Is This What’s Missing from Your Healthy Lifestyle?

If you’re like me, you’re always looking to improve … and maybe a little too much.

Whether it’s your diet, your mindset, your fitness, or your work, you know you can do better. And even if “be better” is illusory as a goal, the growth that occurs as you chase it is what life is all about, isn’t it?

But I’ve come to realize that you reach a point where the harder you try to do better and be healthier, the more you sabotage your own efforts.

A lesson learned

I’ve been traveling this month, and it’ll still be a few more weeks before I get home. From the 4th of July at the beach, to a vegan Italy tour, to a friend’s wedding in Cape Cod, it’s been a whirlwind of a trip.

And in the process, my habits have gone to hell.

Running has been spotty at best. I’ve eaten far more white flour and oil than usual, and far fewer salads and smoothies. Not once have I found a quiet 30 minutes for meditation or reading. And the amount of wine I drank in Italy … well, you get the point.

And yet I feel healthier. Happier. More fulfilled than ever.

In a word, content.

So what gives?

It’s not just that it’s a break. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about: when you get home from a vacation, you feel like you need a vacation. We relax much more when we’re at home.

No, it’s something different than just a change of pace.

It’s that getting out of our routine has meant surrounding ourselves with other people — family, friends, and new acquaintances.

When you think about it, a focus on self-improvement means a lot of alone time.

All my most important habits — reading, meditation, morning pages, running while listening to audiobooks — have in common that they’re done in isolation. Sometimes, when I really get on a personal development kick, I listen to headphones even when I’m washing dishes or falling asleep in bed! (I’m a blast to be around then.)

Even in a progressive place like Asheville, our diet is isolating, too. The journey from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan to oil-free at home, while clearly “worth it,” certainly hasn’t made it any easier to get together and break bread with friends.

The world has changed, too. We’re no longer bound by geography when we choose whom to spend our time with — the internet makes it so easy to find and connect with similar people, no matter how weird your interests. No doubt, it’s incredible … but it’s also easier than ever not to spend real, face-to-face time with other people.

This time away, though, has reminded me how important other people — real, actual, analog people — are to our well-being.

In the moment, it’s easier to go for a run by yourself and listen to what you always listen to. Indeed, it’s one of the most valuable hours of my day. But when you make the effort to run with a friend, it’s amazing how quickly the miles pass. Not to mention how much more likely the run is to happen at all — it’s amazing how a group of people can change a scary, daunting activity like training for a marathon into something that’s actually enjoyable.

Another example: when you think about diet as much as I do, it’s easy to scare yourself down a path of complete restriction. But that three-hour dinner with friends, fresh pasta, and one more jug of wine than anybody at the table needs? I bet it does more for your soul — and perhaps even your body — than the healthy meals you eat the other 95 percent of the time (as long as those healthy ones do make up the vast majority of what you eat).

This isn’t a rationalization. It’s experiencing what I’ve read about in The Blue Zones, that among the factors that contribute to extraordinary longevity — along with a largely plant-based diet, daily exercise, time for relaxation, and a moderate amount of alcohol — is spending time with friends and family. The sense of belonging, that purpose that comes with having a strong network of loved ones, is a critical component of health and happiness.

That’s been difficult for me to learn. I’ve known forever that I should work harder to maintain relationships, put the effort in to spend time with other people. But it’s always been a “should,” not a “must.”

Now I realize that it’s essential. Not to balance out all the time spent on personal development, but as a part of it. In other words, spending time with other people is in fact one of the best ways to be the best version of you.

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Comments

  1. Forrestine Gump says:

    Don’t you think that there is a risk to lose yourself by spending too much time with other people?

  2. Finding that balance. Good advice. We do tend to get caught up in trying to be perfect don’t we?

  3. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for yet another insightful post. I really do think you’re onto something here, and it’s a point I need to keep reminding myself of. Having grown up as an only child, I’ve always been happy to be alone and entertain myself in my own little world, but you’re right about the importance of personal connections. Glad to hear you’ve been having such a great time travelling!

  4. I related to this so much! I have a wedding, a honeymoon, and a very exciting move happening in the next 1.5 months, and I have found myself feeling anxious I will lose my persona groove. I toooootally understand my love for healthy habits, but what are they worth if they can’t be used to enjoy the life they are building? So glad to read these words as a reminder 🙂

    • Katrin Ziegler says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I am also starting my holidays and have been really worried how to keep up my healthy lifestyle. I will also keep this post as a reminder to enjoy myselft so thank you very much.

  5. Ha!

    Matt, you preempted what I was going to write in my comment… the Blue Zones.

    I think you’re right on the mark when you reference that part of those people who live in the BZ which is all about bathing in intimacy, enjoyment and relaxation as important components of a healthy and long-lived life style.

    I’ve written a bit about the BZ on my site. Perhaps the reasons that some of their indulgences — like those you experienced in Italy — do not undermine their penchant for long, healthy lives (commonly more than a hale 100 years of age) is because of the effects these activities have on hormones such as oxytocin and cortisol.

    A life rich in oxytocin and poor in cortisol (notwithstanding that necessary for proper adrenal function) has a direct, positive effect on telomeres via several mechanisms which can be summarized as reducing stress and increasing love.

    Dr. Elisabeth Blackburn won a Nobel Prize showing how chronic stress disrupts our production of telomerase, the enzyme that nourishes our telomeres, those cap-like ends of our chromosomes, the length of which is a marker for lifespan. (More on that here: http://www.garmaonhealth.com/depression-and-stress-high-cortisol-make-us-age-faster/)

    Anyway, glad you had a great trip!

    -Joe

    • Margarita Elizondo says:

      Hello

      I live in the Blue Zone in Costa Rica and lately they discovered that the water here has also contributed to the longevity of the people. The water comes from wells and have a lot of minerals incluiding calcium amd magnesium.

  6. Vickie Craven says:

    I love this post!

  7. Thanks for this post! I live in rural AK (where I’m somewhat of a new-comer), but many people have big extended family.
    For the most part, I am doing okay. And in April, I knew I was doing okay with my health, my running, etc. Until I went to Europe for 2.5 weeks with my best friend from high school. While there, we had a blast. We traveled, ate new food, we met up with her friend, and met new people. Despite the same challenges to my routine, I agree I felt “healthier. Happier. More fulfilled than ever.” I’m working to incorporate more connection into my life because it really is so important!

  8. Great post again Matt!

    I feel the same – when I get on a real self improvement hype I tend to turn inwards and end up spending a lot of time on my own. It’s easy to obsess over the really little things then like staying completely oil free or meditating every day no matter what, and I usually end up stressing out over them, which just makes things worse!

    I think when you surround yourself with others, you tend to focus less on the small things that don’t make a whole load of difference, and instead you focus on those other people.

  9. Great insight. I am not a social butterfly but I know when I spend some time with friends, usually based around food, I have a better sense of overall balance in my life. I also get to forget about my problems for a while and just enjoy being.

  10. Thank you for this!
    I also spend soo much time on self-improvement, vegan, healthy eating (I’m also trying to cut right down on oil right now after reading your piece on the subject), gym, yoga, running, meditation, reading.. all the same as you. and sometimes I stop and look around and wonder what it’s all for!
    One of the aspects of self-improvement that;s most important to me is being in the present moment and I think that’s related to your post. “#YOLO” can really trivialise this but it’s vital to remember that being happy, relaxed and taking pleasure in life (and friends, and the odd glass of wine or bowl of fresh pasta) is an integral part of finding Balance and thus, health…

  11. Charlotte says:

    Matt, this was a perfect post and on target. Many of our self-improvements are solo and trying to always plug that focus in a different environment like traveling or visiting friends or family can be self-limiting. That’s why health is about balance. As in introvert I LOVE my private time but you do run the risk of isolating yourself and not having the balance of accepting the gift of sharing by others and to others.

  12. Just an FYI most wines are not vegan. Fining agents are/ maybe used during filtration process. If the wine is labeled as organic then it should be ok. There are not very many organic wines. Sob… also wines with added sulfites aren’t healthy either. Got this info from the food babe Web site. Darn it could have happily igor

  13. Love this Matt! You always know just what to say… These words especially ring true as my diet and exercise took a major hit during a rough pregnancy and delivery – but the closeness I feel with my friends and family now that I have this beautiful baby to share has been worth every missed workout and every meal cheat. It in no way belittles the importance of workouts and healthy meals, but it allows me to relax and enjoy the time as we get adjusted to this new way of life and as I rehab my body! I think most of us jump to the dark put of self-hatrid when we “mess up,” but self-love and surrounding yourself with love is the only way to really LIVE! 🙂

  14. I recently retired and was looking forward to doing even more running than I usually do. I was shocked to find that I am running less in retirement, but also feeling calmer, less stressed, and more at peace. I realized that when I was working, running was the only enjoyable part of my day. Now that all parts of my day are enjoyable, there is less of a drive to run. Just my $0.02

  15. Lynette Isaak says:

    Thanks, Matt, for naming the struggle I’ve had this summer: do I choose socialization or staying a healthy course? Sometimes I have forgone a social event because I was THAT determined not to stray. It has made me miserable, too, as I know the value that connection brings and long for it so much more during summer months. In my area, we certainly tend to hibernate in the winter and those promises of “getting together” just don’t happen. So this was my chance! One commenter mentioned balance and I have to agree that there should be no guilt for the occasional off-my-diet foods, or celebratory eating. After all, that’s often the focal point of the gathering. We wouldn’t even go to that camp out, reunion, wedding, happy hour unless there was FOOD. So thank you very much for naming it, clarifying the struggle of isolation and meeting goals vs. socialization and blowing my goals. I’m not alone and I appreciate the reminder!

  16. Hi Matt,

    This post resonates completely with me! I have two running groups and I am SO much happier when I run with them and make the effort. I love running alone too but being surrounded by friends and having that social interaction is so heart-warming. I’m also obsessed with trying the newest “restrictive” plant based diet – All fruit, non grains, yes grains, yes coconut oil, yes margarine… It’s all so confusing and fun sometimes but does cause me to miss out on social activities that involve eating.

    If I could write well, this post could have been written by me 🙂 My thoughts exactly. Thanks!

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