The full spectrum of the human experience
Life is meant to be more varied than this. We have cut off the extremes from the human experience in service of predictability and comfort. As a result, life has become a slog.
Variation is what makes us feel alive. Modern inventions and lifestyle changes tend to blunten our interactions with the world around us, and within us. If each day was the same, you might as well just live one day. Induce variation back into your life to create an environment more consistent with what we evolved in, a more enjoyable life.
How we behave
Your body isn’t supposed to know what it’s doing tomorrow and for how long. Yes, you may know you’ll hunt or collect berries. But for how long? In what kind of terrain? You get the point. Now we work like clockwork, 8h a day 5 days a week, with little variance. If I can predict with >90% accuracy that 2 years from now, this time of year, I will be preparing an annual plan like I am right now, aren’t I at least a little bit dead?
Your body isn’t supposed to repeat the same movement over and over. Our idea of exercise is mostly repeating the same movements set after set, whether that’s at the gym or in a sport like tennis. Yes, the amount of physical effort you put in changes. But the range of movements is very limited. It’s always the same muscles working and same moves and same equipment, meaning some body parts and functions get ignored, eventually leading to health issues.
The human body can stretch, twist, compress, and extend in a billion different ways. If we do a couple curls, pulls and squats at the gym and think that covers what our body needs, we’re delusional. It’s not a specific movement or workout regime we should aim for, but a variety of them. Physiological changes in your bones, joints, tendons, muscles, lungs etc occur as adaptations to variation. No variation, no adaptation – and no health benefit. Variation is what keeps us healthy. If you do the same exercise week to week – no matter what it is – you’re operating at a very narrow spectrum of movements compared to what your body is capable of and needs.
Our range of movements in general, beyond exercise, is narrow. Most of the time we aren’t exercising, and most of that time we sit (in the “ergonomic” position with knees at 90 degrees) or stand or lay in bed. What about hanging? When’s the last time you’ve held your arms above your head or behind your back for more than a second? When’s the last time you sat in a squat or curled up to a ball? Have you ever slept in some other place than a bed?
Why people get stiff and achy over time isn’t a vague reason like “old age” but the very specific reason of repetitive stress (read: lack of variation). How you prevent that isn’t to ditch your office chair and stand up 8h a day – that's repetitive stress of another sort. Variation is the answer.
Ditch flat surfaces. Nature comes with uphills and downhills, stones and tree roots, mushy terrain and hard terrain. Huge variety compared to where we normally walk – a dead flat asphalt or floor with zero variation of any kind. And to double-prevent any possible variation, we cushion ourselves from the world with shoes. Your sole and feet muscles are supposed to constantly micro-adjust your position as you walk in nature, resulting in infinite variation, a whole-body exercise and a deep concentration as your lizard brain tries to keep up with all variables. Now walking is extremely unvaried, boring and produces a fraction of the health benefits.
(Side note: am I against beds, furniture, shoes or gymming? No. Am I against only using beds, furniture, shoes and gyms? Hell yes. In other words, I am pro-variation, not anti-whatever.)
Eating every 3-4 hours. Do you ever have days when it’s 4pm and you realize you had completely forgotten about lunch? That’s natural. If your body wasn’t screaming for food, maybe it’s right and your calendar slot for lunch at 12pm-1pm is modern folly of trying to standardize eating. Calorie intake used to be very variable from day to day, season to season and even between years. If we plotted our consumption now, we’d find it strikingly flat. Because there aren’t any significant cuts, our bodies end up bloated, inflamed and fragile (if you’ve tried fasting, you’ve noticed this first-hand).
Eating the same stuff, all year long. There’s a serious lack of variety not just in how often and how much we eat, but also in what we eat. Fresh fruit in December, why not? Most people’s bellies are blind to the natural force that is seasons, perhaps because they don’t grow/harvest any of their food themselves, and much of their shopping cart is of processed or foreign origin. Again, we have flattened away all variation in our diet, without much conscious thought, hence exposing ourselves to possible hidden consequences (for example, oxalate overdosing).
I used to think I could just eat 4 right things every day to be healthy. If each item was healthy, and I ate nothing unhealthy, wouldn’t that be the perfect diet? Now I understand variation isn’t optional.
Temperature. What’s the spectrum of temperatures you’re exposed to most of the time? Given you probably spend most of your time indoors or in a car – and when outside we dress in overly insulated clothing – I’d guess within 20% of room temperature for most of the day.
Us Finnish people have a tradition that exposes you not only to one extreme temperature, but two: a hot sauna followed by ice swimming. Stable conditions enable excess mental baggage to build up; the brain doesn’t need to worry about survival, so it has capacity to overthink and get bloated. This is hard to notice if you never move beyond 20% of the room temperature. But when exposed to extreme conditions, visceral heat or cold, the mind becomes peacefully clear.
(Side note: If you accept that variation is desirable for your health, then you'll want to live in a place with seasons. Not only for the varying climate and temperature, but for the varying of the food, air, your behavior, chores to be done, and a million other things that happen as a result.)
Constant noise and light. Another hard thing to notice: if you’re used to a steady supply of light and sound, you don’t quite understand just how quiet and dark a night can be. Absolute silence, to the point where even the smallest noise provides meaningful information and energizes your body. An incredible dark that gives your brain a rest it didn’t know it could have, now that it can’t waste any effort on deciphering visual stimuli to which we’re normally (ridiculously) overexposed to. This should be a staple in the human experience, not a constant rambling of TV, music, AC, cars. We’re supposed to have a liminal relationship with light, in sync with the sun – not this binary version of full-on artificial light from when we wake up until we hit the bed.
The grass lawn. A plain area in nature would be covered in various plants and flowers, with a thriving ecosystem of birds and bugs. That’s what we could have in our backyards – instead we want ultimate legibility and standardization, so we fill our lawns with grass and mow it to a uniform height. It ain’t pretty for the eye or good for the environment, but at least it’s a very safe and predictable option.
Most homes look the same: not super pretty or homely, but at least very safe and non-offensive. New buildings share the same white and plain surfaces, led lights and open concept kitchens, not because these would produce the best home, but because they produce the safest sell. People are ambivalent to this, well, neutral design, so that’s what gets built. A home is supposed to be unique, personal and warm – instead, most homes look the same as everyone else’s.
The items in your home, too, are of the non-offensive sort. The mass-produced, efficient, easy-to-replace sort. Where’s the stuff you inherited or made yourself? The stuff with a story or history. Or is it all just stuff the house next-door could equally well have? Is there anything around you that’s worth passing through generations?
Most spaces, cities, airports, cafes… Why can I go to a cafe in Finland that looks exactly the same – fake marble tables, hanging lamps, white surfaces, black bar stools – as a cafe in the US? Not because this would somehow be a superior cafe design but because it offends as few people as possible and conforms to a certain “good enough” standard.
All aesthetic decisions seem to revolve around a strikingly narrow pool of predictable and expected options. Any deviation from this standard tends to be a predictable deviation, usually a purposeful attempt at making something Instagrammable. The cliché quote on a neon sign or wings graffiti on a brick wall. Your idea of a quirk is the same as everyone else’s because there’s a shared reality provided by the internet.
As variation is removed from the physical world around us, we suffer, and not only in physical health. Beauty and a certain randomness is needed to stimulate our brains, keep us curious, awake and at awe. I fear we are blind to this and forgo the benefits that could be, similar to the situation I described with temperature, light and sound. You only realize what you’re missing when you break free from what you’re used to.
Loss of boredom. The mind wants to stay occupied like the stomach wants to stay full. TV on for background noise, music to distract you from the boring chores. But boredom plays an important role in the human experience. It slows time down enough for you to notice things you were too busy to see before. In the child, boredom turns into creativity and crazy ideas, then a valuable learning, and – in time – a lifelong memory. In the adult, boredom turns into wisdom and self-reflection, or perhaps a child-like wonder of the shape of a tree you’ve passed thousands of times.
Be careful of living in one small area of the full spectrum, for there is a trade-off. Even if the downside isn’t conceivable, it doesn’t mean it is non-existent, so the precautionary principle is to optimize for variation.
Mood. We don’t want any variance in energy or mood. As soon as you’re tired or sad, people suggest you go to therapy, medicate yourself or just distract yourself with your preferred form of mindless entertainment. As if the mood was a problem to fix and not an important source of learning. You can go a lifetime not learning what intrinsically energizes you (or drains you) because you're always caffeinated, and remain oblivious to the source of your alienation because you chase all negative thoughts away at first sight instead of inviting them in and asking why they've come to visit.
Excessive positivity. On social media, we receive a very narrow slice of life. Only the best shots and filtered faces, only the most amazing of experiences. We see the photo of the waterfall but not the 8h drive it took to get there. More generally, we are over-indexed on one side of what is. The hard and ugly is hidden away, or outsourced. A lot of things just appear to us, like magic, without us really understanding them – even though this understanding not only makes you appreciate the little things more, but it also guides you to make better and more conscious decisions. Would you live differently if you, for example, visited a clothing factory in Vietnam, or butchered your own chicken?
(Yes, there is plenty of negativity around on the internet. My point is rather about lived experience, I hope you understand.)
Expectations. There’s a certain loss of variability granted by access to information. We almost always know what we’re getting ourselves into. If I’m to learn woodworking, it doesn’t come through trial and error. Now the process is standardized via courses and books. We watch the trailer or read the book summary before. We know exactly how to get to a location, just follow the blue line on your phone. If you have a trip to Finland coming up, you check all the travel pages for what you “should” do here. There’s a convenience to be gained here, but at the cost of learning, excitement and serendipity.
Lack of variation, with few exceptions, is unhealthy, uninspiring and undesirable. Yet we actively remove variation from our lives because the benefits are visible and the consequences hidden. For most of these consequences, we blame industrial society, cities, social media or some other thing, though, I argue, loss of variation is the main culprit and these modern things are merely more practical to attack.
So if you are to bring variation back into your life, don't think it's as easy as being anti-cars, or anti-work, or anti-shoes. Instead, try to see the world around you with open eyes. That water bottle of yours that you carry around, yes, you understand why you do it, but do you understand how it's reducing variation in your life and how that lack of variation could harm you? Or consider your eyes: how much are you looking at things within arm's length vs 200 meters away? A more societal example: why are we prescribing so much ADHD medication to kids these days? Is it because it’s really in the best interests of the children, or because a classroom with less variation is easier and more predictable to handle?
Keep your eyes open: your aim is to look beyond the visible benefit – how smooth the grass is – and start asking questions about the hidden consequences – where all the flowers and bees disappeared.
Edit: I wrote this post before I had a child. I now realize having children brings variation to life. Whereas before each year sort of blended into each other, now every month, even every week, brings with it something new. The postponing of starting a family - or even the avoidance of it - that's prevalent in modern life is yet another way we are waging war against variation.