By Ryan Allis
If you want to use your life—the only life you have, at least as far as we know—to make a significant difference in the world, it’s essential that you take care of your physical and mental health. Life is a precious gift, and, as I’ve learned the hard way, it can be cut short when we least expect it. Sometimes, this happens for reasons beyond our control, but too often, we contribute to our own physical challenges through the lifestyle choices we make.
Sometimes, our poor choices are due to ignorance or force of habit; other times they are a result of succumbing to the temptation to do things that we know are not good for us. And sometimes they are just due to confusion or misinformation—which is understandable when you consider how much conflicting information is out there.
I am by no means an expert when it comes to physical health, but I try to follow certain habits that I’ve found to be beneficial. I still have a lot to learn in this regard, but here are some of the basics I’ve learned over the past 29 years.
Diet & Energy
Diet can be a confusing topic, to say the least, with hundreds if not thousands of books published every year claiming to contain the ultimate secret to losing weight, looking great, staying young, and living longer. What’s more, the economic interests of the food and diet industry can tend to distort the messages we’re getting, and they don’t always have our best interests in mind. Our busy, stress-filled lifestyles can drive us to reach for the most convenient and immediately satisfying options, rather than taking the time to find a healthier alternative. And to further complicate matters, we’re not all the same. Even the best advice that works for one particular body type and genetic makeup doesn’t work for another.
However, in the midst of all this conflicting information, there are some simple principles that more and more people agree on.
One of the most obvious lessons is that when you want to lose weight, consume fewer calories than you burn. It’s very straightforward, but often there are many more complicated weight loss programs out there that are not necessarily nearly as effective. When I want to lose weight, I follow a special diet for a period of time, where I eat only chicken, steak, turkey, fish, vegetables, fruits, almonds, water, protein powder, and green tea. Find out what works for you—not an extreme diet of deprivation, but a sustainable, balanced, nutrient-rich approach—and stick to it until you achieve the results that you want.
Another principle that more and more experts agree on is that we would all benefit from eating more plants and replacing processed foods with “real” food (i.e. the Paleo diet). I’m not saying everyone should become vegetarian, but increasing our vegetable and fruit intake has tremendous benefits, as does decreasing our intake of processed foods.
As the Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, succinctly puts it:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
New York Times food critic Mark Bittman echoes this sentiment:
“The evidence is overwhelming at this point. You eat more plants, you eat less other stuff, you live longer.”
I eat lots of tofu, nuts, melons, berries and high protein fish, lean chicken, turkey, and steak. I also drink lots of water—around 8 glasses per day. Water keeps your body hydrated and helps it to naturally eliminate toxins from your system. Plus, if you’re trying to lose weight, drinking plenty of water can help you to feel “full,” lessening the craving for unnecessary food.
I do whatever is within my power to prevent cancer. Most health experts agree that a poor diet containing high-calorie, high-sodium foods combined with little physical activity dramatically increases your chances of getting cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. 75% of cancers are caused by just three factors: tobacco, bad diet, and sun exposure. Tobacco causes 30% of cancer cases and contains 4,000 harmful chemicals and toxic carcinogens.1 So if you want to live longer, don’t smoke, period.
Mental Health & Self-Mastery
Mental health is another critical area in which you can increase your self-mastery and greatly improve both your quality of life and your effectiveness at making a difference. In a fast-moving startup environment, mental health is as essential as physical health. Of course, there are many factors affecting our mental states that are beyond our control, but it can be surprising and liberating to discover how many aspects of our mental health we can actually impact.
Self-mastery is the ability to have greater awareness and control of your body, your mind, and your emotions, rather than letting your body, mind, and emotions have control over you. When you increase your mastery over yourself, it is a source of tremendous strength, because you are no longer a victim of your own impulses, desires, or fears. As Lao-Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”
Throughout history, self-mastery has been a common core precept of those who excel in many fields—athletes, warriors, business leaders, political leaders, activists, and spiritual aspirants of all religious traditions. Take a close look at the lives of those who had a major impact on the world, and you’re likely to find that they had developed ways of mastering their own impulses and instincts in order to stay on track toward their larger goal and not undermine their own progress in moments of weakness or forgetfulness. Much of this comes down to the cultivation of healthy habits, which will feel more and more “natural” as you continue to practice them.
Choosing to Be Happy
One of the most important areas to study when it comes to mental health is happiness, and how we can control our happiness, or at least affect it.
To me, true happiness occurs when you’re making a difference in the lives of others, and you’re doing that through following your bliss and doing what you love to do. Numerous recent studies confirm the connection between altrusim and happiness, between “doing good and feeling good,” with researchers concluding that “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally kind and compassionate.” 2 Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School observes that, “The happiest people I know are dedicated to dealing with the most difficult problems.” 3 The best thing you can do for your mental health may be to find your life purpose and dedicate yourself to making a difference in the world.
When you can align what you are passionate about and what you love to do with what you do every day, often you get into a “flow state,” as the great psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, and that is where you find true happiness.
But happiness is not just about what you’re doing in the external world. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi says a person can make himself happy or miserable regardless of what is happening outside just by changing the contents of consciousness. In other words, by changing what you’re choosing to think about.
Now, you can’t always control your happiness. Sometimes there are certain chemical processes that can affect brain or body function and determine your level of happiness or depression. However, in many cases, you can have a surprising impact on your emotional states through interpreting the events that happen in your life differently. Consider looking at life through an optimistic lens and recognizing that while you can’t control what happens to you externally, you can choose how to interpret it. Oftentimes, that choice is a critical component of your level of happiness.
Getting To the Other Side of Suffering
When thinking about mental health, it’s important to consider obstacles and suffering as well. Oftentimes, some of the most impressive and inspiring people I’ve met have turned out to be people who have faced unusual challenges in life. As the saying goes, the hotter the temperature in which the iron is forged, the stronger the steel. In other words, the more challenges you’ve been through, the stronger your internal alignment with that which you want to achieve.
If you’re going through tough times, don’t be afraid of struggle. Struggle is actually something that is important to the process of understanding what true happiness is. As they say, smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors. A winemaker I met recently explained how sometimes the best wines come from vines grown under stress—on steep rocky hillsides, in overcrowded vineyards, or in less-than-perfect weather—because the grapes that were produced despite the struggle were unusually flavorful and intense. The same can apply to human beings. Sometimes stress and struggle make us better people.
In order to feel the true heights of happiness, it’s actually helpful to have been through some suffering in life, because after you go through suffering, you can better empathize with others and see things from their perspective.
In 2009 my business partner, Aaron, had thyroid cancer. Through being with him in that awful experience, I was better able to put myself in the shoes of other people who were going through difficult times. When I experienced my mother’s passing in 2012, as difficult as that experience was, I gained so much from it in terms of understanding myself, understanding my motivations, and being able to relate to other people who are suffering.
The Benefits of Meditation
I find that one of the keys to mental health and wellbeing is a daily practice of meditation. For thousands of years, wise men and women from every culture and tradition have recognized the value of silence and stillness as a way to achieve clarity and peace of mind. And now modern science is backing them up, producing evidence of the positive effects of meditation for stress relief, health, creativity, brain function, mental focus, and more.4 A recent study by Northeastern University and Harvard University also demonstrated that meditation can improve compassionate behavior—which, as we discussed earlier, leads to greater happiness. 5
You don’t have to spend hours and hours in lotus position to achieve this, but consider making a little time in your daily routine for some form of meditation. One of the ways I get to meditative state is to take ten minutes and just sit silently every morning and think about what I want to achieve that day. I think about my day and the important things I need to do, the people I need to interact with, and the things I can check off my to-do list. I meditate silently, but I actively visualize how I want my day to go.