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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