The State of America’s Wellness

In a mere 10 minutes this morning, I got a full, detailed snapshot of the state of America’s wellness. I stepped out my front door thrilled to be in the heart of my amazing city excited about the day to come. I wasn’t planning to write an article in my mind as I walked to work. But I was in some exceptionally receptive sensory state and I witnessed people in a few ways that really jumped out at me. The state of America’s wellness quickly came into clear focus for me.

It seemed like everyone was smoking. Around every corner, I ran into more people nervously puffing away. It wasn’t even 8 a.m. and it seemed like the whole city was starting the day wigged out on stress. A stress that could only be mitigated, hyper-transiently of course, by a quick smoke. We’re a very anxious people. Sure the direct effects of smoking are horrific (my mom killed herself at a far too young age via smoking), but the anxiety that pervades the air we breathe is just as troubling as the smoke. It’s no way to live.

There was an early buzz of people walking to a coffee shop or walking to work. And three out of four of them were rockin’ their earbuds. They were podcasting and Pandoraing and NPRing away. Or listening to something else. Anything else but their own sensations, instincts, emotions, and thoughts. As a people, we’re terrified of being with ourselves. We’re afraid of both our real, special, powerful authentic selves and the parts of us that are sorely disappointed that cheering for the Red Sox, getting a good mortgage rate, and wearing the watch from the ad in Men’s Health isn’t fulfilling us like they said it would. Rather than face these truths, we hook up like to an IV to our steady distraction streams. “Just keep it coming.” Whether it’s entertainment or information we’re mainlining, it’s surely a way to avoid what’s really present for us. We don’t like being with our realities very much. In fact, in a 2014 study, subjects preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. (1)

photo-119-woman-walking-to-work

And then there were these robots. I’m not kidding. I saw these creatures walking the streets of Portland literally counting their steps, following a program that requires them to amass a certain number of steps per day. Their masters set the program and communicate to them through watch-like devices. These watches don’t give them the time. They show them commands from their masters: “You’re 400 steps short of your programmed amount for today. Bad girl.” Then they speak to themselves: “Bad girl. Must walk 400 more steps today.” [This article works best if you read these parts in robot voices.] The irony is that these are the people among us that seem to be the most well (things are not always as they seem). Not only do they count their steps, they weigh their bodies each day at the same time, they militantly avoided the nutrient fat in the 80s and they militantly avoid the nutrient carbohydrate these days. What they avoid next will come down from their masters. Your guess is as good as mine. They know firmly what is “good” and “bad” and they love to tell, um preach, to you about it. These highly neurotic body-taker-carers gravitate to wellness related fields and many are personal trainers and nutritionists. So the average person looking for guidance unknowingly, innocently turns to the experts and comes away similarly programmed. When it comes to taking care of our bodies, we’re pretty (or very) neurotic.

I arrived at the co-working space I work out of to the pleasant smell of coffee brewing. Of course I did, right? Nothing says American workplace like coffee. By 8 a.m., most of those I work with are downing their first cup. How could they not be? They got home late on Labor Day in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home from their second home. Then last evening after work (doing the mostly ungratifying job they stay at for the health insurance (yes, that’s ironic) their kids had soccer, gymnastics, and a birthday party to go to. And they still needed to clean the house for guests coming this weekend. It makes me tired just thinking about it. People really enjoy it here at our co-working space as I do and if you took a survey of what they valued most about it, they’d rave about the collaboration on work projects and the fun ways we socialize. But if you took the coffee away, I’m sure the place would go bust. Americans are tired! We don’t sleep and rest enough and we’re drained from unsatisfying work and relationships. What would happen on the streets of any American city at 9 a.m. if you took all the coffee away? There would either be rioting in the streets or everyone would finally go to bed and get the sleep they need. Taking the coffee away would end America as we know it faster than a nuclear bomb.

Am I here to tell you to stop smoking and drinking coffee? Nope. That’s as boring as it is ineffective. Rather, I’d like to offer four powerful wellness boosters that are guaranteed to make you super happy and healthy. When that happens, you just might find that you have no need for any of these stop-gaps.

And know that I’m not here to cast stones. It’s true, I don’t smoke, drink coffee, binge-listen to podcasts, or rock a stylish fluorescent-pink FitBit. But I get anxious, scared about who I really am, neurotic, and tired just like everyone else. Much less than I used to and less and less over time, but I know these ways of being as well as anyone. These four things we can all do this weekend (and I will be) are some fun, effective ways to feel better, and better, and better.

Form/deepen a friendship. Friendship is a precious commodity. True friendship. A relationship in which both people can always be their real selves. A relationship in which each person is able to be with the other person in everything that we experience as people—devastating failure, despair, elation, boredom, massive success, stress—everything. Not dinner-party friends. Not use-each-other-when-we’re-lonely friends. Not Facebook friends. When you’re in true friendship, every cell in your body relaxes deeply. You know you’re not alone in this challenging thing called life and there’s not a much better way to promote wellness for yourself (and your friends). Countless scientific studies show us that true friendship reduces disease and extends life.

Go on dates with yourself. I have one planned for Sunday evening. I’m going to make dinner for myself and rest. After dinner, I’ll probably go for a walk along the waterfront or see what else I feel like doing that evening. I’ve been working a lot and spending a lot of time with my loved ones, so I know this is going to feel extra good. Over time, I’ve come to really enjoy being with myself. Like many people, this used to be very hard for me. I wasn’t good at spending time with myself. I was good at pretending though, when I was actually hanging out with busyness, endorphins, and sometimes the television “on in the background”. Now I love these regular dates with myself. I simply do what I do with my loved ones, but by myself. I enjoy my company. I encourage you to give it a try. You’ll bring even more to your kids and partner and colleagues and friends and clients when you see them next. You can’t give to others what you don’t have. So cultivating love for yourself gives you more to give to others. You may also be surprised to find that what’s inside of you can be a lot more enjoyable than the latest episode of This American Life. What’s inside of you is life.

Let movement and food be play again. Play. It’s your natural way of being and you were this way as a kid. Then someone told you that the reason to exercise was to make the veins pop out of your biceps or to dominate the competition. It’s only true for you if you believe them. Someone told you that the reason to eat was to not be fat. So eating for you is a minefield of evil food that is to be avoided. It’s only true if you believe them. It’s really as simple as this: Do some movement that you really enjoy. I witnessed two of my friends this week laughing like little kids talking about a recent kayaking adventure they shared. They have this down. Are you convinced that exercise has to be serious business to be beneficial? Consider the Okinawans, who are among the longest-living most-well people in the world. They don’t even have a word in their culture for exercise. They move around regularly, but certainly not while wearing heart-rate monitors or frowns that many Americans feel are required for a “good workout”. To have a blast with food, simply go buy any and all whole, natural, real food that you really enjoy and make and savor meals with your family and friends. The real skill is allowing yourself to feel pleasure. What if feeling good was good for you? It turns out it is.

Fall back in love with sleep. Start by making your bed and bedroom a fantastic place to be. Not an okay place to be, a truly fantastic place to be. To live. Because that’s what you do there. You live a third or more of your life there. It’s probably also the place you most often have sex. There’s an incredible opportunity here. You can spend one-third of your life sleeping deeply, lingering and resting, snuggling, and having wake-the-neighbors sex. If you choose to. Or you can stay up late watching boring television shows and getting up early even on weekends because you feel guilty not “getting something done”. What do you want to do with this third of your life?

It’s my firm belief that this kind of self-care is what is needed for us to thrive as individuals and as communities. It all starts with us. Are you with me?

(1) Just Think—The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind. Science, 2014, 345, 6,192, 75-77.

Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.

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