Living the Humanist Life

Living the Humanist Life February 15, 2008

In the past, I’ve written much about the philosophy of humanism and how it offers a transcendent, spiritual view of life’s purpose that is at least as appealing as anything offered by religion (and in fact, is superior – at least in my opinion).

Well and good, but I’ve been thinking lately that what we need is a set of practical guidelines for living life as a humanist. Holding this lofty view in moments of deep reflection or contemplation is one thing, but how does the humanist philosophy affect what we do in everyday life? What difference does it make in the way we interact with the world? This post will propose some answers to that question.

To derive these guidelines, I take two principles as primary. First, in the humanist view, this life is primary; it is the only one we can know for sure that we have. To that end, it’s important to live to the fullest extent possible – not just to live as long as possible, but also to fill life with as much richness and diversity of experience as it can reasonably sustain. To do this, we must be in a position to live independently, able to pursue our desires and take advantage of what life has to offer.

Second, in the humanist view, we exist as part of a community of individuals. Our interactions with our fellow human beings increase the depth and meaningfulness of life and suggest avenues for fulfillment that could never have been attained by individual effort. A humanist, therefore, does not withdraw from the world but seeks to enter fully into it and take part in it.

With these principles in mind, I offer nine guidelines for living the humanist life. They’re divided into three groups – one for the body, one for the mind, and one for the community. Though they may seem mundane, I speak from experience when I say that they can make a dramatic difference in your well-being and your mood.

Eat healthy. Our appetites evolved in a world where fat and sugar were rare treats that provided a much-needed burst of concentrated energy. Small wonder that our Paleolithic brains crave them whenever they’re available. But in the modern world we’re drowning in junk food, and our palates haven’t changed to match. It’s small wonder that Western societies have seen skyrocketing rates of obesity and all the health problems that come with it – diabetes, circulatory ailments, stroke, and even cancer.

But this can be avoided, if we carefully and rationally oversee our eating habits. The ideal diet, it seems, is one rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans. Eat meat and dairy in moderation, preferring reduced-fat dairy products to whole milk and fish and poultry to red meat. If possible, buy locally grown produce (such as at a farmer’s market), and prefer free-range or sustainably harvested meat to factory farms. As much as possible, avoid sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup), white flour and saturated fat.

Most fad diets, in my experience, work by requiring a person to eat only one thing; when they get sick of it and stop eating, they lose weight. But this is unsustainable in the short term and unhealthy in the long term. A balanced diet is healthier and much easier to stick to.

Exercise regularly. In a busy modern lifestyle, this can be difficult, but that makes it all the more important. Even with a healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle can leave you vulnerable to weight gain and all the health problems that come with it. Even a light exercise regimen pays dividends in health and continued fitness throughout life, and it’s an incomparable stress and tension reliever. I try to work out for at least 45 minutes to an hour three times a week, mixing weights with aerobics.

Get enough sleep. Our chronically overworked society often views sleep as a luxury. I understand this temptation – I’ve often wished I could go without it myself. (I’d be far more productive at my writing, if nothing else!) But it can’t be done. Trying only makes you miserable and irritable, and leaves the door open for all the ailments that come with chronic stress. Different people need different amounts of sleep, and there’s no set number of hours that works for everyone. I do fine with seven hours, I find. Other people may need less or more. The rule I go by is that if you have extreme difficulty getting up in the morning, or if you’re constantly drowsy throughout the day, then you’re not getting enough sleep.

Read every day. The mind, no less than the muscles, needs exercise. Research has shown that mentally stimulating activities – even something as simple as doing a daily crossword puzzle – improve mental acuity and recall and may protect against neurodegenerative disease later in life. Even beyond its health benefits, reading has many obvious advantages: a well-informed, literate person can better understand the issues of the day, is better able to express themself, and has a broader base of information to help them learn and comprehend new things. I keep track of the books I’ve read, and I try to read at least two per month – more if possible – on a broad range of topics.

Don’t watch too much TV. The benefits of reading are numerous, but by contrast, I don’t know of any proven advantages to television. I try to watch as little as possible, and I think that (with a few rare exceptions) it’s a bad way to absorb information – for more reasons than one. For one thing, it’s slow, limited to the speed at which people talk, whereas I can read at my own pace. This factor also means important issues are rarely presented in depth. It’s also cluttered with ads that distract us and create desires for unnecessary things. It’s a one-way medium, denying the audience an opportunity to respond; and it far more easily produces a visceral, emotional response than reading, which discourages rational consideration of the message being presented. I watch TV for entertainment or recreation, but to be informed about what’s going on in the world, I find that it’s manifestly inferior.

Learn a hobby or a craft. The essence of humanism is that each of us has something unique and important to offer. What better way is there to express that truth than by developing skills that reflect our individuality? Like reading, they offer the benefit of keeping the mind active; they also give us something to offer to others in the spirit of generosity. If you’re musically or artistically inclined, there are plenty of possibilities. Personally, in the last few years, I’ve taken up cooking. It’s surprisingly easy to learn and to get good at, and it’s a practical skill that offers a very tangible sense of accomplishment.

Follow politics, vote and support organizations that advance your interests. Every humanist who has the privilege to live in a democratic society should vote and participate in politics at every reasonable opportunity. As humanists, we should care deeply about the direction our world is taking, and voting is the mechanism by which we guide society along the right path. I consider it not just a privilege, but a positive moral obligation to follow political news, to seek out and critically compare candidates’ records and platforms, and to cast informed votes. In addition, every humanist should join and support interest groups that advance the causes we hold dear – freedom of speech, separation of church and state, equality for all people before the law, and all the rest. If you don’t vote, not only have you surrendered your own right to representation, you have contributed to a general sense of apathy and cynicism that actually encourages waste, corruption, and poor governance by elected officials. Our only chance to live under good government is to send the message that we will hold our representatives accountable.

Volunteer and give to charity. In addition to steering our society through the democratic process, humanists who have reasonable opportunity should engage in volunteer and charitable work. As long as there is suffering and need, it is the moral responsibility of every capable human being to work for its alleviation. Even small individual donations to worthy causes – non-profit humanitarian organizations, medical research, humane societies, environmental conservancies – can have a great impact, if many people choose to contribute. If possible, it’s even better to contribute effort and time by volunteering.

Live a richly simple life. Our society has whole industries dedicated to fostering the belief that consumerism and the acquisition of material goods can bring happiness. This belief is a mirage. Once a person can provide for their basic material needs, additional possessions bring no further happiness, and may even diminish it. A humanist should recognize this and avoid the folly of becoming trapped on this hedonic treadmill, with its consequent burdens of stress, debt, overwork, and waste.

Instead, what brings happiness is participation – interaction with the world and exploration of all it has to offer, our relationships to friends and loved ones and a larger community, and selfless labor for the good of others. This rich tapestry of experience, even in a life of material simplicity, is what brings true and lasting contentment. This, in my opinion, is the most fundamental lesson that any humanist must grasp, and I think most of the rest of this list flows from it.

Do you have any others I neglected to mention? What other guiding principles are there for humanist living?

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