How We Connect is Foundational to Our Health– 4 Keys to Living Better
Over the last few weeks, I’ve made my case for recalibrating our circadian rhythms and placing much more emphasis and value on Sleep in my 4 Keys to Living Better.
Sleep. Eat. Move. Connect.
Imagine a rhythmical circle instead of a linear prescription. Don’t get hung up on the order of things.
If I were to kidnap a random and unsuspecting person off the street (who is living a standard sleep-deprived, malnourished, sedentary Western lifestyle), with the aim of improving their health and wellbeing, then yes, I’d most likely start with improving their sleep and circadian rhythms.
Almost simultaneously, I would be addressing what and how they eat, as well as getting them to move (most likely at a low intensity like walking), in a natural environment, out in bright natural light.
As their energy improves, I’d institute a program for them to move in a way that strengthens their body.
In the real world, however, in our own lives and contexts, we each have our own entry points to improving our health and lives.
Of more importance than any specific hierarchy of needs here, is how the 4 Keys to Living Better all Connect — connect to each other, connect to your environment, and most importantly, how everything you do connects you to other people.
Maslow Missed Something Crucial
While I am deeply influenced by the work of Abraham Maslow (of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), I am also well aware of the shortcomings of this framework, which many have written about.
“Needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections. Maslow’s model needs rewiring so it matches our brains. Belongingness is the driving force of human behavior, not a third tier activity. The system of human needs from bottom to top, shelter, safety, sex, leadership, community, competence and trust, are dependent on our ability to connect with others. Belonging to a community provides the sense of security and agency that makes our brains happy and helps keep us safe.”
Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D.
Social Networks: What Maslow Misses
Psychology Today. Nov. 2011
Virtually everything we do is based, directly or indirectly, on social connection.
A connection in one area may very well cause a disconnection in another. For example, being too connected to our social media networks may cause a disconnection with our real-world friends.
How many of you have stuck with an exercise program because of the social connections formed, when you might have otherwise quit if you were going it alone?
Perhaps, when you have tried something alone, you have quit.
I’ve lost count of the number of times people would tell me of their Whole30 success story, only to then say they are back to their old ways of eating because it’s easier for them to fit in with their family or other social connections.
Likewise, the same holds true for those who struggle with their sleep routines due to some variation of social connection preventing them from going to bed earlier.
We Thrive on a Sense of Belonging
“As social beings, family, friendships and intimate connections get many people through the ups and downs of life. Numerous studies have shown that the healthiest, happiest people tend to be more involved in their communities. While there is debate on whether one causes the other is unclear, there is some sense that having wider social connections and relationships are an important part of being happy. Lack of interactions, human relationships and the sense of belonging may result in depression or loneliness while an abundance of love and community often sustain people through difficult times (Maslow, 1987, pp. 20-21).”
Having strong social connections seem to trump many of the other common determinants of health.
I’ve seen many people over the years who create an island for themselves through their efforts to be physically healthy.
They eat well, are smart with their movement and training, and prioritize their sleep and recovery.
But they are lonely and isolated, either because of what they are doing, or in spite of it. They are fine physical specimens, but they have big deficits in their mental and emotional health.
Conversely, the health literature is littered with paradoxes, whereby a community, society, or culture routinely engages in behaviours which seem (based on current interpretations) counter to good physical health. However, these people enjoy much better health than we see in more individualistic societies with access to the supposed best health care and technologies.
Societies of the so-called Blue Zones, for example, have diverse diet patterns, live at very different latitudes, and often have exposures (such as alcohol) that are otherwise associated with negative health in our more typical Western societies.
Yet, while not necessarily looking like a Norse god/goddess (seemingly our current modern template for what healthy looks like), these groups have deep connections to each other and to their lands.
This common thread seems to lead to their impressive health metrics — longevity and functionality — which far exceed the current Western norms (which, on many counts, seem to be tracking backward).
Social Isolation Hurts Us
Humans are highly social creatures and social isolation has been used as a means of punishment since the dawn of humanity itself.
From being disowned by your family and banishment from the village to being isolated from classmates as a form of detention at school.
If it’s not bad enough that you’re already in prison, you’ll be put in solitary confinement to amplify your punishment.
Why do you think sending a child to their room is so effective?
In many ways, the way we are living in modern society has a similar isolating effect.
Despite all of our best attempts at advanced diets and exercise programs, it’s not enough for health.
I believe that our social isolation is why we all feel that something is wrong, and this is why we all seem to be hunting for something deeper — a sense of connection and community.
Technology has allowed us to attempt to seek this connection and community online. While we might be physically and emotionally distant to each other, we can be digitally connected.
This might be better than feeling completely cut off, but I will argue (in future posts) that such connections are the social equivalents of treadmills and vitamin-fortified processed foods.
The (Distorted) Economic Power of One
In the most simplistic terms, our capitalist economic model is built on volume, and that is based on the power of the single purchaser consuming more.
Take, for example, the ubiquitous personal motor vehicle.
Not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, you had the family car, but our current economic model of “consume more” says that one car per family isn’t enough cars being sold.
That economic unit — the family — has to be further divided.
There’s a car each for the respective adults in the household, and once old enough and licensed, one each for the kids.
The same applies to computers, phones…you name it. We all need one each (although a sharing economy disruptive to this concept is beginning to emerge).
In our economic drive for the success of the personal and the individual (and all the apparent status & virtue signals these represent), we’ve lost the social, the collective, the community, the connection.
It’s known in the literature that commuting via personal vehicle creates feelings of mistrust between people, and enhances the divide between ingroups and outgroups (see the never-ending battles between drivers and cyclists).
This is driven in part by the isolating nature of driving alone in a private motor vehicle while competitively jostling with other drivers for scarce resources — road space, transit speeds, and parking.
Now, think about how disconnected from each other a family, couple, or group actually is when they are all on their individual devices.
They may have physical proximity, but there’s often an enormous social and emotional gulf between them all.
The economic power of one sees us more hyperconnected to the world: strangers, events in other countries we’ve never heard of (but are seemingly supposed to feel threatened by), not to mention our ability to endlessly buy stuff with a single innocuous click.
Meanwhile, we’ve become even more disconnected from our physical selves, if not also our emotional selves, and we’re disconnected from those who are physically and emotionally around us.
People fear a future where robot overlords take humans hostage. I fear the machines that have already captured our humanity.
Doesn’t Health Start with Me?
For most of us, our health and wellbeing journey started as a deeply personal one, beginning with a focus on the self.
A connection has been made, somewhere along the lines, that the way we are feeling is solely connected to our daily individual health behaviours and habits.
We may then embark on a new diet (for better or worse), or a new exercise program (for better or worse). We see both the problem and the solution as being rooted firmly within ourselves.
To a large degree, this is absolutely true.
The very foundation of the work I and many other brilliant health professionals do relies on people making such connections.
But no man or woman is an island, and where my cynicism dial gets turned all the way up to 11, is when I see people being trapped in the (highly marketable) notion that every problem they may have (or are told they may have), connects back to them, individually, and their own “unique” and “special” needs, “because no one else is quite like you,” right?
Our modern world is awash with suggested connections to the self.
Improve your diet.
Personalise your exercise program.
It’s all you, you, you; me, me, me.
We’ve created a world dedicated to (selling to) the “highly unique needs” of the individual.
More than somewhat ironically, then, when we see the behaviours of a generation who is born native to this world of the self, we label them self-obsessed, entitled, narcissistic.
We’re missing an important piece:
The Value of Connection to Others
With the exception of a few pathological conditions, human beings are, generally, social creatures.
One way or another, we come together in social groups and take on many of the characteristics of the people around us.
Rather than unique snowflakes, we’re more like a bucket of snowflakes which have melted together. We, as individuals, are healthiest when we are part of a cohesive social group with whom we identify.
To use an already much overused term in recent health guru parlance, we are healthiest when we have a connection to a tribe.
As an extravert, your tribe might well be a room full of very loud people.
As an introvert, it will be one or two others in a quiet space somewhere.
Either way, your tribe is a group of people who share many similar values and beliefs, fostering cohesiveness, trust, and the achievement of common goals and outcomes.
CrossFit is a global success, not because of superior programing (indeed, many would argue otherwise), but rather because of the social cohesion which exists in the vast majority of the CrossFit boxes.
Whether you are an open veteran or a nervous first-timer, you are all in the WOD together. There’s support and camaraderie. With that support, even though the WOD was brutally hard, and you wanted to stop and cry, you got through and you’ll be back again next time.
The trust, support, and connection to others helps you to stay consistent with your training.
That consistency (assuming all other key health behaviours are supporting such training — eating, sleeping, adequate recovery, etc), leads to the physical transformations many people achieve in CrossFit and similar highly supportive sporting and fitness endeavours.
But who gets the credit for such success?
Most often it’s the individual.
The question which needs to be asked, however, is: would you have done these workouts without the support of others?
Connect with Your Environment
Many, perhaps most of us, will have a special place we feel a strong connection to.
I’m a Canadian who grew up in British Columbia, so I hold not only a very strong connection to my hometown, but also anywhere with mountains which remind me of home.
Having recently returned from New Zealand, I know there is a deep cultural connection to the land and outdoors there, not only among the indigenous Maori population, but also of those who arrived there from far flung lands
Such connection to a place doesn’t need to be specific.
You might be someone who feels a general connection to water, or to forests, or to mountains.
Your place doesn’t even necessarily need to be a natural environment (though this can hold inherent benefits to our well being in itself).
Maybe it’s a building, a library, a cafe, or simply your home. A connection to a place can be anywhere that you derive a sense of energy, a vibe, or a sense of calm. Maybe it’s a sense of significance.
Or insignificance. A place which offers perspective.
Perhaps you are familiar with that feeling of travelling, where you can still eat well, but it’s at a place you are unfamiliar with, and the vibe is a bit, well, dull, tired, or awkward.
You can go to a gym and do your usual routine, though it’s not your gym, with the usual suspects there when you workout.
And the hotel bed is big and plush, but it’s not your bed.
You can maintain all of your usual physical health habits, but you feel thoroughly disconnected from all of the places because they’re not your places.
Your environment matters.
It shapes the way you sleep, eat, move and connect with others.
Find a Connection to Purpose
What do you do?
No, not your job, although what you do and what you get remunerated for could very well be the same thing.
I’m meaning what is your purpose, your higher act of self and service? What is your contribution to the world, and what impact does this have? From Simon Sinek: what is your why?
Eating well and working out so that you look good naked in the mirror might be all well and good, but in my experience (and I fully expect to attract some heat for this statement), such shallow motivations tend not to be that strong, or last that long.
Shallow, not because it’s an unworthy goal. Shallow in the sense that this won’t always matter to you as much as it does right now.
Identifying and connecting to a higher sense of service and purpose, and then (re)calibrating your health behaviours and habits to this, can connect you to a deeper level of motivation to maintain these behaviours.
If your sense of fulfillment is derived from, say, being a good parent, but because you are tired, undernourished, and lacking energy, you spend your days snapping at the kids, who in turn think you are the worst parent in the world, that sense of fulfillment is rapidly eroded.
I’ve given more words to my Connect key than to any of the other keys thus far, and yet I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.
From the 4 Keys to Living Better themselves to you, the people around you, your environment, and your sense of purpose,
Living better is a game of connection.
Connect in 60 Seconds
Deep health and well-being doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t result from 10 hours’ sleep. It doesn’t magically occur on day 128 of your fifth Whole30. It won’t kick in just before your eighth WOD for the week. It certainly does not occur once you hit 100,000 likes.
These are all common examples of believing that health can be achieved via short term intensity of will.
Instead, true, deep, meaningful well being stems from the consistent interconnection of the basic keys to health — sleep, eat, move — coupled with an awareness of self, a connection to people (socialization) and places (environment), and a sense of purpose (fulfillment).
Connection is not an end goal in and of itself, but rather an ongoing, mindful journey and exploration of making, breaking, and renewing these deep interconnections of life.