Lifestyle. It’s a word that we sometimes skim over because it seems like a generic, catch all term. Understandably, people get mixed up when they try to define lifestyle. Go ahead—try and define it, and then see if your definition matches a friend’s. Spoiler alert—it won’t…
But don’t underestimate this little seemingly ho-hum word. If you really go back and pay attention to it, it’s cooler than you think. Let’s try it again, only a little bit differently: Life-style: The style of how we live our lives. We don’t just live (an amoeba can do that—no offense to amoebas…). We each have a way of living our lives, one that is unique to us. And, we create that way from the choices we make on a daily basis.
So, what are the types of choices that forge our style of life? Well, there’s a good reason why people lose their footing when they try to define lifestyle. It’s because our life-style encompasses several elements:
- Close relationships
- Sense of purpose and meaning
- Involvement in the community
- Recreation and leisure time
- Relaxation and stress management
- Being out in nature and appreciating natural beauty.
That’s a lot, right?
And believe it or not, our style of life, the choices we make across these domains again and again, mightily sways virtually everything. We’re talking about how happy we are, how we think, how we work, love, and live with others, our ability to get up and look forward to the day (or most days anyway), whether we feel that life is worth living, and how comfy we feel in our own skin. Although this may seem surprising at first glance, it makes solid sense when we think about it. We don’t live separately from our style of life. We’re embedded in it, like a fish in water. High quality water = happy fish. Cloudy, dirty water = we don’t want to think about that. And sadly, we often don’t talk about it—the impact of lifestyle on our mental health and quality of life, I mean. It’s not that we don’t talk about it because we’re unaware that our lifestyle is vital. That’s rooted in old wisdom. For example, Thomas Jefferson said that “exercise and application produce order of our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends.” Thomas Jefferson had never even seen sneakers (missed them by about 80 years—he never even got to see a rubber-soled shoe…) and he knew this truth. And yet, despite these wise, old insights, the notion that our style of life could have a tremendous impact on our mental health was not taken very seriously until recently.
Now, there is vast and growing amount of scientific research on the power of lifestyle to elevate our emotional wellbeing and the caliber of our life. In fact, there’s even a bunch of research on the use of lifestyle as an actual intervention for stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, and challenges with sexual functioning. Yet despite all of this, often we view more traditional forms of mental health treatment, namely medication management and psychotherapy, as the go-to, main treatment. And what of lifestyle-based interventions? We tend to view them as handy extras on the side that we throw in for good measure. It’s not hard to understand why though. As the anthropologist Ralph Linton once noted, “the last thing a fish would ever notice would be the water.” We don’t talk about lifestyle because it’s all around us. Whether we’re trained in the mental health field or not, most of us get the message that our treatment options are molded from what is focal and not around all us—medication management and psychotherapy.
If we care about total wellness and quality of life for ourselves and others (I’m talking emotional, physical, and social wellness) we need to think about the water: Lifestyle interventions. It’s crucial to change the shift in how we define treatment. Let’s progress from seeing psychotherapy and medication as the front line of treatment to placing lifestyle interventions more at the helm (or at least on par with traditional mental health treatment). Don’t get me wrong. Traditional forms of mental health treatment (i.e., psychotherapy and medication) definitely have their role in helping people to live happier, healthier lives. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t feel that way! However, interventions that target a person’s style of life counts as treatment too, not just an accessory.
These interventions are holistic, taking the whole person into account, and that’s as it should be. We humans have dynamic, full lives with relationships, routines, habits, aspirations, joys, concerns, and a mind and body that profoundly influence each other amidst all of this. I have yet to meet anyone who can be boiled down to a set of problems or issues to be addressed within the confines of a therapy hour.
And what about your therapist or physician? Not surprisingly, when they upgrade their own lifestyle, they’ll become happier, better providers too. Actually, this applies to anyone in any field, right? Health at home translates into health and vitality at work, a clear win-win.
So here’s a little, spirited challenge: I triple dog dare you (really—why do a dare halfway?) to choose one small, doable step that you can take today to augment your style of life. It could be going for a 30-minute walk, fitting in an extra piece of fruit into your day, going to sleep 15 minutes earlier, flipping on soothing music or a comedy station in your car rather than flipping out in gridlock traffic, or taking an extra minute or two to share a cozy hug with your partner when you first come home (aaah, so nice!).
If you’re up for it, continue finding enjoyable ways to give your style of life a little extra oomph. It takes very little change to see a gigantic difference. But don’t trust my word. Check it out for yourself.
No matter what you do to revamp your style of life and regardless of when you do it, I hope you’ll go beyond cleaning the water for yourself. I hope you beautify it. That’s the very least you deserve.