s old friend was told by his doctor that his weight and diet were quickly shoving him toward an early death.
The doctor told him that if he did not cut down on his favorite sugary and fatty foods, he would be in imminent danger of a life-threatening heart attack.
But a few weeks after this pronouncement, my dad saw his friend at work, chowing down on a box of donuts.
“Didn’t your doctor tell you that you shouldn’t eat donuts?” he asked, concerned. “Isn’t that bad for your health?”
The man looked up. “I love donuts,” he said. “I can’t just give them up because my doctor told me to. I’d rather be happy eating donuts and die early, than live a long and miserable life without donuts.”
A lot of us have trouble living a “good life,” because we aren’t quite sure what that really means.
There’s a lot of noise out there, and extremely clever advertisers, trying to tell us that a good life means having the latest gadget or a lot of money or attention.
But what TRULY makes life good?
For my dad’s friend, a good life meant being happy, and being happy meant being able to eat donuts whenever he wanted.
But later, when he developed health issues as predicted by his doctor, he was certainly not happy.
Was it worth it? Short term donut-happiness for long term hospital-pain?
Certainly, health is a big factor in how good or not our lives are. But what factors truly contribute to real health and happiness?
After doing much research and thinking, I’ve come to the conclusion that people really only need four basic things for a truly happy and healthy life.
(And I’m afraid they aren’t the four things Einstein mentioned, above. Although he’s probably not far from the truth in his own way 😉)
Two belong to the “physical” category (food, exercise), and two belong to the “metaphysical” category (work, love).
Here they are, in order of increasing significance:
THE PHYSICAL FACTORS
1. Good food (and drink!)
Eating can be an extremely sensitive topic.
Just observe what happens when someone on the SAD (Standard American Diet) meets a vegan or vegetarian. There’s often a sense of discomfort, unease, or at the very least, distance.
Because eating is about a lot more than just putting something in our mouths and swallowing.
The way we consume things has a great deal of impact on not only ourselves, but people around us.
What we choose to eat affects our bodies, but it also affects the way we socialize, the things we buy, the way the food market evolves, the way farmers and other food producers produce or obtain food to sell us, and ultimately, our entire world.
A lot of the food we think is healthy, isn’t actually healthy.
And we get so mired in the details of counting calories, obsessing over supplements, and trying to learn the meaning of big words like aspartame, hydrolyzed protein, and hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (just kidding about that last one!) that we lose track of how our food choices are really impacting us, and those around us.
My dad’s friend, for instance, liked the taste of donuts, and was willing to risk a heart attack for the privilege of continuing to eat his favorite treat.
But the sugar and oil in donuts and other similar foods are known to cause negative mental and physical conditions like lethargy and obesity, which creates a domino effect of other consequences — from depressed mood and a bad temper to, of course, heart disease.
He also didn’t fully consider the idea that while he might be okay with the idea of sacrificing his health and future for the pleasure of eating donuts, his family and friends might not.
Obviously, what we eat is critical to our well-being, in more ways than one.
We all know that eating a box of donuts in one sitting is not healthy, but what IS a truly healthy diet?
The problem is, no one seems to know.
Of course, we know some things, and there are plenty of experts hawking new discoveries everywhere you turn. In this Information Age, particularly, the sheer quantity of food-related information available to us is overwhelming.
- Some say a glass of wine with dinner is healthy. Others say alcohol has absolutely zero health benefits and should be avoided at all costs.
- Some say humans need to consume meat for protein. Others happily eschew meat from their diets and appear to be none the worse.
- Some say people need to drink milk for healthy bones. Others say milk actually depletes calcium from your bones.
- Some say moderation is key — it’s fine to eat questionable or even plain unhealthy foods, as long as you don’t overdo it. Others say, if you know it’s unhealthy, why put it in your body at all?
In general, we have too much. Too much food choices, too much information, too much confusion.
Of course, for some people with certain sensitivities or physical conditions such as diabetes or celiac disease, understanding the intricacies of their diet is extremely important.
But for the rest of us, we’ve made eating way too complicated.
The problem is, it’s hard to navigate the complicated world of nutrition to figure out what really is best for us. Decades of preserved/processed foods, technology, and advertising has confused us so thoroughly that we often don’t realize how our food is affecting us.
We eat a lot of the things we eat not because they’re good for us, but because we think they taste good, or because society expects us to.
But neither of those factors may be the perfect guide. People can develop a taste for a vast variety of foods, not all of which are actually healthy. And just because everyone eats X, does not necessarily mean X is truly good for you.
So, with all that said, how can we eat better?
A) Question your assumptions
There are too many nutrition “experts” out there, and they aren’t all real experts.
So listen to your body more than you listen to the news. Your body is miraculously and ingenuously designed (in other words: it’s pretty smart). If it doesn’t feel good, it will tell you — if you’re willing to listen.
Don’t assume that something is healthy just because everyone says so. Pay attention to how that food actually affects your health — in the short and long term.
It’s your body, and if you’re educated enough to read this article, you are educated enough to perform some experiments and do the research to figure out what foods are really best for you.
B) Plan ahead
When you already know what you need to eat, the best way to fall off the wagon and start consuming things you know are not good for you, is to not be prepared.
I’m not saying you have to spend ten hours every Sunday preparing your entire week’s meal plan ahead of time (unless you want to).
But don’t allow yourself to just “go with the flow” and pick up things here and there whenever you’re hungry. If you do that, you are more likely to eat unhealthily than healthily — it’s the way our current environment is designed.
So plan ahead, in whatever way works best for you, so that you fuel up with the highest quality foods.
C) Take your time
Sometimes we simply eat too fast to take note of what we’re actually putting in our bodies.
I was once asked to eat a granola bar slowly, paying close attention to the taste. It was one of my favorite brands, and I used to pack such granola bars for a quick snack during long commutes or breaks in class.
But, bizarrely, when I actually chewed the bar slowly, I realized that it didn’t taste good at all!
In the past, I tended to gulp down the bar, enjoying the sugar content.
Yet when I slowed down to eat the granola bar, I realized that the sugar was too sweet, and besides, I could taste other weird and unpleasant chemicals that I never noticed when I was scarfing down the bar all those other times.
That incident taught me how mindlessly modern people tend to eat, and how that can easily trick us into eating things we shouldn’t.
Take your time. Pay attention to how things really taste. Let your body teach you what fuels it best.
D) Try the Shiny Bag Diet
I don’t like to promote particular diets, but I like this particular one from my middle school Physical Education teacher mostly because it’s so simple:
Basically, don’t eat anything that comes in a shiny bag (or any kind of human-made packaging).
That means no potato chips or takeout or TV dinners. But yes fresh fruit and veggies and home-made dinners made of such ingredients.
Some people find this diet too restrictive, so try it for a time and see if it helps you. If not, don’t think you have to stick to it. Refer to Point A.
2. Sufficient Exercise
If you’re a homebody like me, seeing this point on the list probably made you sigh. I’m afraid I don’t like exercise. Like, at all.
But I can’t refute the fact that it’s necessary for all human beings to be physically active.
According to a post from Harvard Medical School, “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to health risks. A sedentary lifestyle can hurt you in ways you don’t even realize, including:
- Potentially developing deadly blood clots from over-sitting
- Increasing your risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers
- Elevated blood sugar, which can contribute to diabetes
- And other adverse effects, from insomnia and impotence to backaches and increased risk of dementia.
This is bad news for many in the Millenials and Internet generation.
I’m the type of person that tends to view my body as the vehicle which carries my mind, rather than an entity that requires care and protection for its own sake.
And I’m willing to bet a lot of folks on Medium (especially regular visitors) have the same attitude sometimes.
But if you really want your mind to work well, you have to pay attention to your body’s needs, and one of its needs is the need to move.
Hordes of writers have already expounded on the benefits of exercise, including…
- Improving your emotional health — the release of endorphins makes you feel happy
- Promoting excess-weight loss — which reduces your risk of developing obesity-related diseases
- Toning your muscles and strengthening your bones — which can prevent future disabilities and injuries
- Making you look prettier (or handsomer (?)) — by delaying your skin’s aging
…So I won’t go into further detail on the benefits, except to say that if you’re like me, exercise is a lot more powerful and critical to a “good life” than you might think.
For instance, top Medium writer Benjamin P. Hardy once mentioned how he completely transformed from a traumatized, video-game-obsessed youngster who barely graduated high school into what he is today: a successful writer, mentor, and family man.
One of the major steps in Ben Hardy’s journey of change occured when he took up running, going out at night to jog for hours at a time. Not long after that, Hardy went on a missions trip to serve others, and came back a completely changed man.
And he isn’t the only one whose life has changed dramatically for the better in part because of a healthy use of exercise.
Some parents have noticed that their children with autism have found self-confidence through running, and even improved in social awareness, communication, and motivation.
And famous Olympian, WWII POW survivor, and evangelist Louis Zamperini grew up as a mischievous kid headed for big trouble, until his brother got him into running.
Exercise, undertaken regularly and in the right doses, can literally change your life, pulling it back from the brink of disaster, giving you the energy and focus you need to build a better you.
THE METAPHYSICAL FACTORS
3. Meaningful work
“What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” — Viktor Frankl, psychologist and Holocaust survivor
King Solomon, commonly known as one of the (if not the) wisest man in ancient history, tells us:
“there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.” — Ecclesiastes 3:22
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” — Ecclesiastes 9:10
In other words, we all need to work at something, and it has to be something you go at with “all your might.” (In other words, something you find meaningful).
Some people think they will only be happy if they can live like they’re on vacation every day, sipping pina coladas on the beach.
But in reality, that kind of life will bore you to tears faster than you think. (There’s a reason why retirement is dangerous)
Work — meaningful work — is a critical piece in the happy-healthy-life puzzle.
Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and founder of logotherapy (a branch of psychology built on the foundation that human beings’ greatest drive comes not from the desire for power or sex, but for meaning) noted that he himself was able to survive the horrors of Auschwitz because of his work:
Before he was arrested by the Nazis, Frankl had been working on his magnum opus, a book introducing his concepts of logotherapy. When he was placed in a concentration camp, the book was taken from him.
Frankl decided that he had to survive the camp in order to rewrite his lost book, and at the same time, use his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner as material for the book.
And he did.
Though Frankl suffered greatly, as all the other Holocaust victims did, what kept him going was the importance of his work and his belief that he could use even the horrors of his Holocaust experiences as evidence to support his ideas as a psychologist.
We, too, need to find meaning in our work for a good life.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do what you love, but it does mean you have to love what you do — or at least find it meaningful.
Granted, all human beings have different interests and backgrounds, which makes us suited for different kinds of work. Salespeople may not be able to do what surgeons do, and vice versa. But both kinds of work can be and are meaningful.
Almost all kinds of work (I’m talking legal, productive work, not the kind that hurts other people — that’s not real work) can be meaningful, when done by the right people with the right attitude.
You just have to figure out how to work meaningfully. Sometimes that means looking for work that will be a perfect fit for your talents and interests. Sometimes that means changing yourself to BE the perfect fit for your work.
One way or another, if you have meaningful work to do, you are one-fourth of the way there to a healthy and happy life.
4. To love and be loved
“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own” — Robert A. Heinlein
In the book Blue Zones, about the seven longest-lived communities in the world, author Dan Buettner relates the story of a 100-year-old Sardinian grandmother named Maria who once fell seriously ill.
The family gathered, expecting that she might not make it.
But when Maria’s grandson, who was not doing well in school, came to tell her how much he’d miss her, she opened her eyes and said “I’m not going anywhere until you graduate university.”
Maria recovered from her illness, and her grandson graduated.
That is the power of love.
Love LITERALLY saves lives, no exagerration.
It also makes life worth living.
Because, lets face it, life is awful sometimes. People go through unimaginably painful situations every day.
But if you know someone loves you, and you have someone to love, you can bear just about anything.
Even if your life is short, if you’ve spent it giving and receiving love, you will have no regrets.
Choose Living Over Surviving
Of course, there are a lot of other things you can add to the above list. Shelter and clothing, of course, are necessary for life, as is, say, oxygen.
But these elements are a little too obvious, and there’s not much action or thought required for these. They’re also more about basic SURVIVAL than about living a HAPPY & HEALTHY life.
You either have oxygen to breathe, and live; or you don’t, and die.
So I chose to limit this list to the four above, because these are all things that you need to make decisions about:
- You choose what you eat
- you choose how and how much you exercise
- you choose the work you do
- and you choose who to love.
It’s up to you.
What is the RIGHT choice differs from person to person, but don’t be deceived into focusing on other things.
Fame, money, power, etc. — those things don’t matter to your overall health and happiness, except insofar as they affect the Big Four.
Ultimately, if you put good fuel into your body, choose to stay active, find a meaningful job or choose to find meaning in your current job, and link yourself to others through love, you will be able to create a healthy, happy life no matter what.
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