“He had had much experience of physicians, and said ‘the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not.’”

Mark Twain

Following the Equator

 

Like most people, I want to be healthy. And like many, I turn to the Internet on occasion to find out how to do it. All goes well at the beginning, but after awhile I start to get a creepy sense that something’s backwards. Everywhere I look, people are telling me what not to do. In fact, much of the advice sounds like the nagging of a stern moralist:

  • don’t sit, don’t slouch
  • don’t smoke
  • don’t eat grain, gluten or sugar
  • don’t eat dairy
  • don’t expose yourself to toxic chemicals, endocrine disruptors or electromagnetic radiation
  • don’t work too hard or get stressed
  • don’t get socially isolated
  • don’t stay up late

Health is beginning to sound like it’s mostly a matter prohibition. In fact, much of the advice that’s dispensed in the name of health sounds suspiciously like a set of commandments issued by a religious authority. Thou shall not eat grains. Thou shall not eat sugar. Thou shall not be sedentary.

Health zealots are passionate about telling other people what not to do; their favorite word seems to be “no.” If people would just follow their prohibitions, the challenges of obesity, diabetes, depression and lifestyle disease would simply disappear, so they say.

But where did this negative attitude towards health and life come from? Surely it wasn’t a central theme in the Paleo. There were taboos to be sure: Don’t eat this plant. Don’t commit incest. Don’t anger the ancestors. But still, most of one’s energy would have gone into exploration, finding food and avoiding predation. Health was more about doing than not-doing.

The most obvious problem with prohibition is that it tends to suck the joy out of life. Assaulted by don’ts, we begin to feel boxed in, constrained and grumpy. This saps our energy and dilutes our zest for living.

But the biggest downside of lifestyle prohibition is that it backfires. As soon as we prohibit something, we turn it into a forbidden fruit with powerful seductive qualities. Mark Twain knew this tendency well. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he described Tom’s reaction when a temperance movement came to town and made him promise to give up smoking and swearing:

“Now he found out a new thing–namely, that to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.” Suddenly, Tom wanted to smoke and swear."

It works the same way for all the forbidden fruits. Tell me that I shouldn’t eat gluten and the first thing I want to do is cook up a stack of pancakes. Tell me that I shouldn’t consume sugar, the next thing I want to do is cover those pancakes with syrup and whipped cream. Even more to the point, I just don’t like being told what not to do. I am a wild animal, a creature of the Paleo, and I push back against anyone who would tell me how to live.

Prohibition turns the quest for health into an epic battle with the forces of temptation. Like Ulysses, we feel the need to tie ourselves to the mast of the ship so that we may resist the seductions of the modern world. But this only increases our stress. Even worse, success can only be measured only in terms of things that don’t happen, temptations that we don’t succumb to, events and experiences that don’t take place.

In this paradigm, health is nothing more than a matter of willpower and a powerful prefrontal cortex. If you’ve got good inhibitory circuits in your brain, you’ll be able to keep your impulses in check and in turn, be healthy. But this all sounds so onerous and so dull. I don’t want to succeed in health and life by virtue of things I don’t do, I want to actually enjoy, create, explore and celebrate.

We’d do a lot better if we got serious about the upsides of health and life. Instead of offering up long, dreary lists of prohibition, how about offering some dos for a change? How about telling our clients, patients and each other to simply try this…

  • play more, especially on natural terrain
  • eat real food and enjoy it
  • challenge your body with gravity and momentum
  • go outdoors and expose yourself to natural light
  • expose yourself to challenge and risk
  • find something that you love and do that thing
  • follow your curiosities
  • touch other people, have lots of sex, build oxytocin levels
  • find something to laugh about
  • create something interesting, valuable and meaningful

The beauty of this positive approach is that it removes us from the battlefield of temptation. Now the focus of our attention is on the things we are trying to create; the lure of the possible becomes far more interesting than the prospect of failure. If you’re in love with your art, there’s no big need for willpower. You’re more interested in making something happen than in avoiding the traps along the way.

Suddenly, health begins to feel a whole lot healthier. 

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