Thriving, Not Just Surviving

I mention the distinction between thriving and surviving quite often on this blog, but I’m not sure I make it often enough, or explicitly. So, here it is: surviving is not thriving. There’s a massive difference, and though the two states of being ideally concur, we too often conflate the two as a rule, to our ultimate detriment. In my opinion, life’s true barometer is experience gained, rather than raw time accrued. What’s the point of living to a ripe old age if you never taste the fruit? Longevity coupled with happiness and experience, good. Sheer longevity for longevity’s sake, miserable, diseased, and decrepit? Bad.

And then there’s the other mantra: live fast, die young. This one hits us harder; it’s more romantic, and it triggers that innate, perhaps even Primal, urge to experience what life offers. We are sensory beings who literally exist to take in, process, and transmit information – and there’ s a hell of a lot of information out there! When Neil Young sang, “better to burn out than fade away,” I listened, and when Jack Kerouac mythologized those who “burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky,” I vowed to burn, too. But it’s really easy to mess that one up, and I’m not just talking about burning out with drugs or drink. People adhering to this idea might see someone reaching old age as evidence that they never really lived at all. I disagree.

So we’re hit with these two vastly different ideas of thriving – either live as long and as bland a life as possible, or pack as much experience as humanly possible into your short, burning time on earth (the shorter, the better). Now, you’re probably thinking “Sisson’s gonna say that you can have both, that those two messages actually complement each other, that you can live a long, full, exciting, gratifying life as long as you follow a healthy, natural lifestyle grounded in our evolutionary history… like the Primal Blueprint!” And you’d be right. I would say that, but not before I explain why Conventional Wisdom (of all kinds, and there’s a ton of it) makes us think we have to choose between longevity and living. Between surviving and thriving.

To the average, well intentioned, reasonably informed individual, it probably feels like one must choose between a chaotic, full, crazy life and a boring, measured, extended existence. Skydiving, or jogging a 10k every day. Fast food and liquor, or dry toast and water. The old relic of the late 60s muttering to himself on a street corner somewhere, or the forgotten, neglected centenarian grandmother dwindling down her final days in a rest home. Looking at these choices, I can’t blame people for getting it all terribly, completely wrong.

There are merits to both approaches to life. As I mentioned earlier, the desire to experience adventure and excitement is truly Primal; taking risks and exploring new locales (whether spatial, mental, or emotional) made us what we are. If he hadn’t taken risks and explored his world, Grok might have gone the way of the panda – timid, cowering, and unable to cope with and thrive in his environment. If he hadn’t expanded his mind and made the connection between guttural inflections, abstract thoughts, and the tangible world, we may never have developed language and culture. So the compulsion to burn, burn, burn and explore new horizons is very real, and very natural. It shouldn’t be ignored, because it makes us human.

Longevity, too, it can be argued, is an ultimate goal of all life. On the macro level, species exist – when you really distill the essence of life – to procreate, to extend the longevity of the species. A long-living species is a “successful” one. Individually, organisms work toward the same goal: to survive, to thrive, to live well and live long enough to procreate. And that desire to live doesn’t just disappear once a baby or two pops out. The desire to continue living persists, because it’s hardwired into us from the beginning. You don’t suddenly stop fearing death just because you’ve procreated; there’s no shutoff switch, and we’re not simple robots.

In Grok’s day, there had to be a balance between the two compulsions. Grok had to take risks, but to a point. Was a month’s supply of mammoth meat worth a potentially crushed skull, or do you wake up at dawn every day to catch rabbits, forage, and possibly come home empty handed and exhausted? Do you follow the herds of game escaping the encroaching frost and risk unfamiliar territory or hostile tribes, or do you hunker down and wait it out and risk starvation? It was a tricky balance, no doubt, but a naturally well-regulated one that evened out in the end. Those who lived long lives probably also thrived; those who made stupid mistakes died. Natural selection, basically.

Today, though, things are skewed. Our idea of living life to the fullest is not the same as Grok’s. We wolf down fast food, binge drink, drive drunk, spend money we don’t have, get arrested, and skip the gym. We take risks, but they are manufactured risks with little actual payoff (and little actual risk, to be honest). Life’s too short, we say, to worry about health or credit or the future (besides, pharmaceuticals, the next government bailout, or that miracle cure around the corner will take care of us). As such, our idea of longevity is ruined. To live long, we say (and are told), you must live a neo-Puritan life. No sex, no intoxicants, no fatty foods, no fun, no risk-taking. Oh, sure, experts tell us regular sex and moderate wine intake is fine, and we can eat olive oil, but implicit in their advice is a bizarre distrust of pleasure. Moderation for moderation’s sake, without any real founding.

And so, you get nations of long-lived, diseased, pain-wracked, pill-popping survivors sputtering along, limping from couch to fridge and back, zooming around on electronic scooters down the chip and diet soda aisles in the grocer, staring blankly at the phone waiting for their grandchildren to finally call or, alternately, the pain meds to kick in, haggling with the store clerk about whether the double coupon deal applies to the multi-grain Cheerios that are supposed to lower their cholesterol as ordained by the almighty doctor. But the life expectancy is rising, so it’s all good! They’ve passed the big Eight-Oh – who cares if they haven’t cracked a smile in years?

Simply living until eighty, or a hundred, isn’t enough, not for me. Don’t get me wrong; living past a hundred would be awesome, provided I remain capable and cognizant. I want to savor my golden years. I want to paddle board with wrinkly arms. I want to run beach sprints without breaking something. I want to lift my future grandchildren overhead, one in each arm – when they’re ten! I don’t want to go meekly into old age. Truth be told, I kinda want to be like this dude.

Fred Beckey, in his late 80s, is still climbing mountains. He was born in 1923 and with a party climbed Mount Despair in 1939, making first ascent. In 1963, he had 23 first ascents, assuring him legendary status in the climbing community. This guy’s “been on the downward slope of his career” for several decades, and he still climbs with the best. Now, who knows how long he’ll last. Maybe he won’t make a hundred, but if he did, I wouldn’t be surprised. And if he doesn’t? I’d bet he’ll die happy and content.

I’m not that old, yet, but I’m fast approaching my 60s. I’m supposed to be on the “downward slope,” too, but I feel better than I’ve ever felt. Finishing the Iron Man on Kona was cool. I probably wouldn’t do it today, but I can still turn heads on the beach, put up some decent weight, do twenty pull-ups at a moment’s notice, and keep up with kids half my age. I’m healthy, vibrant, fit, able, and – most importantly – content with my life. As my body has reached a comfortable homeostasis by eating, exercising, and living in accordance with good gene expression and the Ten Primal Laws, so has my mental state achieved peace. I’m thriving, in every sense of the word, just as I’m surviving.

And you know what? If I hadn’t spent half my life beating my body up, day in and day out, with refined grains and chronic cardio, I might be even better off. If I’d learned the virtues of intensity over duration, I might be even healthier and even more content. I know a lot of you readers – most of you, probably – are far younger than me. You’ve got a potentially long life ahead of you. You could eat crap and just fool around on the Nautilus machines on occasion and ignore this blog as just philosophical prattle and rely on modern medicine to sustain you instead, and you’d live, possibly just as long as I or any Primal adherent might live. But you wouldn’t enjoy it. You wouldn’t be strong, or fit, or able to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Natural selection may not be able to get you anymore, but you’ll be missing out on a full life. Trust me.

So, youngsters, oldsters, and everyone in between: focus on thriving, rather than merely surviving. I know it seems like a tall order these days, but you really don’t have to choose between the two. They can coexist, quite happily, and even be one and the same.

Live well, die content.

TAGS:  Aging, prevention

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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32 thoughts on “Thriving, Not Just Surviving”

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  1. I survived until my mid-twenties, died in my late twenties, and now I THRIVE! I feel better than I ever have by a long shot!

    That’s the best part about being primal… You have to sacrifice nothing! The food is great, the exercise is fun and the increased energy and well-being is the best!

  2. This has been something on my mind lately; I feel like I have finally dug of the rut and flown into the blue.

    Now that my health is in check, I can devote my time to what I really love.

  3. “Live well, die content.” Amen to that!

    Excellent post as always Mark.

  4. I call my grandmother weekly now because she has severe Alzheimers and I am, for some weird reason, the only granddaughter she remembers. I’m not even her favorite, but when she’s kicking up a fuss I’m the only one who can calm her down.

    She’s 350 pounds, bedridden, and delusional. She’s also 78. I’m almost 30 and until a few months ago, when I discovered the Primal Blueprint, I *knew* that I was going to end up like her. When I look at pictures of her when she was my age, it’s like looking in a mirror. I’m practically a carbon-copy.

    Watching her decline “scared me straight”, so to speak. Once I got pregnant I KNEW I couldn’t do to my little boy what she’s doing to my mom. So I found this site. The weight hasn’t come off yet (again, pregnancy) but I can feel myself getting healthier day by day, a little at a time. And I’m so very thankful for it.

  5. I think this week of posts has been the best I’ve read so far. I’m going to print them all out and read them often. Thank you.

  6. “To live long, we say (and are told), you must live a neo-Puritan life. No sex, no intoxicants, no fatty foods, no fun, no risk-taking”

    heh! Reminds me of:

    No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women
    No fun, no sin, no you
    No wonder it’s dark!
    (from ‘Turning Japanese’ by the Vapors)

    Great post. You’re right. There is so much more to life than merely getting through another day.

  7. Mark-

    Even as someone half your age, I really enjoyed this post – probably one of my favorites on here – ever.

    Ryan Denner

  8. Great post! That’s all i wanna say here, I don’t think that much more is necessary anyways.

  9. PB is not about some obsessively cultish life of an ascetic, but rather a “blueprint” to living your life (and enjoying it) to the fullest. Excellent post.

  10. Awesome post, Mark! You are a great inspiration. Thanks for sharing your incredible outlook!

  11. best post ever. thanks, Mark- this one is being shared with everyone who will listen!

  12. This is a great post.

    When I first found out my kidneys were shot I was very upset because I work in the health care field and all I could visualize was decrepitude and sickness ahead of me.

    I was very depressed and I had to make a decision to give into it or to just live my life the way I was before I found out. I chose the latter and something really remarkable happened. I was supposed to be on dialysis in 6 months according to my doctor that was 2 years ago and I am still not. I have learned everything there is to know about kidneys I learned the best way to eat and exercise, I still work full time, I meditate, do visualization exercises and do just about everything I did before.

    Sometimes I feel decrepit but I consider that temporary and the next day I usually feel better and am always grateful for every healthy day I have.

    Sometimes I come across people who have the same kidney function as I do and they are sick, on dialysis and spend their lives waiting to go to dialysis or doctor appointments or just staying at home watching TV. They listened to CW and accepted the predicitons.

    I am not special I just believe that life is to be lived not endured. I feel I have a future filled with vitality now that I am learning how health is really attained. I really appreciate finding this site because it really speaks to me.

    Thanks Mark.

  13. Spot on, Mark. I wrote in one of my first journal postings that since having fully committed to the PB lifestyle I felt better than ever. At the time, even though I was following the PB, I still had some CW doubt lingering in me about the amount of fat that I was eating. But this feeling better than ever made me think that even if I were to die 10 years earlier, contented, I found that I was okay with that. Quality versus quantity.

  14. Amen! Live well, Die content..Most of my family members feel the same…live your life, share as you go, celebrate along the way. No regrets, no remorse. I still have 3 of my grandparents, 1 passed on last year, after 40 yrs of MS. Remembered 2 great-grandparents very well. I am 36 “years” old, feel great. Recently quit smoking “cold turkey”…good genes can sometimes encourage bad behavior! Finally decided to to make the “final” leap! Have been Paleo for about 1.5 yrs. Never been better..Resolved years of allergies, eczema, hay fever, and gallbladder issues! Thanks for the great info! Trying to get the rest of the family on board..hubby a sugar/carb addict with vascular issues, 300 lbs…me: 5’2″ 112 problems! Keep up the great work!!

    1. Julie, can you give me more specifics on the improvement of eczema and the palo diet. I suffer from allergies, psoriasis and ezcema and would welcome any advice.


      1. Hi tt. I am not Julie, but I used to have pretty severe eczema and seasonal allergies. They are gone now. And I feel great.

        About two years ago I made a lot of lifestyle changes at once, so I can’t say for sure what made the difference: less wheat, more exercise, etc. But does your eczema get better in the summer? Mine did. If yours does, I would HIGHLY suggest vitamin D supplementation. This made a huge difference for me.

        As for allergies, I suggest meditation. This may sound kooky, but it’s what I believe: allergies come from an overactive immune system, and one thing that can make us overactive is fear. Meditation teaches us that we are always safe, that we have a home inside ourselves that is always open and welcoming.

        I hope this is helpful.

  15. It’s the little things I notice, like how I hop up the stairs skipping every other one, wake up refreshed after two hours less sleep than I used to need, or work all day then work out and hang out with friends. It beats yawning a lot and plopping on the couch by a longshot.

  16. I think we all have that ideal of thriving in the back of our minds; our expectations have just become so low that we’ll “take what we can get,” so to speak. Great post. Happy for you seeing the Blueprint’s snowballing success.

  17. Before giving up gluten, I never realised I could feel any different. I didn’t realise that I was walking around in a haze with very little energy. I wouldn’t say I’m quite thriving yet, but my head feels clearer, my energy levels are up and I even want to exercise because the energy is there. It’s such a relief to know we can thrive whilst surviving.

  18. Great post, Mark! Very inspiring to keep on the PB path! Your comment about the pandas reminded me of the idea that species that survive and thrive are those which adapt/are able to change–which made me think of those of my family and friends who say, “Oh, I could never give up my grains!”

  19. I have to agree, this is the best post of yours I’ve read, ok ok the slice of cake one is pretty good also but this one is real “heart on your sleeve” stuff. It really is all about not taking the path of least resistance, we need to make conscious decisions everyday in terms of what we want to be, its not always how you will be remembered by the world that matters, just what you subconsciously pass on to your kids. Your kids are so lucky to have such a great example.

  20. Wonderful article. I am reminded of a visit to Switzerland years ago when my 70+ year old aunt arrived at the train station to meet me with her ski boots on–she was ready to seize the slopes with no time to waste! I, overweight girl in her 30’s that I was, was expecting to get to know each other over fondue by the fire! My family in Germany is so robust physically into their and mentally–well into their 80’s and 90’s–so unlike their American relatives.

    Given all the media attention to physical beauty, there seems to be a real disconnect when it comes to how to achieve it without plastic surgery or botox. Our society has come so far away from a wholesome diet and outdoor activity that most children don’t even know what fresh foods look like. I’m glad that people like you are getting us back on track to focusing on what’s important in life. Best,