This began as a guide for my students, but I’ve decided to share it with a wider audience. Even though there are countless guides on the internet aimed at human well-being, I hope, despite some inevitable overlap, this offers something more. And when and where it doesn’t, reminders such as these often help. I know I need them!
the evolved bodymind
We’re built to move, so:
Walk daily. Our ancestors likely walked 5-9 miles a day. See: The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.
“If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” ― Hippocrates
Many of you know about CrossFit but there are other physical training regimens that tap into our evolved need to move through the environment in a vigorous and challenging way. Check out Parkour (a training discipline developed from military obstacle courses with a touch of non-combative martial arts).
Former student/TA, Dylan Johanson, is the founder and head coach of Innate Movement Parkour in Kingston, NY. I’ve never done it/gone, but it looks great!
Tap into your Play drive/have fun! Play is an instinctual, innate drive, according to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who (among other things) sees play as a mechanism for learning social rules, expectations, and our place in the tribe. He also sees it as the opposite of depression. See: Evolve Move Play.
Get your flow on!
Genetically-speaking, we are ~99% microbial and 1% human. Cell-wise, we’re about half microbial. There are (according to the latest estimates) as many bacteria (~30-40 trillion!) in and on the human body as there are human cells. The 10-to-1 ratio you may have heard about is no longer thought of as an accurate picture of our microbiome and it’s now closer to 1:1. Still, more than half of us is not human! Most of the bacteria are found in our gut, and as you may know, many are good for us. Because you are what you eat and, apparently, what your microbes eat, the experts suggest we diversify our diet, as well as increase our intake of foods which contain probiotics (beneficial bacteria). Try yogurt (make sure it has plenty or specific ones that increase mental health). Two bacteria, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, may reduce anxiety and depression according to scientific studies. And fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, miso, kefir, sourdough bread, injera, pickles.
You can also use probiotic supplements, but the quality and diversity of organisms vary, so do your homework. I take a variety of supplements (vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, probiotics, and nootropics), but they’re not for everyone. For every scientist/doctor that says there are benefits to supplements, you’ll find one that says they’re nonsense. I view supplementation as an experiment. There are two supplements I feel fairly confident in recommending for well-being, though: one is Magnesium Glycinate and the other is Co-Q10. (Of course, please check with your doctor before taking anything recommended here!)
Unless you have allergies or other restrictions, increase foods such as: salmon, nuts, fruits, veggies, you know the drill. Learn what works for you. For example, I drink ginkgo tea to support memory and to increase dopamine. If you love chocolate (and we know there are many benefits of eating cacao) try organic, raw cacao sweetened with honey and/or other unrefined sweeteners such as monkfruit and erythritol.
Our diet in an evolutionary context:
There’s the idea that there’s a mismatch — that our ancestral bodyminds are not well adapted to our modern day environment; thus you get the Paleo diet and various diets that encourage one to eat more like our ancestors did (with intermittent fasting). Do your reading before embarking — and, yes, check with your doctor! If you’re interested in personal genomic diets, check out Peter D’Adamo.
Of course, avoid refined and processed foods (such as white bread, cane sugar, sodas, junk food, fake food, etc.).
Get good sleep and make it a priority:
As Dan Gartenberg says in a TED talk that just came out:
“Scientists are now starting to understand how not only the quantity but also the quality of sleep impacts our health and well-being. My research focuses on what many scientists believe is the most regenerative stage of sleep: deep sleep.”
It appears these sleep scientists can zap us into deep sleep, which means soon there may be an app for that! But in the meantime, we all know that things like: no computers/smartphones before bed, keep it spa-like, etc., help. (It takes 2-8 months to form a new habit, so don’t despair if you keep checking your phone before you turn off the lights!) And since a third of your life is spent sleeping, if you can afford a bed without flame retardants/chemicals, invest in it! There are many eco-beds now, so the prices are finally reasonable.
In addition to flame retardants, avoid, of course, other toxins, such as cigarettes and pesticide exposure, ad infinitum. Not only for you, but for potential offspring.
the adapted mindbody
Deep breathing, meditation. Read Robert Wright’s latest book Why Buddhism is True — an evolutionary psychological perspective on meditation and the truths “found” when one has a meditation practice.
Create space and time for feeling gratitude, wonder, and sensual experiences. (The evolutionary underpinnings and biological benefits of gratitude and awe are fascinating. Explore them at The Greater Good Magazine: Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life here and here and here and here.)
Write! Stories, poetry, in a journal, free-write — the benefits are numerous. (The evolutionary theories regarding literature and the writing instinct are worth looking into, too! See: Darwinian Literary Studies.)
Talk with a therapist/counselor or anyone you feel is able to really listen. As friend/psychotherapist Greg Madison says: “Research consistently shows that no matter what other useful and important things are offered in therapy, its effectiveness rests upon the person-to-person human relationship between client and therapist.”
Listen to the wisdom of your body. Focusing is a technique and therapy that is aimed at getting us to do this. Give it a try.
Remember, too, that the stomach is considered the 2nd brain and that some consider the heart to have wisdom, as well.
So listen to your gut and heart and maybe your dreams. Dreams sometimes reveal information that is critical for our health and psyche.
Read, learn, create new synaptic connections. (I love to listen to philosophical/brain podcasts while walking on the track at my university. Check out Philosophy for our times, Waking Up (Sam Harris), Entitled Opinions (Robert Harrison), Brain Science (Ginger Campbell), TED Radio Hour, A New and Ancient Story (Charles Eisenstein), Smart Drug Smarts (Jesse Lawler), and many more.
Cultivate your strengths.
Create and establish short and long-term goals.
Have fun with it:
Create opportunities in your life for laughing and being silly. As with the innate Play drive, according to Jaak Panksepp and other researchers, laughter is deeply embedded in our mammalian brain as it is found in nonhuman animals, too. Primates (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans), rodents, and possibly dolphins, all laugh in one way or another.
Go outside of your comfort zone, whether it’s a new way of seeing things or doing things. Experiment with your ‘self.’ Challenge yourself.
New, creative ideas and thoughts often come to us when we’re relaxed, in ‘daydreaming mode’ (see Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload), and feeling good (such as when we’re in the shower). Find time to relax. (There’s neuroscience behind this, of course.)
Improvise. I started a vocal improvisational group recently, which I love. For more on vocal improv, check out Circlesongs, an incredible workshop (with over 100 people) that Bobby McFerrin does during the summer at Omega Institute. To get a sense of a vocal improv group, have a look and listen to Lush Tongue. And here’s a study on “freestyle rap [which] provides a unique opportunity to study spontaneous lyrical improvisation, a multidimensional form of creativity at the interface of music and language.”
Our minds often play tricks on us. We can be self-deceptive, engage in negative self-talk, have cognitive biases that do harm to ourselves and others. But we can use our minds to change our automatic thinking and behaviors. We can use our beautiful prefrontal cortices to override emotionally reactive, Id-y impulses and faulty thinking.
Create sacred spaces and sacred moments. You don’t have to share everything. Sometimes when you don’t tell another person about a happy moment or experience, you keep that memory ‘pure.’ Our new understanding of memory reconsolidation supports this idea. Another way to keep “keep memories pure (not modified) is through art” explains neuroscientist Daniela Schiller. In her presentation at MIT on memory reconsolidation here she goes on to say:
“If you carve a memory into a story or into an art form, this captures the original emotion that was in it — and it’s unchanged. It’s actually recreating the emotion. So art has a very intimate relationship with memory.”
Experiment with this. Of course, it’s also wonderful to share! (See below on connecting with others.)
Speaking of memory reconsolidation, we can heal ourselves — literally change our minds — via memory reconsolidation. Coherence Therapy uses memory reconsolidation to rewire the brain, but other psychotherapies do, too. You can even try it on yourself. Rick Hanson offers some instructions on how one might go about doing this in his book Hardwiring Happiness.
we’re social animals
Connect with others:
Hugging just feels good, but it also signals to your evolved brain that you have social support which may protect you from illness. See this study. I’ve read that people should aim for 20 seconds to receive the oxytocin benefits, but my instinct tells me that it’s the quality of the hug, not the quantity of time hugging that matters. Maybe it’s both! The empirical evidence isn’t all in on this, so I’ll go with my gut/heart: Try ‘opening your heart’ when you hug someone; if you’re lucky and they’re sensitive enough to receive it, they’ll open their heart, too. Here’s a guided meditation to help open your heart.
This is a rabbit hole I’m afraid to go near (for many reasons), but let me just say this: I think romantic love is an intoxicating, magnetizing emotion (the anthropologist and love expert, Helen Fisher, thinks it’s a drive) that, among other things, was “designed” by mother nature (natural selection) to orchestrate our behavior: to get us to attach (in the mammalian sense) and stay focused on one person long enough to reproduce and take care of offspring. I think we can love more than one person at a time, but I’m not sure we can “be in love” with more than one person at a time. If this idea is interesting to you, I’d read this evolutionary psychological paper on love as a commitment device.
Here’s an interesting paper by evolutionary psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss; it catalogs the 237 reasons why humans have sex. And here’s a great essay on “Why Emotional Affairs Are Not a Problem.” In it, the author shares what I call a “big love” perspective. I respect all the many forms of relating and various mating systems we humans have come up with: monogamy, polyamory, whatever people can manage without hurting themselves and/or others. And I have to admit, I’m sympathetic to both opposing camps regarding our evolved psychology and mating systems. Here’s Christopher Ryan explaining the two views in his TED Talk:
“Now, since Darwin’s day there’s been what Cacilda and I have called the standard narrative of human sexual evolution, and you’re all familiar with it, even if you haven’t read this stuff. The idea is that, as part of human nature, from the beginning of our species’ time, men have sort of leased women’s reproductive potential by providing them with certain goods and services. Generally we’re talking about meat, shelter, status, protection, things like that. And in exchange, women have offered fidelity, or at least a promise of fidelity. Now this sets men and women up in an oppositional relationship. The war between the sexes is built right into our DNA, according to this vision. Right? What Cacilda and I have argued is that no, this economic relationship,this oppositional relationship, is actually an artifact of agriculture, which only arose about 10,000 years ago at the earliest. Anatomically modern human beings have been around for about 200,000 years, so we’re talking about five percent, at most, of our time as a modern, distinct species.”
Sing, dance, create music, and/or drum with others. If you’re lucky to live in a place where these social events are easy to come by, do it, even it you have to force yourself at first. Our ancestors did these things in groups, that’s probably one of the reasons why it feels particularly good when we do. Some evolutionists speculate that music evolved for social cohesion and coordination of the group. (I sometimes chant/sing with a large group led by The Spirit Brothers Band and have sung with Clear Light Ensemble. I also sometimes dance with the local Dances of Universal Peace.)
Partake in rituals — especially with others. Rituals are a human universal. As one of the leading experts on ritual, anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, says: “Rituals are the glue that holds social groups together.” Celebrate the seasons, meet with a group weekly or monthly, relish your family celebrations. The artist Alex Grey and his wife Allyson Grey founded COSM: Chapel of Sacred Mirrors where people can experience secular, sacred communion. Here’s a brief introduction to their Full Moon gatherings.
Give of yourself to friends, family, strangers, community, the world, but also reach out for support.
Giving (being prosocial) can be as simple as smiling at a stranger or picking something up that a passerby dropped. It can be as powerful as changing a law to help the environment or as subtle as sharing a part of yourself with someone.
Know what’s going on in the world — near and far.
Do things that give you a sense of agency, no matter how small. We (like many animals) will become despondent (see learned helplessness) when we feel we can’t control our situation. Indeed, there are personal and collective benefits to protesting, demonstrating, and, rallying.
Emotions are adaptive. They likely evolved to help us regulate and direct action and behavior. After the devastating nuclear disaster in Fukushima in March of 2011, I felt anxious for the first time in a decade. I saw the potential for a disaster at an old, leaking nuke plant 50 miles away and this idea alone created in me the sensations most of us recognize as anxiety. I knew that if I didn’t act on this feeling, it would only get worse and could lead to “learned helplessness” and despondency.
So I initiated and helped to organize a rally (Mothers & Others United to Shut Down Indian Point) immediately. And sure enough, the anxiety disappeared. (By the way, as of last year, because of the actions of many activists and organizations, there are plans to close both reactors — one in 2020, the other in 2021!)
Take a break from social media every so often and/or check-in less often. According to a popular Atlantic Monthly article by Jean M. Twenge “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Awareness helps. If you realize that Facebook and other social media companies are exploiting your evolved psychology/dopamine system, you can, perhaps, participate more wisely.
And though it goes without saying, sometimes we need reminders:
Do something every day that gives you some joy!
Sing! (I recently did backup on peer-reviewed rapper Baba Brinkman’s ‘Rap Guide to Consciousness’ album. Hear the trippy song here);
listen to music (when I’m looking for something new, I sometimes check out NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. I recently discovered Albin Lee Meldau there and was quite taken with his music/soul — especially his “Persistence” at about minute 5;
hang out with a pet, a pal, a lover;
tend to a garden/house plants;
dance on the street or down the aisle of the supermarket!
And finally, meaning and purpose are key to well-being, of course, especially if you are a sacred naturalist and don’t believe in an anthropomorphic god or have traditional religion to offer you support. The neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, laments in a Big Think video that “rates of depression are much higher among atheists… ” and explains why believing “it is a totally heartless indifferent apathetic universe out there” puts you more at risk for depression than… if you believe there is not only something out there responsible for all of this [god] but that there is a larger purpose to it.” He goes on to say: “there is a very, very solid literature showing the health benefits of religiosity, independent of a social supportive community.”
So we have to be a bit more creative than traditionally religious folks. The Evolution Institute recently asked me to write an essay about my evolutionary perspective. You can read it here. In it, I touch on my sense of purpose and meaning. Much of it these days is coming from the idea that I can help others with their sense of meaning. But it also comes from a larger vision of organizing all of us who are not represented by traditional religions (atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, religious naturalists, spiritual naturalists, “new ageists,” as well as those who identify as nontraditional religious, and nonreligious spiritual). There was a point about five or six years ago when I had a clear picture that this was the most valuable thing I could do to help humanity and our planet. (I’ll spare you the various logical steps I went through to come to that conclusion.) I write this with some embarrassment because I see how delusional it could seem. But I think it’s certainly less delusional than believing what Roy Moore believes.
I think most of us “find meaning” when we’re engaged in the pursuit of prosocial goals — moving outside our own concerns. Without god, it seems to me, meaning can only come from our relationships to other living beings. There is so much more to say, but this is a blog post after all, so I have to cool it! I hope some of it will inspire or remind you to move in the direction of your well-being, because the well-being of other living beings and systems (including our planet) depends on you doing so.
See this piece of mine for more on evolutionary well-being.
*The fairly new field of embodied cognition is worth looking into, though there are different senses/flavors of it and some disagreement within the field about what it is. If you take a look at the headings I used above, you’ll see I used the term bodymind, bolding the word body, and then later the term mindbody, bolding mind. I didn’t do it to be cute! I did it because I’m quite convinced that the central point of embodied cognition is true. Here’s a description from a soon-to-be-published book in the field:
“Ecology of the Brain …considers the human body as a collective, a living being which uses the brain to mediate interactions. Those interactions may be both within the human body and between the human body and its environment….Within this framework, the mind is seen not as a product of the brain but as an activity of the living being; an activity which integrates the brain within the everyday functions of the human body…The processes of living and experiencing life…are in fact inextricably linked; it is not the brain, but the human being who feels, thinks and acts.”
The featured image that you see on social media is “Flower Girl” by Megan Jz. Megan writes of it:
“My recent work is the result of my attempts to find out what it is to be human. I wanted to experience passion in my life in the form of something I do from which there is an end product. I wanted to know what it is like to be focused, undistracted by my state or mood. In this untapped medium, melting crayons on paper that is on a heated surface, the image changes swiftly because the continuous heat keeps the crayon in liquid form till I remove it from the heat source. This forces me to stay with it or I will lose any parts of the image I would have liked to have stayed static. Working with hot, melting, colored wax is my doorway to the present moment.”