I’ve never strayed from my basic assertion that the Primal Blueprint is about attaining hedonism congruent with good health. So, when I talk about engineering the good life, I’m not sacrificing health, or wellness, or fitness. I reject the assumption that enjoying oneself implies degrading one’s health. That’s often true, but it doesn’t have to be.
Engineering the good life often requires that you sacrifice immediate pleasures for lasting ones.
Engineering the good life is about removing negative inputs as much as it is about adding positive ones. If a negative input confers momentary pleasure, removing it will remove some pleasure but add more.
Let’s dig right into my 7 favorite ways to engineer the good life.
Everyone and everything is vying to extend the hours we spend awake. I mean that literally. Netflix’s founder recently named sleep as their prime competition. It’s tempting to check your email one last time, watch just one more episode of the latest streaming sensation, or wade into a futile online argument before bed. I know how important sleep is, yet I’m still drawn to sacrifice it for a little momentary pleasure.
The pleasure I get from consistently sleeping well trumps anything that would disrupt it. Sleeping well boosts memory, helps you retain new skills, and keeps the brain healthy. When you go to bed at the right time, you’re more likely to wake up without needing an alarm, so your day doesn’t start with a jarring blast of cortisol. Your skin is more resistant to UV damage when you’re in bio-rhythm, so you can enjoy the outdoors and get the vitamin D you need. Plus, good sleep itself is pleasurable. There’s nothing quite like sinking into bed with a good book and letting slumber envelop you.
Equally important for circadian health is light exposure at the right times. Every morning, I greet the sun and flood my visual receptors with natural light. Every evening, I dim the lights, light some candles, put on some blue-blocking safety goggles, trigger flux on the computer, and limit or eliminate the presence of circadian-disrupting blue light.
This might sound rich coming from a guy who writes research-laden recommendations about which foods are healthiest to eat. Bear with me.
Does it do you any good at all to worry about the plate of French fries you just ate or the piece of birthday cake you picked at? Sure, if you’re gluten-sensitive, you might need to gird your body for some explosive happenings in the near future, but stressing over the immediate past is silly. Based purely on the observable laws of physics, the past doesn’t exist. It’s not even there.
I know that a single indulgence won’t kill me. It won’t hurt me. It’ll have a negligible effect on my body composition and body weight.
And for those who claim that slipping up sends them spinning into a week-long binge, that’s only because you’re so fatalistic about your indulgences. Loosen up and you won’t feel compelled to binge.
Plus, sometimes we actually want to eat “bad” food for the sheer sensual pleasure it provides. You can’t truly enjoy your indulgence if you’re worried about what it means for your health.
Sometimes we skip training. Sometimes we skip days of training. And for those of us aware of how important training is for our physical and mental health, missing a workout or three weighs heavily.
Just like food “mistakes,” it doesn’t make sense to worry about skipped workouts. Took me awhile to learn this. Here’s how my missed workouts used to go:
Now? I just let it go. My muscles aren’t gonna waste away. My fitness isn’t going to degrade, and I’ll likely be more rested for when I do train.
At my age, if I don’t move every day, I feel it. Motion is lotion. You’re not just improving the quality of your peripheral tissues and their interactions. You’re lubing up the neuromuscular connections in your brain responsible for the movements. Remember: neuroplasticity can go the other way. If you’re not moving, you’re teaching your brain to prune the “unnecessary” connections that facilitate movement.
I don’t train every single day (see the previous section). But I do something. Maybe a morning movement routine. Maybe some play. Maybe a long walk or hike. Maybe some slacklining. Maybe a bunch of “workout snacks” strewn throughout the day, like pushups and squats and pullups done whenever I feel a little stale.
For obvious reasons that I’ve discussed many times before, allowing yourself to get hungry or outright skip meals is beneficial. It’s good for your brain, your body composition, and probably even your lifespan.
But going hungry is also congruent with the good life. So many of us grab a handful of nuts or bag of jerky or piece of fruit at the slightest hint of peckishness. We do not tolerate hunger, and most of us never have true food insecurity, so it’s entirely up to us if we want to feel hunger or not. When we eat, it’s usually out of boredom. It’s something to do to pass the time. But true hunger is the best spice. When you’re satisfying a foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a basic physiological requirement, even mundane meals become gourmet.
Going hungry also upregulates ghrelin, which most people think of as a “hunger hormone,” but also increases our ability to learn new skills or facts and come up with creative solutions to existing problems. Back when hunger meant something, ghrelin probably enabled the successful acquisition of food. In other words, hunger increases hunger for knowledge, makes us more productive, and motivates us to do great and interesting things.
Our time is all we have. And the speed at which it appears to pass determines how long we have on this planet. There’s no use living long if you’re not aware enough to perceive and appreciate it. So there are a few things I do on a regular basis to make sure I’m not letting time flit by without noticing:
If I find myself going through the motions and unable to recall precisely what happened the previous week, I introduce some novelty. I’ll try a new workout, hike a new trail, take a new route when walking the dogs. I’ll plan a vacation to a new place (so I’m anticipating it). I’ll try a new restaurant. New experiences slow the passage of time because our brains must focus and pay attention.
I’ll go into nature. Nature is my refuge from the world of schedules and routines and clocks and alarms and responsibilities. Out there—in the waves, in the trees, in the hills—moments hew not to objective ticks and tocks but to the attention you pay them.
If something bores me, I know it’s a waste of time. Things that arouse no passion in either direction are antithetical to the “good life.”
But if I’m fearing something, if something makes me nervous, I should probably inspect it. Starting the blog way back in the day was a little scary. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, and a year into it I still had no idea. But I kept up with it because it was a risk. I knew it could really pay off.
This isn’t immediately pleasurable. I mean, it’s downright scary and anxiety-inducing. But facing your fears offers many returns.
I chase fear within reason of course; some things are scary because they’ll likely kill you. I’m not seeking the company of hungry mountain lions or trying to sprint across the PCH at rush hour. If you remember my post on reframing stress to view it as physiological preparation for important events, this is very similar. It really does work.
Okay—those are my 7 favorite practices and philosophies for engineering the good life. I’m always looking for more, though.
What are yours? How do you ensure you’re living a pleasurable existence that also promotes good Primal health? Let me know down below!
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!