Wellness - lessons from nature
I typed 'wellness' into Google and received 1.3 billion results, along with a heap of mixed messages over the number of wellness components I should be ticking off in order to be at my best: is it six, seven, eight? No wonder people are confused!
The wellness boom is a clear indication of our collective aspiration for far more than an absence of sickness - the province of traditional healthcare - instead we seek health optimisation, purpose, and fulfilment in the knowledge that life offers us the opportunity for far more than to feel 'ok', or as we Brits are so prone to say - 'not bad'.
The trouble is, this same wellness boom hasn’t been missed by hundreds of companies selling thousands of products, services, and opportunities, making the whole thing extremely complicated, confusing, and seemingly unattainable.
Having worked in the health and wellness industry for many years, I know how complicated it can feel; and as a registered nutritionist with degrees in sport science and human nutrition, I understand how complicated it actually is; but, as a coach, I see wellness, at its core, as rather simple.
I want to demystify wellness by going back to basics and sharing a perspective from nature.
Perspectives from nature
Life on earth has been around for 3.5 billion years, mammals for around 200 million years, and homo sapiens for a mere 200,000 years, only the last 10,000 of which are in the form of civilisation.
We have hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years of evolutionary instinct locked up inside of us, unconscious and primitive, driving our search for well-being, and yet our relatively recent powers of thought, reasoning, and logical analysis have come to dominate our perceptions, masking our ability to recognise our own basic needs.
We have far more in common with other forms of life than we do differences, so by looking at the needs and behaviour of simpler organisms we can simplify wellness and gain a new perspective on our own basic needs.
Lessons from nature
Apart from throw it in the bin, conclude it was faulty and buy a replacement, what do you do when a houseplant isn’t thriving? Water it more (or less), move it, or re-pot it, right? You change its environment and watch it (hopefully!) begin to thrive.
Animals are more complicated, but still have a list of basic needs. Like plants, animals need the right environment and the right nutrition to thrive. Unlike plants, animals are not content to grow in a pot! They have muscles enabling them to get up and move, and brains capable of making decisions and learning. Without the freedom to exercise, interact, and challenge themselves, animals do not gain the mental and physical stimulation they need to thrive - instead, they become anxious, depressed, and dysfunctional.
Higher animals are also dependant on care from others to survive. From birth, they demand attention, and as parents, they provide nurturing support, so their young learn and grow both mentally and physically.
In social species like chimps, where cooperation is key, animals also need to understand their status and role in the community. If the troop gets too big, chimps lose sight of their place, become anxious and stressed, and naturally form smaller groups to regain a sense of security.
We know from their appearance and behaviour when animals are and aren’t well. They seek out what is rewarding, avoid what is not, and are openly expressive about how they feel, as any dog owner will verify!
Humans are far more sophisticated in how we seek out and express our needs, often to our detriment. Our conscious minds give us the unique ability to project, reflect, analyse, and question - enabling us to discover and live a life of meaning. Unfortunately, it also means we often think too much, over-intellectualise situations, and lose sight of our basic needs.
Like all living things, we need the right environment to thrive - not too hot and not too cold! Ice cold aircon, overbearing heat, excessive noise or, in some cases, eerie silence, will immediately limit us.
We also need exercise. We didn’t evolve to stay in our modern 'caves' all day! The UK Government recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. My advice is to do something, whatever you can manage in your life, because it all helps. Even the smallest bursts can have a positive impact on our metabolism, health, and well-being.
Hand in hand with exercise comes rest, recuperation, and sleep. We spend about a third of our lives asleep and for good reason - without it, we struggle to function. Sleep helps us repair, learn, and grow. Different people need different amounts, but seven hours is a good target. If you’re not getting enough, having way too much, or your quality of sleep is poor, consider why.
The last basic physical need is nutrition. This is a huge topic, but I’d encourage you to firstly ask yourself this simple question - "am I fuelling my body with nutrients to help me thrive?". If you don’t know the answer, then seek advice, but if you’re aware of some bad habits, start there. An undernourished system cannot thrive, and a saturated one gets clogged up, quite literally.
Emotionally, we have several basic needs. We’re a social species and need to feel connection and security by understanding the motives, expectations, and intentions of our 'troop' and our role within it. If the group’s too big, we’re isolated from it, or our contribution is not valued, then we’ll naturally feel unsettled. Consider the challenge of meeting these needs in the modern, open-plan corporate environment with virtual teams and remote working.
Related to this is a need for attention and recognition. There’s such a cultural stigma about attention-seeking, but, from nature’s perspective, without it, we die, and without providing it the whole group dies. If we accept it as a natural driver, then it may help us be more honest with ourselves and compassionate with others.
We must also learn, grow and achieve to maintain a sense of personal competence. We evolved to strive, contribute, and add value to the group, so as much as burnout through excessive demand is to be avoided, we must also be wary of 'rust out' from boredom.
As social as we are, we also need a sense of privacy and autonomy. We have an instinctive drive to retreat, escape from the group and decompress, without which we can become anxious and overwhelmed. Likewise, we need the freedom to roam and, at times, do it our way.
Balancing all our needs is not easy, but awareness of them can only help!
As humans, we’re blessed with minds that enable us to create and live lives full of purpose and meaning. And yet, as special and as complicated as we are, we a rooted in hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and the same basic needs as all life on earth.
If you want to be at your best and optimise your wellness, I encourage you to go back to basics. Look at your basic human needs and start there, for as smart as we think we are, nature is a lot smarter!
For further reading, I recommend 'Human Givens' by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell; and 'The Chimp Paradox' by Steve Peters.
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