Last year, I was asked by a group to come talk about healthy living. (Obviously, they did this sight unseen.) As I tried to gin up a talk about this, I stumbled back upon a favorite framework, the Power 9 pulled by Dan Buettner and his colleagues from the Blue Zones study. It worked well with the group, even though the Blue Zones are identified as places where people are significantly more likely to live to 100, and the group were 20-somethings. That underscored for me that they are pretty universal.
But something told me they were more and less than they needed to be. So I tried to boil them down, and I ended up with four essential elements of successful living: Health, Security, Connection, and Purpose.
Blue Zones has a rap for just focusing on health, but as I read it, the study actually goes 3-for-4, especially as it’s implemented in the US as a designation for communities that aspire to be great places. Yes, the focus is on physical health: diet (plant slant, hari hachi bu, wine at 5), exercise (move naturally), rest (sorta – they actually could do more about this, but “down shift” makes the cut). But they also get connection (right tribe, belong, family first). And purpose is its own one of the 9. So it misses on security.
But let me flesh out what I’m using for my four, because I’ve added a little around the edges:
- Nutrition (plant slant, hari hachi bu, hydration)
- Exercise (cardio, strength, flexibility)
- Rest (sleep, play, reflection/meditation/prayer/worship)
- Physical (from the elements, from violence)
- Emotional (protection from harmful levels of anxiety about present or future conditions)
- Close friends and circles of mutual care
- Casual connections – face-to-face daily interactions
- Meaningful work (paid or informal)
- Legacy (contributing to a better future)
These are the things, I will posit, that we all need to thrive. We don’t need them all, all the time – anyone who has pulled an all-nighter to get an important project finished or to spend time with someone beloved can attest to that – but over the long run, we need all of these to be present at some level for us to live well.
And here in the US, our systems and our culture our failing us because they make these elements unduly difficult to achieve for most people. The nature of work is such that it too seldom diminishes help, provides insufficient emotional (and sometimes physical) security, hurts some of our most important connections, and does not feed a sense of purpose. That’s not true for everyone, of course. But it seems to be true for a growing number of people.
So, what to do? Change comes at the legal, systemic and cultural levels. Changing laws is hard, but is simple when compared to the others. Unwinding systems of, say, racism or classism, takes not only changing laws but changing economic incentives. Changing culture – what we as a collective body of people value – is even more complicated and difficult.
We get caught up in changing laws. That’s probably because it’s a competitive battle of interests that is easy to understand in the context of our tribal nature and our modern competitiveness. Laws change when “we” triumph over “them” (or vice versatile). But when we change laws, we really have only begun, and if we don’t recognize that, we are doomed to fight an eternal war over whatever issue it is we’ve picked. To bring true change, we need to replace the systems that made the laws we changed make sense, and we need to change the cultural values that celebrated the outcomes of that unjust system based on those unjust laws. Even beyond the changing of laws, those changes require the changing of hearts, which is almost always slow work.
If what we have in American society is not bringing most people what they need to thrive, what arrangement can do better? I don’t think “What the hell do you have to lose?” is a compelling argument. We need to find a better place to go before we decide to leave where we are.
I don’t have a certain answer, but I want to flesh out a hypothesis. I’m going to work from an assumption that may or may not be right; if it’s wrong, perhaps that discovery can point us to something better. My hypothesis will be that two principles, well applied, can get us to a better outcome. One is solidarity. The other is subsidiarity.
By solidarity, I mean the essential recognition that we all are worthy of dignity and we all belong to each other. Those of us who are advantaged in each moment are called to recognize this true equality of dignity and value in those who are disadvantaged in this and every moment.
By subsidiarity, I mean the theory that the decisions that communicate the most dignity are the most personal ones, those that are made closest to the subject. This goes beyond what Americans know as federalism (the idea that government is better at the state level than the federal one) and even beyond government alone to apply to all institutions. All things considered, the smaller, the better. The family should provide what it can provide. Local institutions – neighbors, communities of membership, local collectives, should support the family. Local governments should support those local institutions. And so on.
I’m going to work on this hypothesis for a while and see where it takes us. Specifically, let’s see if it can deliver a better model for empowering health, security, connection and purpose than what we have today.