“Much of aging comes from a misunderstanding of the effect of comfort.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
This blog post is a (dramatically) abbreviated collection of ideas featured, more eloquently, in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. This is a personal favorite, an insightful blend of philosophy, health, economics and much more, portraying the benefits a moderate amount of chaos has on a healthy life. An Amazon link is included at the bottom of this article.
Your heart is racing.
Your ears are now bass drums as the beating resonates in your head and the periphery of your vision submits to a washed out gray, focusing your attention on what lies immediately in front of you. Long, yellowed teeth appear first, as a towering, prehistoric predator materializes with them. Sharpened stick in one hand and a cleared path behind you, you now have to choose: Fight or Flight.
Regardless of what option you choose, your brain has supplied your body with enough adrenaline to lift up a four-door sedan (we’ve all heard the story of the desperate mother), preparing you for a Herculean physical response.
Fast forward some thousands of years to modern day. The stick is a cellphone, the open path is a paved road, but instead of legs, you’re being propelled in an unnatural seated position, working the smallest of calf muscles on the pedal. There is no mammal now, but that doesn’t mean we are the top of the food chain. The predator has been replaced with ‘the boss’, ‘the deadline’, social obligations, and we can’t go around punching our social obligations and deadlines…
The stress-induced adrenaline response is vital for worst case scenario resolution, but is not a sustainable mode of operation in our bodies. Daily stress produces this same response and, over time, leads to high blood pressure, depression, and a myriad of physical ailments, amounting to a shorter, unhappy life; the very opposite of the ultimate purpose (spoken of in previous blogs) of living well for a long time.
There are a few ways to resolve this issue, the first being easier said than done: remove unhealthy stressors from your life. Unhealthy stressors are the “Chinese water torture” (excuse the culturally insensitive but easily identifiable moniker) of modern living. The stress of an unhealthy diet over time, unhappiness in the work place, unfulfilling or damaging social interactions, slowly chip away at our resolve and go long unnoticed due to their individual triviality, but are made deadly by their combined magnitude. Removing these stressors can be as easy (or as difficult) as finding a job that makes you happy rather than one that simply pays the bills. A happier job may even lesson expenses, as we tend to spend more on comfort when we are the least happy (flashy electronics, luxury cars, the latest fashion trends, comfort food). By saying ‘no’ to more, we can say ‘yes’ to the opportunities that give us more. Warren Buffet credits his success more to the options he turned down than the ones he embraced. There is a finite amount of time in the day, therefore smarter investments in that time will yield a disproportionally higher amount of success. Taleb outlines this “via Negativa” approach in Antifragile, assuring a life can be made better, easier, by removing the unhealthy instead of trying to add more good. Candy on a rotting apple is still a rotting apple, but by cutting the rot out first, you can then add the things that make it sweeter.
The next way to resolve damaging stress in our lives is done by adding good stressors, stressors that challenge the body and bring balance back to our system by introducing a small amount of chaos. One of the ways to do this, what I deliver to my clients, is to bring back a physical response to match the mental one. Not all stressors can be cut away via Negativa. You need to work to support yourself, your family, and your loved ones. And though not all family and friend time is met with overwhelming excitement and fulfillment, these obligations must be met to maintain balance. Therefore, we must stimulate the flight or fight response with a physical one, in an effort to compensate for the body’s expectation of exertion. Rigorous exercise for an hour or so, several times a week, challenges the body’s systems, making more efficient use of the stress hormones that would normally fester in an otherwise sedentary life. It is not uncommon to work a long day in the office, pelted by reports, coworkers’ needs and deadlines, motivated only by the foresight of a relaxing night and the comfort of the couch, when in actuality, the best complement to a stressful day (one being filled of many small stressors) is the body’s reaction to exercise (one prominent, healthy stressor). Dedicated, rigorous exercise (time in which you are breathing heavily and your muscles feel fatigued) mixed with a lifestyle of leisurely physical activity (hikes, walks, etc.) will make great advances in undoing the damage of bad stress and bring the body back to a normal balance. This, too, is easier said than done. There is a cruelty to our programming, a slippery slope where the less we exercise, the less we produce the chemicals that make us motivated to exercise. So, yes, there really is a chemical reason for that enthusiastic runner, crossfitter, boxer populating your Facebook feeds with their workout posts. Working out makes people feel happy, when we are happy we want to share that happiness with the world. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true.
Modernity and technology have offered health and happiness to many people. Humanity is at the apex of medical technology and information accessibility, but there are dangers that lie within an increasingly comfortable lifestyle. It is important not to let the crutch of the modern world atrophy (both literally and figuratively) our ability to support our own weight. It is important that we don’t confuse comfort with health and discomfort with decay, as, with many other aspects in life, finding the balance between both is where we find the best way to be happy and live well for a long time.
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