One great feature of the Paleo and Real Food movements is that they empower and inspire people to flourish—to seek vibrant, positive, proactive health.
Contrast this to much of modern medicine and nutrition, which often focus on combating disease and disorder, viz. on fighting obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and a gang of other ailments, once those ailments have taken their unwelcome grip.
Yes, I want to be free of cancer and obesity. But I don’t want to merely be free of cancer and obesity. I want more besides. I want to be strong and healthy and fulfilled. I hope that’s not greedy.
To understand the human science behind how we thrive, where should we turn?
Psychology and The Disease Model
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, famously observed that psychology since World War II has been fixated on suffering: depression, anger, schizophrenia, and mental disorder generally. Seligman calls this the disease model. If the disease model had a motto, it might go something like this: “A lot of people are screwed up, and we must fix those people with drugs and therapy.”
Positive psychology, by contrast, emerged as a sort of proactive twin: Yes, we can give drugs and therapy to people who suffer. But what about people who are well-adjusted and even happy? What made them that way? Why do some people thrive when others don’t?
The positive psychologist seeks for psychology and mental health just what the Paleo movement seeks for nutrition, fitness, and the health of the body: to understand and embrace that which makes us flourish.
(If I wanted to run with the analogy, I would say that this vaguely mirrors, in philosophy, the distinction between deontological ethics—which seeks to understand moral obligation— and virtue ethics—which seeks to understand how character and virtue constitute a good life. Fortunately, I abhor cardio, so I don’t have to go there.)
The hard center of the disease model, generalized, is that modern nutrition, medicine, and psychology want to fix broken people. Just wait until you are sick—and yes, you will get sick, everyone does!—and we’ll have pills, surgeries, doctors, and therapists aplenty to cure you, soothe you, and stitch your frail parts together.
This is not to discount the achievements of modern medicine and the disease model. Seligman didn’t mean “disease model” derisively, and neither do I (entirely). Psychologists have learned a lot about how to effectively treat mental disorders. That’s a good thing. And modern medicine has learned a lot about how our bodies work and about how to fix them in certain cases. That’s also a very good thing if, for example, you ever break your leg or if you have an inherited genetic disease. When you get in a bad car accident, what you need first is a modern hospital, not a farmers market.
The point here is not to malign or discount modern medicine and psychology. The point is that they are, at best, incomplete. There is more to health and happiness than repairing what’s broken.
Health and Happiness
Okay, so there’s a structural—probably even a philosophical—similarity between the Paleo approach to health and the positive psych approach to mental well-being. What follows? Should these two approaches actually care about each other?
In a word: Yes. And that’s because health and happiness are inextricably linked. It would be irresponsible and foolish to leave one out when discussing the other.
For instance, did you know that happier people live longer and have better health? It’s true.¹ Positive psychologist Ed Diener has marshalled impressive evidence that being happy—specifically: having high life satisfaction, optimism, and experiencing positive emotion—actually causes longevity. It also causes better health: happiness protects against illness.
Stunningly, having a lot of happiness adds at least as many years to your life as does quitting smoking.² According to Diener, the evidence that happiness extends life is even stronger than the evidence that obesity shortens it.³
That may be somewhat surprising, but the converse is not: Failing health robs us of happiness. When we are sick, we are less happy. We experience more negative emotions, we worry more, we’re more preoccupied with our problems, and we have less time and energy to enjoy life’s pleasures.
Let’s be Friends
I love how real food lays a foundation for vibrant human health. I’m also fascinated by empirical psychology and believe that happiness research holds great promise for improving our well-being. So, speaking as someone with dual crushes, I say that Paleo and positive psychology should be friends and allies.
They should be friends and allies because happiness and health are very much causally intertwined. And they should be friends and allies because the Paleo movement and the positive psychology movement are philosophically cut from the same cloth—the desire to be better than just not sick.
I would just love it if people in the Paleo world tuned in to Daniel Gilbert andJonathan Haidt. And I would equally love it if psychologists who care about human flourishing tuned in to John Durant and Cate Shanahan. Both sides stand to gain from cross-fertilization.
Build Bridges to the Nonspecialist
Paleo and positive psychology should build bridges to the 98% of people who aren’t academics or nutrition geeks or hardcore Crossfitters.
How? That’s a tough question. But here’s a start. Pose the following hypothetical:
In your final years, suppose that your grandchildren, flying gracefully on their hoverboards, ask you: “Did you live a good life, Grandma?”
What will you say? Will you say, “Yes, my life was relatively free of disease and schizophrenia. I had relatively low levels of disorder and obesity. I lived a medically permissible life.”
That would be a depressing response. (Unless meant sarcastically, in which case you are one of those awesome, wry grandparents that everyone loves.)
Better to say, truthfully, “Yes, my life was full of adventure, love, vitality, good friendship, and work that I cared about. I had challenges and disappointments, but I learned from them and grew. And I was blessed to have the good health to actually enjoy all of it. I am proud of the person I became. Now turn off that dang hoverboard and give grandma a hug.”