Listen to Your Body

Whenever I haven’t worked out for a week or two, I can feel my heart beating a little harder when I lay down at night. There’s a bigger rhythmic thud in my chest. And if I have an ear buried in the pillow I can hear and feel my pulse in my head more than usual. A more noticeable heartbeat and pulse have become a clear signal that I need to get back to exercising regularly. If I’ve been lazy, or have lost track about how long it’s actually been since the last time, I’m more aware now of ways my body is telling me where I’m at.

Perhaps you get similar messages. From your heart or the tightness of your chest. Jitteriness, shortness of breath, or a general feeling of anxiety. Aching muscles and tendons. Rumbling and popping in your digestive system. Difficulty getting your mind to focus on more than simple, short things. Headaches and bags under your eyes. The color of your pee and the (ab)normality of your poop. (Yeah…poop. You know about the Bristol stool scale, right?)

All of these things–and more–are signals of how your body is doing and what needs attention. How near or far you are to being balanced and healthy. The fewer, more regular signals you have, the more likely you are well off. If every inch of your body hurts, or you feel like you could close your eyes and pass out, you need to slow down and heal.

The signals are not always easy to detect or interpret. Maybe you don’t feel something until you turn a certain way or lie down. Some signals can be unfamiliar until you look into it a little more. You need to do a bit of Googling or ask professionals what’s going on–while making sure you keep cyberchondria in check. Other signals you only begin to pick up on clearly when you do some kind of mindfulness or meditative practice that gets you more in tune with yourself. Things like stress, worry, or sleep deprivation can drown signals out completely.

The causes behind the signals are not always obvious either. Am I short of breath because I’m out of shape? Because I’m at a different altitude than usual? Because I forgot to eat before I had coffee? Because I freaked the hell out when I thought I saw a giant spider 20 minutes ago?

But even asking such probing questions at all is a revealing and meaningful start. Ultimately, the signals are there so we can do something about what we’ve put our body through. The food and drink that goes in, the sleep and rest we make time for, the stressors we’re being bombarded with, and the things in the environment around us that are impinging on our cells. The signals have a source, and if we can identify the cause then we know what to change or adjust to find balance again. Emotions are their own special kind of signal, often revealing where we’re at with our relationships and attachments.

Every so often, I get lightheaded and have a harder time concentrating and spitting sentences out. I put it together a while back that it happens when I didn’t eat a big enough meal or the right combination of food. In those instances, I need to stop what I’m doing and find some applesauce or a handful of gummy bears. After that, I can feel my energy and focus come back online, like WALL-E after soaking up the sun’s rays. I’m glad I’ve got that signal figured out now.

So listen to your body. Try to be aware of the signals it’s sending, and figure out what’s causing them. We’re all meant to have balance, energy, strength, and focus. Homeostasis. Listening to your body will help you understand what you need to do to get there.

Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

This Week in Upgrades: July 5

A very pleasant Tuesday to you. Still have fireworks exploding around you? Our neighborhood was plenty raucous. I hope you had a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend.

If you weren’t celebrating July 4th, maybe you celebrated NASA successfully placing Juno in orbit with Jupiter? Can’t wait until we start getting images and data back.

Lots of other interesting and important things this week. Like…

Don’t go crazy with it, but we don’t need to demonize butter anymore.

We get new cells all the time. So how old is your body, really?

Will this legislation help save the bees?

We now know how dogs sniff out diabetes. Definitely humankind’s best friend.

Bluefin tuna will probably be fished to extinction if we don’t do more to protect them.

Researchers believe air pollution is responsible for 6.5 million deaths per year.

Speaking of manmade environmental change, it looks like we’ve passed a crucial threshold. This is not good.

It would help if the American government actually addressed the dire state of the climate. The Democratic Party platform wasn’t particularly aspirational.

An important essay on how slavery was fundamental to modern economics.

More than anything, a universal basic income would mean the end of BS jobs. All part of that new American Dream.

Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time looks stunning. Sometimes we lose perspective on how astounding it is that we’re here now in the midst of all this.