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.