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November 09 2016

My 7 Favorite Practices for Engineering the Good Life

By Mark Sisson
41 Comments

silhouette of couple on the beach, dream vacationsI’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.

That said:

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.

I honor my circadian rhythm.

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.

I don’t stress over my food.

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.

I don’t stress over my training.

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:

  • I’d feel guilty all day about not going to the gym (or going for a run, etc).
  • My work and family time would suffer because the guilt sat in the back of my mind, clogging up the gears.
  • By evening, I was guilty about the missed workout and the lack of productivity and the poor quality family time.
  • Right before bedtime and unable to relax, I’d finally go hit the gym for a brutal session. Come back, stew in my cortisol soup and wait for my melatonin secretion to pick back up.
  • Go to bed late and sleep poorly.

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.

I move every single day.

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.

I tolerate hunger.

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.

I slow down time.

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.

I avoid boredom and chase fear.

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.

  • Once it’s all over and you realize it wasn’t so bad (it never is), you’re relieved.
  • Once it’s all over and you’ve just defeated fear, you’re equipped to handle it again.
  • Once it’s over and you realize you just did something previously thought impossible, you’re a better, more confident person.
  • Once it’s over and you begin seeing returns on your investment.

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!

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TAGS:  mental health

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41 thoughts on “My 7 Favorite Practices for Engineering the Good Life”

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  1. To go along with the slow down time point, gratitude is another really good one. Really taking a moment to appreciate the people in your life, looking at how much you actually have, just appreciating the breeze can really have an impact. At least for me it does

    1. Love your comment about “just appreciating the breeze can really have an impact”. I am finding the older I become the more I become a man of simple pleasures. With that goes gratitude for the little things we may otherwise take for granted like a cool breeze or fall colored tree leaves.

      Well said by you.

  2. The workout less thing is the hard one for me. I love the feeling from exercise and the one I do daily, surfing, it simply fun beyond belief. So the payoff for surfing is huge. Plus, I’m at the mercy of the swell, tide, winds and crowds so I always have a little “dude, you should had been here yesterday, this morning…an hour ago” anxiety of missing out.

    It’s not like the gym where the class or the equipment is there everyday, in the same place, and functioning the same way.

    Imagine going to a yoga class and all of a sudden the wind kicks up 15 knots in the room, the class size doubles, and the floor suddenly shifts at a 45 degree angle. Worst class ever.

    And then later that evening your friend says her yoga class was awesome – uncrowded, no wind and a nice level floor – and the only difference was you went to the 10am class and she went to the 3pm class.

    That’s why I stress about surfing. It’s centered on an unpredictable scarcity model. All my friends struggle with it. Some more than others (me).

    1. Love this comment! I’m dying to learn to surf as I think it would be an incredible and hard to shirk form of exercise. I’ll get there one day…

  3. I love this post; it’s so life affirming, especially the ending about avoiding fear and banishing boredom.

    It’s also great to hear about not stressing over food and exercise. And for me, not stressing over thinking I’m overweight. That’s all junk that steals my life.

  4. I was once told by a friend who is a physician that doctors aren’t magicians (surprise, surprise), and if there really is such a thing as a magic bullet it’s to just keep moving. Sure, in some cases drugs and/or surgery can help get you back on the road to good health, but more often than not it’s just putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms. It’s unfortunate that so many people still believe their doctor is going to save them even when they won’t make any efforts on their own behalf.

    1. I’m constantly telling my patients that I don’t have all the answers and I’m constantly telling them to move. One of the most frustrating things is when I tell a patient what they need to do to be healthier and then 3 months later they come in with the same complaint but haven’t done anything about it. With that said, I’m my worst patient. I’m overweight myself and it was only just recently that I have been working on taking my own advice more by moving more and eating better. I’m hoping that helps my patients heed my advice better. When the time is right I’ll even send a Friday story.

  5. As a physical therapist, I love you used the saying “motion is lotion.” And I’ll add to that: movement is medicine. Moving and being active have so many health benefits that are so easy to garner. Also, I’ve been practicing re-framing stress and chasing fear. Easier said than done but it is actually helping to decrease the stress in my life.

  6. I can now say that I learned my lesson on working out less. My teachers were Mr. Injury, Mrs. Pain and Miss Time-Wasted-On-Recovery.
    Yes, learned the lessons good ,still get reminders once in a while

  7. And this one is golden

    “I slow down time”

    For me what did it was HeadSpace

    1. I love Headspace too, it really helps me think clearly and make the most of the day.

  8. Slowing down time is the hardest for me, by far. I’m always thinking, planning, worrying…not good. I do try to breathe slowly a few times a day, but without planning it doesn’t always happen. Yeah, my mind is a mess, I’ll admit 🙂

  9. The circadian rhythm is a big one for me. And I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. I get up in the mornings and usually have breakfast on my deck, which gives me about thirty to forty-five minutes of mourning blue light. Then I usually do my two mile walk outside, however in poor weather, I’ll do it on a treadmill. I normally don’t drink caffeine after 2, but sometimes I’ll have a cup of green tea. At about 6:30 to 7 I’ll put on my blue light blocking glasses and drink a cup of valerian root tea and take a magnolia bark supplement. Then I go to bed around 9:30 to 10. I might actually be getting quality sleep, and this may sound crazy, but I really don’t if I am or not. I always associate quality sleep with strong vivid dreams. If I have a strong vivid dream, I feel like I slept good. Most nights however it feels like I close my eyes then in a matter of minutes it’s mourning already. I remember no dream, just felt like blackness. Is this a sign of poor sleep or what?

    1. I wish I had your problem! Closing your eyes, then waking up in the morning – bliss. I’m so envious. I suspect you sleep well, Barry.

      1. I suppose so, I know I’m not a chronic insomniac but I just feel some nights my sleep isn’t all that productive.

    2. “I close my eyes and then in a matter of minutes it’s morning already.” Sounds like a wonderful night’s sleep to me! My poor sleep nights involve waking at 11pm…12:30am…1:45am…3am…then dozing off just before the alarm goes off. Even on my best nights, I rarely sleep through.

      To me, poor sleep is evident by my energy level the next day. If you usually wake up before your alarm, get up easily, and have enough energy to get through your day (and then fall into bed happily exhausted at night), my non-expert opinion is that you’re sleeping just fine.

      Regarding dreams, I’ve noticed that as I get older, I remember fewer and fewer, and I miss them.

      1. Try Davidifferent Permutter’a site….see Magnessiu and sleep

      2. Get a sleep study done you may have slept apnoea or upper airway resistance syndrome. Both fragment sleep.

    3. There’s a period of deep sleep after R.E.M. sleep that “erases” your memory of dreaming. If you remember a night full of vivid dreams you aren’t reaching that deep sleep. Those of us who wake from our nightmares at 2:30 in the morning would be truly grateful for the dreamless, restful sleep you are getting.

      1. Thanks for the knowledge, I always assumed the only stages of sleep where slow wave sleep and REM.

    4. We are most likely to remember our dreams if we wake up at least a little bit during them. If we sleep solidly, we’re less likely to remember our dreams, generally speaking.

  10. “I tolerate hunger” is my favorite one. That was such a life changer. To live my life completely free of thinking about where my next meal was coming from, without believing I was going to starve to death, was transformative.
    Hunger makes me feel alive!

  11. These were all fantastic points that everyone (including myself) should adopt. The only thing I would add is to eliminate unnecessary/unbeneficial relationships from one’s life. In the age of social media and everyone trying to stay “connected” I witness so many people around me staying connected with people they don’t care about, don’t like, or who are even downright toxic. This is foolishness. Relationships take up so much time and brainpower. Why would anyone waste their time seeing feeds of people they have no desire to ever see in real life, or maintaining communication with family members when it only causes stress? I’m as ruthless with eliminating unnecessary people from my life as I am with clearing out my wardrobe, and I’m a far happier person for it.

  12. I love the part about chasing fear. That’s an awesome way to look at it.

  13. Loved this post! I am way better than I used to be about the food thing…I just move on and certainly don’t punish myself. Same with the training. I really need to work on the circadian rhythm thing. I get up bright and early, and get plenty of outdoor light. I’m just not getting to bed early enough. I admit that sometimes it is online distractions, but many times I just have too much on my schedule, so that’s something I need to work on. I have been learning to tolerate hunger, and agree that food tastes so much better when you are truly hungry. We have been so trained to reach for a snack at the slightest sign of hunger. And love what Mark said about fear. I am finding that I am rewarded every time I push past my comfort zone…but I still struggle with it. Also love what Rebecca said about not wasting time on relationships that are not serving you. Thanks for another thought provoking post!

    1. I agree with all of that Elizabeth but for me Vit D3 has been a game changer – for everything from back ache, sleep and breaking nails to good mood. I live in Scotland and due to illness did not get out as often as I should this last year and so did not get what little sun does come out here!

  14. “The seven habits of highly primal people” 🙂

    Beautiful essay Mark, thanks for this and all you do.

  15. What a great article! Thanks, Mark. I love what age has done for your outlook. I would add alone time and meditation. But apart from those I’m right there with you. Let’s keep things of the spirit in the conversation so we never forget what life is truly about.

  16. My seven practices:
    1 I honour my circadian rhythm
    2 I Move every day
    3 I socialise every day
    4 I spend some time being grateful
    5 I find something fun to do
    6 I do something challenging
    7 I practice non-violence (maybe not primal)

  17. I love this post, I feel happy and I don’t expect anything. the sentence looks pretty awesome and speeches thousand words “avoiding fear and banishing boredom”

  18. This will easily be one of my favorite posts of all time. Thank you!

  19. Mark, love your list.

    One thing for myself, in addition to what you laid out, that I try and semi-regularly do is take in a concert or performance of some type. I grew up wildly passionate about music and used to go to concerts all the time. Sometime around my late 30’s / early 40’s I got into a lull of not getting out for shows. Either family or work commitments or sadly even feeling too tired to drive into the city kept me from getting to shows. About a year ago I shook off that malaise and have since reconnected with my love of attending concerts. I have seen Pearl Jam on back to back nights, Black Sabbath on their final reunion tour, and just took in some comedy with Louis C.K. at an arena show.

    Seeing artists performing in their flow state amongst an equally fired up and energetic crowd is so fulfilling and inspiring on many levels.

    Thanks for posting your 7 practices.

  20. Personally, I have to be very careful about “tolerating hunger.” If I let things go too far, I can become ravenous, and eat everything in sight that isn’t nailed down.

  21. I really like the “tolerate hunger” one. But the “avoid boredom” can be taken the wrong way. In these days of hyperconnectivity, no-one is bored because everyone is distracted. And distraction is something to be avoided, I would think most would agree.

  22. 30 years ago, I took a required health course at university. The professor said that if there was one thing that to learn and always remember from the course was, “Use it, or lose it.”

    The 1 of 7 above that I’m currently working hardest on is my circadian rhythm.

  23. Stockholm is gorgeous! I see so many posts on Denmark and Norway but rarely ever any on Sweden. So thanks! I need a pic in front of that rainbow wall at the metro! But my favorite is def that Vasa ship!! By far! That is so freaking cool!!! <3