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Five Rules of Life

Anyone with any propensity for introspection attempts to distill the wisdom that they accumulate over the years, for the purpose of passing on that wisdom to others younger than themselves, with the hope that these youngsters will avoid similar mistakes.  I am no exception, and therefore offer my own advice on life below.  I have managed to distill what I feel to be the most important advice into five rules:

  1. Take Care of Yourself – Life is long, and if you do not take care of yourself throughout, especially in your youth, you will suffer as you get older.  Here is some advice for living a long and healthy life:
    • Get enough sleep – Most people need at least 8 hrs per day total for optimal health.
    • Eat a healthy diet – We are programmed to eat all the wrong foods, but to the extent that you can resist that desire, it will pay off in spades later in life.  Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.  For protein opt for nuts, beans, and fish.  Choose white instead of red meat.  Eat polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3’s rather then saturated fats.  Avoid sugar as much as possible (i.e., avoid soda pop and candy).  Limit your intake of sodium.  A good rule to follow is to try to eat as much natural, unprocessed foods as possible.
    • Get plenty of exercise – Science is constantly finding that vigorous cardiovascular exercise combined with occasional resistance training works incredible wonders for your health.  Unless you are a maniacal ultra-marathoner or triathlete, a good rule is: the more exercise the better.  I should point out that despite common wisdom, endurance exercises such as running, swimming, and biking do not damage your joints.
    • Avoid drugs – Despite what the pharmaceutical industry would have us believe, all drugs have undesirable side effects, and therefore should as a rule be avoided as much as possible.  We all know that illegal recreational drugs are notoriously bad, and alcohol, while beneficial in moderation, quickly turns harmful in larger doses.  Caffeine is the addiction of choice for most adult Americans, but the mental benefits of caffeine quickly fade as your body becomes acclimated to it, and it does have side affects.  “NSAIDs” such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen all have harmful side affects; indeed more and more problems with the latter two have been found as time goes on.  Even prescription drugs carry significant side affects.  If you live a healthy life, you can avoid many of these drugs (as I have — I am nearly 60 and take no prescription drugs).  If your doctor recommends a drug, first ask if there is a natural cure before deciding to use the drug.
    • Avoid stress – Stress is a part of life, especially modern life, because of its many complexities.  No one avoids stress altogether.  However, to the extent that it is possible, try to avoid it.  If your job or personal relationships have you totally stressed out, maybe it is time for a change.  I say this because stress is a killer: chronic stress can be extremely harmful to your health.
  2. Get Along with Others – Homo sapiens is a social animal, and to succeed in life, no matter what your dreams and desires, you will certainly need the help of others.  Here are some good rules of thumb in this regard:
    • Do no harm – Whenever you consider an action that might affect others, ask yourself if it will or could potentially harm someone.  If the answer is yes, then don’t do it, unless you have good reason to believe that it will eventually lead to a net benefit for everyone.  As Sam Harris wrote in his book The Moral Landscape, “There can be nothing more important than human cooperation,” by which he means avoiding “deception, theft [and] violence”1.
    • Get along with everyone – This may not be possible with everyone, since it takes two to tango, but at least don’t burn your bridges.  To the extent possible, try to find the good in everyone.  If someone does you harm, you may seek restitution, but avoid a spiral of retribution, hate, or vengeance.  You never know when you might need the help of someone you despise.
    • Avoid racism – We all harbor the natural instinct to prefer and favor those of our own race and tribe.   However, to avoid racism is a special case of the previous rule.  You don’t have to love everyone or be their friend, but you owe them your respect (and tolerance if their actions are not clearly immoral).
    • Be open and honest – This rule will help you avoid conflicts with others.  While secrecy or deception may benefit you in the short term, think of the consequences of your secret or lie being revealed.  I violated this rule in a big way, and learned the hard way how doing so can come back to bite you.
  3. Find a Purpose in Life – Researchers have found that there are two forms of human happiness2. The first is the temporary and fleeting hedonistic happiness associated with states of pleasure.  The second is a more enduring form of happiness associated with a feeling of purpose or accomplishment in life.  Most of us who are well enough off to live a comfortable life are good at finding sources of pleasure.  Finding a purpose in life is more difficult.  Here are some rules that will help in this regard:
    • Unless you are independently wealthy or supported financially by someone else, you will need to work for a living.  It should be obvious that you should want your career to also be your purpose in life.  This is not to say that you should pick a career, and then adopt that as your purpose.  Instead, you should pick your purpose, and then find a career that lets you pursue that purpose.  The key to this, as in achieving any goal, is as follows:
    • Know what you want.  This is much harder than it sounds.  It is a sad fact of life that most of us must choose our careers in our late teens or early twenties.  This works against us in two ways 1) most people are not mature enough at that age to really know what they want; 2) virtually everyone lacks the experience and sophistication to know even remotely what opportunities are out there, much less know enough details about them to make a decision.  Another big problem is that people tend to have preconceived notions about what is possible.  Dream a little.  Don’t be afraid to shoot for something that seems crazy.  Dream first, then adjust your dream to make it realistic.
    • Come up with a plan for how to achieve your goal.  Make sure your plan is step-by-step, detailed, and has no “and then a miracle happens” steps.  If you can’t come up with a plan, then go back to the last step and pick something a bit more realistic.  Once you have come up with a plan, track it and stick to it.  If you run into problems, or things are taking much too long, it is time to revisit your plan and change it so that it will work.
    • A wonderful self-help book that can be a great asset for finding out what you want is Wishcraft by Barbara Sher3.  The chapters on how to track your plan are very outdated, because this book was written before personal computers became commonplace, but the earlier chapters on deciding what you want and devising your plan are outstanding.
  4. Love Your Spouse (or Significant Other) – Most of us will throughout our lives engage in loving relationships, with many opting for a traditional marriage and children.  Your choice of partner is extremely important, since you will spend more time with that person each day than anyone else.  This is especially true if you have children, since divorce, breakups, and single parents have been shown to be very difficult for them.  Furthermore, your lover can be a tremendous source of inspiration and happiness if you choose the right person.  As callous as this may sound, apply the same techniques for finding a long-term intimate partner or spouse as I described above for finding your career.  The reason is that evolution wants us to find someone we can tolerate and get on with the job of making babies as soon as possible.  This is why first love and infatuation are such powerful forces.  If you resist these temptations, and instead focus on what you want in a partner or spouse, and then go out and find that person (settling for nothing less), you will be much happier in the long run.  As with your career, temper your goals with realism: If you are not going to be able to attract a supermodel, then don’t set that as a goal.  On the other hand be specific; do not be afraid to list exactly what features you are looking for in a partner.
  5. Live Frugally & Invest Well – This may sound like a very mundane rule when compared to the four much more profound rules listed above.  However, I consider it to be vitally important.  The fact of the matter is that most people live just beyond their means, saving little or nothing.  The only real asset accumulation they may achieve is the purchase of their home, which they do only because they are forced to repay their mortgage.  By living well within your means and saving, you will be sure to have a comfortable and enjoyable life in retirement.  Do not wait until you are 50 to start saving.  The younger you start saving the better, as even modest rates of return will grow to much larger sums given an extra 20 years.  Learn the basics of investing, such as risk vs. return, and types of investments, such as stocks and bonds.  Then either invest yourself in mutual funds (which are wonderful things because they reduce your risk through diversification), or hire a financial adviser to invest your money in mutual funds for you.  Avoid individual stocks and bonds unless you are absolutely sure they are a good thing, as the risk of individual securities is much greater than for a diversified portfolio such as a fund.

From an early age I have tried to teach these five principles to my children.  I truly believe that if you follow them, you will be well on your way to total happiness.

End Notes

  1. Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, New York, 2010, pg. 55 (Chapter 2: Good and Evil).
  2. See “Be Happy: Your Genes May Thank You for It”, ScienceDaily, July 29th, 2013, URL=<http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130729192548.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Latest+Science+News%29>.
  3. Sher, Barbara, Wishcraft, Balentine Books, New York, 1979.

November, 2013


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