There seem to be two major coping mechanisms for burnt out, stressed out, unsatisfied twenty-something urbanites these days:
1) go out and get drunk every weekend and hook-up with copious amounts of other burnt out, stressed out, unsatisfied twenty-something urbanites, or 2) drink green smoothies, do bikram yoga, and take copious amounts of wheatgrass supplements.
Neither of these is the answer, and both I find hilarious.
By and large, the renewed health consciousness we’re seeing among millennials is a good thing. We should definitely educate ourselves about basic nutrition, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, avoid foods with harmful chemicals and too much sugar, and exercise enthusiastically, but applying surface-level changes to a lifestyle that is fundamentally off-balance is like trying to throw a new coat of paint over a broken-down 1976 Volkswagen and pass it off as a “restored vintage.” If the engine’s shot, you’re just wasting paint.
Dan Buettner, a man who’s spent the last years studying communities on Earth with impressive longevity, says some of the most important qualities allowing groups of people to reach over 100 years old have less to do with pure diet and exercise and more to do with being part of a tight-knit community, maintaining loving long-term relationships, living in a peaceful natural environment, having a spiritual stronghold, avoiding processed foods and not over-eating, engaging in meaningful work, and staying consistently and gently physically active throughout their lives.
Let’s examine these categories to see where both the bikram-crazed Brooklynite and the bar-hopping San Franciscan are lacking — and then identify more substantial lifestyle changes oriented around total well-being.
1. Tight-knit community.
I’m an excellent example of why the modern over-achiever finds it very hard to form a community as tight-knit as the ones studied by Buettner in rural parts of Italy and Japan: I was born and raised in upstate New York, went to university in North Carolina, spent summers and semesters on every continent, moved to New York City for two years, quit my consulting job, moved to a new country every three months for another job, and now work for myself and travel independently.
My community is scattered across the globe and held together by digital links and sporadic fly-in visits. My peers are no different: born in one part of the country, attended university in another, went abroad, came home, worked in another part of the country, traveled again… Then I compare our way of life to communities I see in India, China, or Ethiopia for instance, where extended families all live under one roof, where neighbors have been neighbors for generations, where someone loses a job and the whole community pitches in to feed his family and help him find work, and naturally there’s a stark difference.
Not that one is necessarily better than the other, but there are very healthy elements of those tight communities that we should strive to incorporate into our geographically disjointed lives:
the accountability they have to each other, the sacrifices they make for the benefit of the whole community, the service they perform for one another, the love they constantly give and receive, the depth of understanding and awareness they have of their neighbor.
We can can start by raising the priority of community in our lives and improving the quality of our contribution to the ones we’re already a part of, however far-flung they may be. We can also seek out additional opportunities to serve those around us and foster a deeper sense of community wherever we may be. Being there for others has far greater benefits for the health and well-being of ourselves and those around us than any green juice.
2. Loving long-term relationships.
A closely related consequence of moving away from home, living farther from a stable community, and in one way or another prioritizing career opportunities over, well, love is a reduction in the number of deep and committed long-term relationships one is reasonably able to foster and maintain. Love is so important for health, happiness, and prosperity in a purely non-economic sense.
We know this, and it hurts us to work and live far from friends and family or to break up with someone because of a job or schooling opportunity. Sometimes these choices are inevitable, other times we can exercise the courage to choose a less prestigious or independent path in favor of…love. We can spend more time and energy on one another, and invest in our relationships with the same rigor we invest in our education, the stock market, and opportunities to travel the world.
3. Peaceful natural environment.
Some of the communities with greatest longevity are located in places like Sardinia and Okinawa, not hectic urban centers with smog, pollution, and forests of gray buildings (but don’t worry, plenty of hip bars and restaurants to spend your money in). Many twenty-first century humans are fundamentally disconnected from nature, and studies show that people who spend more time in close contact with nature are happier and healthier. Of course, “sexy” urban centers tend to be where the “sexy” jobs are, so many of us will continue to congregate in these areas.
Some practical remedies include spending weekends in the countryside, relocating to cities with job opportunities and greener spaces, and simply becoming aware of how your physical environment affects your peace of mind — and questioning whether you want to continue to live in congested, high-density areas.
4. Spiritual stronghold.
By spiritual, I don’t necessarily mean religious, but that’s one route some people take. I simply mean the connection to your Inner Being, the you beneath the career, the fancy degree, the head swimming with thoughts and plans and ideas, and the physical being nourished with wheatgrass shots and gym memberships. Buettner says the communities of centenarians studied all had a spiritual practice, which is estimated to be worth 4-14 additional years of life.
Many people spend their whole lives without realizing that you are not your mind, you are not your thoughts, you are not your body, you are not your job, you are not your familial role, you are not even male or female, you are the observer of all these societal and biological functions, you are an essence that is intimately related to — and interconnected with — every being in the universe. Spend time removing yourself on a regular basis from the ephemeral, demanding, and confusing external world, and explore the depths of your internal world. Only by knowing your truest Self can you live a truly wholesome and purposeful life.
5. Processed foods and over-indulging.
This is one area where (well-educated) Americans are making significant progress, becoming aware of the importance of eating natural foods, reducing meat, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol consumption, and avoiding processed, chemical-laden products. However, this healthy awareness has turned into an utter obsession for many, taking time and energy away from more important challenges.
The takeaway, as Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules, would echo: Eat food and not too much. Don’t waste your time reading articles about the newest “superfood” or best nutritional supplement — you already know what’s basically good for your body. (If you’re not sure, Michael Pollan’s book is the only thing you need to read about overhauling your diet.)
6. Meaningful work.
If a sizable portion of the modern workforce wasn’t miserable at work, I would be out of a job, and so would the $10 billion dollar self-development industry. Our purpose-driven millennial generation is especially unsatisfied with the long hours, little creativity, and minimal flexibility of consumer-driven, money-multiplying industries and an antiquated work structure generated during the agricultural revolution. Even if you hadn’t realized the intimate link between career and health, it’s never too late to make a change.
Pursue what you love, live well below your means, put money in its place, and don’t live a life that’s just setting you up to accumulate possessions. Remember: You work to live, not live to work. Too many people chase money, power, and recognition, forgetting their internal compass and ignoring the damage a lack of “ikigai” (Google it!) is doing to their body, mind, and spirit.
7. Consistent, gentle physical activity.
The average American urbanite drives or rides to and from work, sits from 8 to 6, and perhaps engages in bursts of physical exertion a couple times per week at the gym or yoga studio. While certainly better than no exercise at all, it’s still inferior to a lifestyle that naturally incorporates a consistent level of physical activity.
All the oldest members of centenarian-dense communities were still physically active at 97, 102, or 104 years old and had been their entire lives. Consider looking at more sustainable solutions like living in a neighborhood where you can ride a bike or walk to work everyday to complement your weekly “bursts” of exercise. Even maintaining a garden or living on the top floor and frequently taking the stairs incorporates additional physical activity with long-term health benefits.
The best of intentions.
The green-smoothie-drinking-bikram-yogi has good intentions — we all do. We all want to live long lives, to treat one another well, to feel healthy and fulfilled from the inside out, but society doesn’t make it easy. Logistics, money, ignorance, and technology get in the way, among other obstacles. We have to strive for a wholesome well-being and foster an active awareness of which changes to our lives are superficial, and which actually uproot the most harmful and deeply-rooted challenges, habits, and mindsets.