Life is short, the Art is long, opportunity fleeting, experience delusive, judgment difficult.
In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner famously speculated that people have more than on kind of intelligence. In his classic book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner identified 7 forms of intelligence: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, and naturalistic. He later suggested that existential and moral intelligence might also make the list.
Gardener’s theory was interesting in its own right, but it also gives us a platform for further speculation. Might there be other forms of intelligence that go beyond Gardner’s original list? In particular, health advocates might be inclined to wonder if there’s such a thing as lifestyle intelligence or lifestyle IQ. Many of us have been coming to grips with public health problems of the modern age: lifestyle disease and diseased lifestyles are epidemic. And if there's such a thing as lifestyle intelligence, we might even imagine that some of our friends and colleagues are lifestyle geniuses while others are lifestyle bozos.
Of course, we are quick to jump to cartoons. Many of us will simply assume that the lifestyle genius eats all the right foods, does all the right exercises, follows all the best stress-relieving practices and lives according to the latest discoveries of health science. The lifestyle bozo on the other hand, eats a diet of junk food, lays around on the couch for months at a time, stresses about everything and generally ignores the state of his body. But as we’ll see, it’s not so simple. The fundamental problem of human experience and lifestyle is that the world moves. Seasons change, people come and go, jobs change, bodies transform, values and priorities shift. Our lives are intrinsically chaotic; no person inhabits the same river twice. This is why rigid formulas and recipes for healthy living tend to be ineffective, impractical and even irrelevant. This is also why lifestyle intelligence – the application of wisdom and judgment in the face of dynamic conditions – is such a vital aptitude.
With this in mind, consider the lives of two characters. On the one hand, Bob is a lifestyle bozo. He happens to be in pretty good shape at the moment; he’s muscular and fit, but as you’ll see, his condition is not sustainable. Bob is obsessive about his sports, his health and his fitness. He works out on a precisely periodized schedule, maximized and optimized to his individual chronobiology and epigenetics. He researches, plans and organizes every detail of his exercise and diet regimen. He counts his miles, his reps, his laps, his carbs and his protein. He’s got a before-workout meal and an after-workout meal. He checks his heart rate several times each day, logs his sleep and tracks it all with a FitBit. He makes damn sure that nothing interferes with his optimized way of life. For Bob, it’s all about sticking with Plan A.
For Bob, all goes well until his idealized, utopian program comes into contact with the dynamism of real world. When conditions threaten his perfect plan, Bob becomes stressed, angry, unhappy and boorish. He tries to force conditions back into whatever box he thinks they belong. In the process, he creates friction between himself and the world. He just can’t cope with any kind of sub-optimal training environment or sub-optimal nutritional conditions. He’s highly adapted to his training regimen, but he’s not adaptable to change. His body may well be strong, but his lifestyle is brittle, fragile and maladaptive. His long-term prognosis is not good.
In contrast, Julie is a lifestyle genius. She’s active and she cares about her health, but she cares about other things too. She knows the basic fundamentals of health, diet and exercise, but she knows that life is messy and that compromise is essential. In practice, Julie is a lifestyle opportunist. She makes good choices and prefers the healthy path, but she’s not surprised when circumstances change. Instead of resisting conditions, she makes the most of what’s she’s got. For diet and nutrition, she follows an 80-20 program. That is, she’s attentive to high-quality food 80% of the time, but she's not a zealot about it. She favors nutritious foods, but she’s not about to let a little bit of gluten ruin her day either.
Likewise, if she misses a workout, it’s not a catastrophe. She trusts her body to take care of itself. If a class is cancelled or it rains on her outdoor workout, she finds some other kind of movement to keep her body happy. In general, Julie has a great relationship with ambiguity and has no problem with Plan B or C or D. Frustrations and complications are not enemies to be vanquished; they are the very stuff of life. She’s fluid.
Julie's lifestyle intelligence and adaptability reminds us of a practice called bricolage. This French word refers to the act of creating from a diverse range of available things. The bricoler isn’t locked in to any one set of materials, tools or methods. Rather, she uses whatever she’s got on hand to create the effect she’s looking for. Scraps of this or that, spare parts, stray bits of material, odd moments in time; it’s all potentially useful. Instead of waiting around for the perfect conditions, she uses whatever she’s got to make her body happy.
This is the vital difference. Lifestyle intelligence isn’t really about the particulars of diet and exercise. Rather, it’s about creating health out of whatever conditions we encounter. Sure, our health tends to improve when we choose good food and good moves, but this is only a starting point. Life is always throwing monkeywrenches into our schedules and our plans. We can fight back against this fact or we can practice some improv. Ultimately, health is a series of judgment calls; the sooner we get that through our heads, the better.