“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau Walden
There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on these days about the epidemic of “lifestyle diseases.” You know the list: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and by some accounts, depression and neurological disorders. A lot of people are doing good work in these areas but sadly, we don’t seem to be making much progress. These afflictions–also described by the World Health Organization as “non-communicable diseases–continue to kill millions of people worldwide each year.
So maybe it’s time to flip our perspective upside down. Instead of talking about “lifestyle disease,” maybe it’s time to start talking about “diseased lifestyles.” This simple reversal will yield some new insights. Instead of focusing on the illnesses that plague our bodies, let’s get to the heart of the matter, the way we live in the modern world.
The distinction is crucial. A “lifestyle disease” is a pathological medical condition of the body’s tissue or organs: the pancreas is exhausted from trying to keep pace with a flood of refined sugars, the abdomen is distended with pro-inflammatory adipose tissue, the coronary arteries are clogged, the heart is enlarged and the blood pressure is high. A “diseased lifestyle” on the other hand, is a disease of perspective, behavior and relationship; it’s the way we’re living that’s out of whack. There’s something wrong with our relationship with the world and with life itself.
Our lives can become diseased in many ways of course, but for many in the modern world, a common pattern emerges: Most conspicuously, millions of people around the world lack a basic sense of physicality and animal vitality. This is revealed most obviously in epidemics of depression and collapsed body posture, the physical manifestation of defeat and resignation. Likewise, many of us see ourselves as victims of life circumstance. Lacking a sense of meaning and purpose, we simply react to stimuli and pass the time with “junk experience,” mindless, time-killing activities that fail to nourish body or spirit. As our lives become dominated by stress, fear and uncertainty, we lapse into substance abuse and anti-social behavior. Ultimately, life becomes something to be evaded, endured or tolerated, but never celebrated.
But what are the origins of this diseased state of living? And even more to the point, where does lifestyle itself come from in the first place? Obviously, neurobiology has a lot to do with our condition. Beginning with our prenatal experience, the flow of informational substances within our bodies predisposes us to certain behaviors, tendencies that may well persist throughout life. Just as obviously, we mimic one another constantly; we watch how the people around us live and adjust our lifestyles accordingly.
But in today’s world, one of our most powerful influences is consumer culture. The marketing industry doesn’t just sell us products and services, it shapes our identity and manipulates our behavior. This represents a fundamental shift in the way human beings learn the art of living. Our notions of lifestyle now come, not from the teachings of our elders, physicians or genuine health mentors, but from the highly-crafted memes and imagery that appears on our screens and phones. We’ve all heard a perky female voice telling us that some product–usually a food product or nutritional supplement– is “part of a healthy lifestyle.” In this kind of environment, lifestyle isn’t something we create for ourselves. Rather, it’s something that we’re manipulated into. It’s a con, not a creative life path. It’s no wonder that so many of us have diseased lifestyles and lifestyle disease.
So what are we left with? Obviously, we would be fools to let marketing companies shape the trajectories of our lives. It’s imperative that we take matters into our own hands and take control of the narrative. With that in mind, I suggest a new definition. That is, a genuinely healthy human life is:
Authentic: Knowing your meaning and purpose. Taking a risk for what you believe in.
Relational: Viewing our lives in context, in intimate connection to people and habitat.
Skillful: Competence and mastery in the essential tasks of navigating the modern world.
Creative: Innovative, improvisational, adaptive and playful. An aesthetic orientation.
Awake: Attentive, engaged, intentional, curious and aware.
That’s it; a six-spoke wheel of health and integration. We can create a thousands of variations on these simple themes, but taken together, they add up to a truly beautiful practice. If we can heal our lifestyles with this kind of orientation, it will go a long way towards healing our epidemic of lifestyle disease.