6 Simple Habits for Greater Meaning
Being stuck inside during the coronavirus is tough. Worse, it can lead to slacking off on the daily life maintenance that maintains your health and well-being. One of the difficult parts of life is that improvement and deterioration are incremental, so you don't always notice them. For example, you don't always stop exercising, eat only fast food, reduce your sleep hours, and don't leave the house all at once. Instead, you usually miss one good night's sleep, which leads you to have an unhealthy meal, which leads you to feeling like you are not up for exercise, which leads you to staying at home and watching too much TV. The deterioration builds one bad decision at a time, and then the negative emotions like anxiety and depression build to the point where you wonder how things got so bad without anything major going wrong.
If you want to maintain your health and well-being or turn around a downward spiral, the cheapest, fastest, and easiest (i.e., as in "just need to do it") ways to stop is a combination of exercise, fresh air and sunlight, meditation, sleep, and slightly healthier eating. It sounds like boring advice and more time-consuming than taking a pill, but understanding why this combination works will hopefully help you see how it's the path of least resistance and motivate you to adopt the above practices.
Assuming that it’s not a brain wiring/chemistry issue (note: if you think it might be, please see a healthcare professional), why do people start to feel negative emotions such as depression and anxiety in life on a regular basis for seemingly unknown reasons? Well, body and brain health are intertwined, so not conducting regular maintenance for both will lead to people feeling worse on a day-to-day basis without any clear, acute causes. Worse, you might exaggerate any small issue and make it seem much worse than it is. Negative emotions from physical and mental ailments bring down your entire worldview, affecting your desire, beliefs, experiences, and—as a result—your sense of meaning in life.
Let's go through each life maintenance habits that will help you maintain health, which will allow you to live with a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Each habit has a scientific explanation as to how it affects your well-being and what happens when you don't perform these activities:
- Exercise – The human body evolved based on the idea that they moved for hours and hours per day hunting, gathering, fighting off predators, and migrating. In today’s society, there are people who only get up a few times per day to go to the bathroom and spend the rest of the time in bed—and some don’t even do that! Exercise—specifically, the endorphins from moving and the positive impact of movement on the lymphatic system (for immune response) and digestive system (for bowel movements)—was a natural part of everyday life and necessary for the body to function normally. Conclusion: If you don’t move enough, your body will not work as well, and you’ll feel worse. It is arguable that exercise has more to do with maintaining your well-being than it does with your physical fitness.
- Fresh Air and Sunlight – Humans evolved outside. Yes, they built shelters, but none of them were hermetically sealed. Now, we live in energy-efficient boxes with minimal air transfer. We also received a lot of sunlight, as anyone with more skin pigmentation will demonstrate. Now, we can go months without our skin being touched by the sun while we're inside and wearing thick clothing during the winter months. SAD, for example, is a form of depression that is basically caused by the amount of daylight you’re receiving. The lack of sunlight and fresh air could be contributing to your negative attitude and inhibiting your well-being.
- Meditation – Humans evolved to solve difficult problems, but they also only faced a few decisions and problems per day. Today, we’re being bombarded with information, problems, and decisions. It’s overwhelming, which can cause both anxiety and depression. You need to turn off the alarm bells and give them a chance to reset, or you’ll never get off the vicious cycle. There are a lot of ways to do this, but one universal solution that everyone can agree on is meditation. Meditation is effectively the act of shutting down the mind to alleviate these feelings. I won’t give you a clinic on meditation in this post, but suffice it to say that it makes you stop having the thoughts that cause those emotions, it makes you let go of any emotions you already have, and it forces you to stop taking in new stimuli that trigger these responses. When you put it that way, it sounds like the most obvious thing in the world to do…but it, unfortunately, is still heavily associated with new-age/spiritual/religious practices, so it’s often not known to be a completely scientific, secular approach to stopping your emotions. Most importantly, deep breathing is scientifically proven to slow down your sympathetic nervous system (the one that causes anxiety) and improve your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that helps you relax). Stop thinking, relax your body, and breathe deeply—simple, but effective.
- Sleep – Humans did not evolve with alarm clocks. In fact, humans used to sleep when it was dark not just to recharge the brain and recover the body but also because it was safer and they couldn’t really see very well, anyway. It was only with candles and lightbulbs that people started staying up late to do things—and you'd be amazed that only wealthy people stayed up late at first since candles were expensive!!! Now, we’re staying up until 2 am and getting up at 7 to get ready for work. Sleep and mental health and acuity go hand in hand. Sleep-deprived drivers are as impaired as drunk drivers. The brain can’t work as well. Moodiness and irritability goes through the roof. Negative thinking—the source of anxiety and depression—increases exponentially. Without sleep, you’ll enter a bad, bad place. If you want to get well, go to sleep at the same time every night and get the amount of sleep that makes you feel well-rested in the morning (usually between 7–9 hours, but it varies).
- Healthier Eating – Notice that I don’t say healthy eating—it’s not about eating lettuce and grapefruit and hoping you can sustain that long enough before you go crazy and binge on fast food. It’s about two things: making sure you get some fruits and vegetables in your diet and reducing the fat, salt, and sugar levels. That’s it (for now). Your diet and your well-being are linked in ways that you may not have ever considered. They did one study that found that oral health, for example, lowered the risk of some really bizarre psychological conditions (I won’t list them here, but you should look them up). What goes in your mouth and down your throat really, really matters. But no one can sustain those fad diets for long, and the “good stuff” really does taste good…so, what can you do? Just change one thing. Eat a banana/apple/orange every day with breakfast. Make sure to add vegetables to one meal per day. Reduce your fast food consumption to just a few times per week vs. daily. Take a vitamin every day for a week and see if your mood changes (i.e., to see if you're not getting enough of something), and then see if you can change your diet to incorporate more of specific nutrients. The easiest solution: drink water. Sugar can contribute to your anxiety by making you more hyper/alter, while salt can contribute through raising your blood pressure. Eating a lot of high-calorie, fatty/starchy foods can make you feel lethargic, which is not good for someone battling depression.
So, each one of these actions/activities contribute to your well-being, and not doing them could be contributing to your negative attitude or other issues. Best of all, they are all either free or, in the case of healthier food, have no-to-minimal additional cost to what you were already spending (note: the idea that eating healthy food has to be more expensive is a myth; frozen veggies and bananas are as cheap as frozen french fries and hot dogs).
Now, I know that these can seem more difficult to do than taking a pill or some other "quick fix" solution, but it’s actually much, much easier if you can overcome the change-resistance to get the habits started. It costs less, you don’t have to drive anywhere to do/get them (unless you go to a gym), and you will feel better without adding more than an hour or two of extra stuff to do per week while saving hours and hours of misery in bed obsessing over or dreading the day’s events.
Change these six things about your life, and they will change you. You will be a completely different person. A better person. A healthier person. A less negative person. The healthier experiences, emotions, beliefs, and desires will lead to a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment in your life.