Living the Humanist Life

In the past, I've written much about the philosophy of humanism and how it offers a transcendent, spiritual view of life's purpose that is at least as appealing as anything offered by religion (and in fact, is superior - at least in my opinion).

Well and good, but I've been thinking lately that what we need is a set of practical guidelines for living life as a humanist. Holding this lofty view in moments of deep reflection or contemplation is one thing, but how does the humanist philosophy affect what we do in everyday life? What difference does it make in the way we interact with the world? This post will propose some answers to that question.

To derive these guidelines, I take two principles as primary. First, in the humanist view, this life is primary; it is the only one we can know for sure that we have. To that end, it's important to live to the fullest extent possible - not just to live as long as possible, but also to fill life with as much richness and diversity of experience as it can reasonably sustain. To do this, we must be in a position to live independently, able to pursue our desires and take advantage of what life has to offer.

Second, in the humanist view, we exist as part of a community of individuals. Our interactions with our fellow human beings increase the depth and meaningfulness of life and suggest avenues for fulfillment that could never have been attained by individual effort. A humanist, therefore, does not withdraw from the world but seeks to enter fully into it and take part in it.

With these principles in mind, I offer nine guidelines for living the humanist life. They're divided into three groups - one for the body, one for the mind, and one for the community. Though they may seem mundane, I speak from experience when I say that they can make a dramatic difference in your well-being and your mood.

Eat healthy. Our appetites evolved in a world where fat and sugar were rare treats that provided a much-needed burst of concentrated energy. Small wonder that our Paleolithic brains crave them whenever they're available. But in the modern world we're drowning in junk food, and our palates haven't changed to match. It's small wonder that Western societies have seen skyrocketing rates of obesity and all the health problems that come with it - diabetes, circulatory ailments, stroke, and even cancer.

But this can be avoided, if we carefully and rationally oversee our eating habits. The ideal diet, it seems, is one rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans. Eat meat and dairy in moderation, preferring reduced-fat dairy products to whole milk and fish and poultry to red meat. If possible, buy locally grown produce (such as at a farmer's market), and prefer free-range or sustainably harvested meat to factory farms. As much as possible, avoid sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup), white flour and saturated fat.

Most fad diets, in my experience, work by requiring a person to eat only one thing; when they get sick of it and stop eating, they lose weight. But this is unsustainable in the short term and unhealthy in the long term. A balanced diet is healthier and much easier to stick to.

Exercise regularly. In a busy modern lifestyle, this can be difficult, but that makes it all the more important. Even with a healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle can leave you vulnerable to weight gain and all the health problems that come with it. Even a light exercise regimen pays dividends in health and continued fitness throughout life, and it's an incomparable stress and tension reliever. I try to work out for at least 45 minutes to an hour three times a week, mixing weights with aerobics.

Get enough sleep. Our chronically overworked society often views sleep as a luxury. I understand this temptation - I've often wished I could go without it myself. (I'd be far more productive at my writing, if nothing else!) But it can't be done. Trying only makes you miserable and irritable, and leaves the door open for all the ailments that come with chronic stress. Different people need different amounts of sleep, and there's no set number of hours that works for everyone. I do fine with seven hours, I find. Other people may need less or more. The rule I go by is that if you have extreme difficulty getting up in the morning, or if you're constantly drowsy throughout the day, then you're not getting enough sleep.

Read every day. The mind, no less than the muscles, needs exercise. Research has shown that mentally stimulating activities - even something as simple as doing a daily crossword puzzle - improve mental acuity and recall and may protect against neurodegenerative disease later in life. Even beyond its health benefits, reading has many obvious advantages: a well-informed, literate person can better understand the issues of the day, is better able to express themself, and has a broader base of information to help them learn and comprehend new things. I keep track of the books I've read, and I try to read at least two per month - more if possible - on a broad range of topics.

Don't watch too much TV. The benefits of reading are numerous, but by contrast, I don't know of any proven advantages to television. I try to watch as little as possible, and I think that (with a few rare exceptions) it's a bad way to absorb information - for more reasons than one. For one thing, it's slow, limited to the speed at which people talk, whereas I can read at my own pace. This factor also means important issues are rarely presented in depth. It's also cluttered with ads that distract us and create desires for unnecessary things. It's a one-way medium, denying the audience an opportunity to respond; and it far more easily produces a visceral, emotional response than reading, which discourages rational consideration of the message being presented. I watch TV for entertainment or recreation, but to be informed about what's going on in the world, I find that it's manifestly inferior.

Learn a hobby or a craft. The essence of humanism is that each of us has something unique and important to offer. What better way is there to express that truth than by developing skills that reflect our individuality? Like reading, they offer the benefit of keeping the mind active; they also give us something to offer to others in the spirit of generosity. If you're musically or artistically inclined, there are plenty of possibilities. Personally, in the last few years, I've taken up cooking. It's surprisingly easy to learn and to get good at, and it's a practical skill that offers a very tangible sense of accomplishment.

Follow politics, vote and support organizations that advance your interests. Every humanist who has the privilege to live in a democratic society should vote and participate in politics at every reasonable opportunity. As humanists, we should care deeply about the direction our world is taking, and voting is the mechanism by which we guide society along the right path. I consider it not just a privilege, but a positive moral obligation to follow political news, to seek out and critically compare candidates' records and platforms, and to cast informed votes. In addition, every humanist should join and support interest groups that advance the causes we hold dear - freedom of speech, separation of church and state, equality for all people before the law, and all the rest. If you don't vote, not only have you surrendered your own right to representation, you have contributed to a general sense of apathy and cynicism that actually encourages waste, corruption, and poor governance by elected officials. Our only chance to live under good government is to send the message that we will hold our representatives accountable.

Volunteer and give to charity. In addition to steering our society through the democratic process, humanists who have reasonable opportunity should engage in volunteer and charitable work. As long as there is suffering and need, it is the moral responsibility of every capable human being to work for its alleviation. Even small individual donations to worthy causes - non-profit humanitarian organizations, medical research, humane societies, environmental conservancies - can have a great impact, if many people choose to contribute. If possible, it's even better to contribute effort and time by volunteering.

Live a richly simple life. Our society has whole industries dedicated to fostering the belief that consumerism and the acquisition of material goods can bring happiness. This belief is a mirage. Once a person can provide for their basic material needs, additional possessions bring no further happiness, and may even diminish it. A humanist should recognize this and avoid the folly of becoming trapped on this hedonic treadmill, with its consequent burdens of stress, debt, overwork, and waste.

Instead, what brings happiness is participation - interaction with the world and exploration of all it has to offer, our relationships to friends and loved ones and a larger community, and selfless labor for the good of others. This rich tapestry of experience, even in a life of material simplicity, is what brings true and lasting contentment. This, in my opinion, is the most fundamental lesson that any humanist must grasp, and I think most of the rest of this list flows from it.

Do you have any others I neglected to mention? What other guiding principles are there for humanist living?

February 15, 2008, 7:25 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink90 comments
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The Treadmill

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article series about millionaires who don't feel rich, mostly engineers and executives living in America's Silicon Valley. Though most of the people profiled in the article have luxurious, paid-off homes, multiple cars and several million dollars already in the bank, they continue to work grueling, stressful 60- to 80-hour weeks, largely because they feel insecure when they compare themselves to their even wealthier neighbors. (This article was insightfully analyzed by my friend Erich Vieth over at Dangerous Intersection.)

Being as wealthy as these working-class millionaires is a nigh-unattainable dream for even the vast majority of Americans, much less the hundreds of millions of others on this planet who will likely spend their lives in poverty and squalor. $2 or $3 million in savings might not be enough to retire on in ultra-expensive Silicon Valley, but there are plenty of other nice places where that much money would, if invested wisely, be enough for a person to sustain a very comfortable lifestyle without ever having to work another day.

Why, then, do these people continue to live a nose-to-the-grindstone existence? For many, the answer is that they insist in comparing their wealth to that of their even wealthier neighbors. Rather than judging their wealth in absolute terms, which would quite sensibly tell them that they have more than enough for every reasonable need - or even comparing themselves to the 99.5% of Americans who are less wealthy than they are - they look at those who have even more and feel inadequate by comparison.

"Everyone around here looks at the people above them," said Gary Kremen, the 43-year-old founder of Match.com, a popular online dating service. "It's just like Wall Street, where there are all these financial guys worth $7 million wondering what's so special about them when there are all these guys worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars."

Defining your life in these terms is like running on a treadmill: no matter how much effort you put into it, you'll always be in the same place. Unless you're the single richest individual on the planet (Bill Gates now, but probably not for much longer), there will always be someone who has more money than you do. This is a game that cannot be won. Much better is to ask yourself: "Do I have enough for everything I want?" - and if the answer is no, it may be better worth the effort to seek to adjust your desires, rather than your income.

This ties in with a larger point about our society: too often, we have labor without rest, wealth without contentment. Too many people work in pursuit of an impossible goal of extravagant prosperity, thinking to find happiness in material goods and luxury, rather than learning to appreciate the pleasures that cannot be purchased and that are the only true path to contentment. As I said in the post "Drink Deeply", money cannot buy happiness. Studies have repeatedly found that the correlation between the two is virtually nonexistent. Once people have enough to provide for their basic needs, additional money brings almost no additional happiness, and as in this case, the pursuit may actually diminish us.

That said, I don't think that work is an intrinsic evil that should always be avoided. A life where there is nothing to strive for, and no possibility of meaningful achievement, would inevitably become an agony of tedium (which is one reason I doubt traditional conceptions of Heaven). The mind, like the muscles, needs exercise to stay active, and participation in challenging, fulfilling work is one of the best ways to accomplish that. But there should be a balance between work and the rest of life, and a clearer recognition of exactly why we work and what we can hope to get out of doing so.

August 29, 2007, 7:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink40 comments
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Drink Deeply

For most of human history, the range of experience open to most people was narrow and limited. Untold millions of people lived and died never traveling more than a few miles from their birthplaces and never meeting more than a few hundred other individuals from their own communities, their horizon largely limited to the handful of miles that could be easily traveled by foot. Crossing oceans, though it was possible, was a risky and dangerous endeavor that could take weeks, months, or years. Local events and local people, for the vast majority, formed the horizon that circumscribed their world.

In parallel with the limitations of the physical horizon were the limitations of the intellectual horizon. Humanity's intellectual reach, for the most part, consisted of small, local pools of knowledge largely cut off from each other, mainly limited to the folk wisdom and tradition that each community needed to make its own living. And again, though some ideas could and did travel long distances, their transmission was slow, limited, and imperfect. For much of the time in which they existed, books were rare and expensive luxuries, and libraries the domain only of scholars and the rich.

But none of this is true any longer. The explosive growth of technology for conveying our information and our selves, and the concomitant merging of many small human groups into one global civilization, has blown open the doors of our limitations and opened up a vastly wider pool of potential experience and understanding to a far greater number of people. I wrote in "The New Ten Commandments" that even the smallest facet of the world holds enough intricacy for a lifetime of study, and a fortiori it is even more true that the world as a whole holds enough richness and detail to occupy a thousand lifetimes. Though one life is all we have and so we cannot hope to grasp it all, we should nevertheless seek to enrich that life to the highest degree possible with a diversity of wisdom and experience, the better to make its living worthwhile. Life is like a great and untapped well, one from which we should seek to drink as deeply as possible - to seek out as many new experiences as we can, to learn as many new things as we can, and to absorb, as best as possible, the fullness of adventure, companionship, and wonder that this world has to offer.

Personally, I know this desire well. There are so many places I want to visit in my lifetime, so many experiences that I want to have had for myself. I want to stand on the shore of every ocean and dip my fingers in its waters; I want my boots to be stained with the dust of every continent. I want to stand beneath the humid green cathedral of a tropical rainforest and upon the vast icy expanse of a glacier; I want to see the fierce bright stars of a desert night and the dancing lights of the aurora, and I want to sit on the beach and watch the sun rise. I want to travel through every major city in the world, immerse myself in its culture and breathe the air of its history, and speak to its people in their own tongues. I want to visit the places that are part of our global heritage and walk where the ancestors of humanity left their footprints; I want to trek through churches and temples and observe for myself all the ways human beings have imagined to interact with these strange beings they call gods; and I want to learn as much as I can about every field of human knowledge - if not the fine details, then at least the bright outlines - and follow the methods of the determined men and women who uncovered them. I want to reach out across the ages and touch the thoughts of history's greatest minds. I want to do all this and a thousand other things as well, so that I can know, when the end of my life draws near, that there is not a single experience I sought and did not find, not a single opportunity I missed and lived to regret. And I am confident, dear readers, that you feel the same way as I do. (My philosophy of drinking deeply, for example, I find to resonate strongly with Richard Chappell of Philosophy, et cetera's ethics for living.)

But although there are vast and beautiful vistas awaiting us, and although the gate is open, the path remains largely untrodden. Despite all the knowledge that is out there waiting to be found, all the adventures waiting to be had, far too many people are content not to explore. In the remainder of this post, I will try to examine the reasons why people choose this course and offer reasons to dissuade them.

First, following this philosophy does not require luxuries available only to the wealthy. The mistake of most people is to believe that drinking deeply of life requires a person to be rich, but nothing could be further from the truth. For all its glittering allure, the path of riches is an illusion. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that money cannot buy happiness. Once a person has sufficient resources to provide for basic material needs and comforts, additional money does nothing at all to increase one's level of happiness or contentment, and may even decrease it. If anything, great wealth often has an isolating effect, sowing seeds of envy and suspicion and distancing people from the genuineness of human contact and experience that truly instills life with meaning. Many people believe that the only path to happiness is wealth, and work assiduously their whole lives to obtain it, while others believe that gaining wealth is impossible but that happiness cannot be had any other way, and so they do not even try. But both these groups are wrong. Although our superficiality-obsessed culture places enormous value and emphasis on getting rich, the implied promise of happiness is a phantasm. True joyfulness and contentment lie along another road.

Another obstacle to human flourishing is the tendency, found frequently but not exclusively in religion, to never seek out ideas or experiences that might disturb comfortable and long-established habits. Some people are content to drink shallowly, living in the deadening slump of unvarying routine, keeping their eyes on the ground and never seeking out knowledge or experience beyond what is necessary for them to make their own way through life. Many others live in an echo chamber of conformity, daily immersing themselves in a sea of unthinking consensus to better reinforce their own prejudices, and neglecting the many other roads open to them in the belief that one writer, one book, one culture or one church contains everything worth knowing about. This belief is in error, and again, both these groups of people are missing out. Drinking deeply requires treading new and unknown roads, yes; it requires facing and overcoming the challenges that life presents; and it requires a person to challenge themselves, to reach out to new realms of thought and leave behind the comforts of the familiar. These obstacles may be frightening to the timid, but only through them lies the true path to happiness. We can boldly step up to these challenges and surpass them, and be rewarded for our effort; or we can avoid them and fall by the wayside, and spend the rest of life hobbled by what we have lost or never tried.

In truth, drinking deeply is less a plan of action than it is an outlook, a state of mind. Though it can involve physical travel, it need not. Pared down to its essence, drinking deeply means seeking out new ideas and new experiences, coming in contact with worlds of thought different from your own, and stumbling across things you may have never considered or known of. And, I firmly believe, this philosophy of spontaneity and openness to adventure is the only true way to fill a life with happiness and meaning. Those who never seek out the new can never know true contentment in this life; but on the other side, those who try will be well rewarded for their trouble. To all the lonely and confused seekers out there, to all those who feel their life is lacking, to all those who are searching for something they know not what, I urge you - take a drink from the well of life before you! Its waters are pure and sweet, and whoever takes a deep draught will not regret it.

July 28, 2006, 7:33 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments
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