The Care & Feeding of a Human Soul

A Recipe for a Good Life

What is the recipe for living a full and fulfilling human life? What are the essential ingredients? Can they be mixed together quickly or does the recipe require slow cooking? These questions actually have science-based answers that align well with ancient wisdom. The real conundrum is why, when the “answers” are at hand, do relatively few people take full advantage of them and adjust their lives accordingly.

Five Steps to a Well-Nourished Soul

In his book, Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development, G. Vaillant, MD describes four elements critical to living a life that reflects our fullest human potential. They are:

1.       Exercising our capacity to be ill without feeling sick. In essence, when health problems arise and our physical vitality wanes, we may well be “ill.” But, being ill is not the same as being “sick.” My clients have helped me to learn this lesson over and over. For example, even as some have succumbed to cancer, which can clearly be a life-threatening or terminal condition, a rare few have continued to grow, have continued to find meaning, peace and beauty in the fullness of their lives, and have ultimately left this world in a fuller state of “health” than many others facing no such sickness. In short, the presence of an illness didn’t define them. They incorporated or integrated the disease condition into an expanded self-definition that helped them and those they left behind to see the purpose of life as existing well beyond the physical limitations imposed on them by illness and, by extension, by our shared mortality. For the rest of us it means defining ourselves by our available resources vs. our limitations. 

2.       Keep developing our capacity for creativity and play. There is no statute of limitations on playfulness and creativity. There is zero merit to the notion that a sign of maturity is that we finally become “serious” and put playfulness behind us as a no-longer-useful vestige of childhood. There are mountains of solid evidence showing how creativity and playfulness are fundamental brain exercises that fertilize the growth of new circuits in the brain. They feed our vitality. The enliven and enrich our days. Those brain circuits increase our “neural reserve,” which functions like a nerve cell-protectant that postpones cognitive decline and preserves daily functioning well into our "older, old years." More importantly, creativity and play make daily life FUN!

3.      Acquire wisdom. While there is no agreed-upon definition for wisdom. I offer the following. Wisdom involves the capacity to utilize acquired life experience in a way that enhances the capacity to adjust and adapt to change. To be wise requires the ability to recognize having “seen this before.” Wisdom responds to repeated and often inescapable challenges imposed by life by first recognizing the risk of “here we go again” and responding by doing something new and different. That is the essence of adaptability. Being adaptable doesn’t guarantee the success of our efforts. Instead, being adaptable involves having the courage to say: “I will accept that life presents me with what I can’t control, but it has also endowed me with the wisdom to choose how I respond to life in the face of what I encounter.” Evolution has shown that the greatest survival skill shown by any living species is its capacity for adaptive flexibility. Showing true wisdom in our lives requires nothing less.

4.      Cultivating spirituality.  When we recognize that there are forces in the world larger than we are, that we are merely an insignificant particle in an infinitely large universe, that our humility in the face of our smallness can, paradoxically, enable us to have the greatest impact on others, and that to devote our lives to making the world in some way better than we found it, we are expressing a timeless spirituality that supports physical longevity, vibrant health, and a meaning-filled existence. All the world's great wisdom traditions ultimately teach the same thing. 

5.      To Vaillant’s four elements, I add a fifth. Live as dynamic authors of our lives. 30 years of clinical practice has taught me that our lives conform to the narrative by which we live them. Learning to see that we are both the primary actors in our narrative and the dynamic author of that narrative is very challenging. When we do, we can, sometimes grudgingly and sometimes enthusiastically, begin to regain our power and authority to modify the narrative! We hold the key to remaining imprisoned by the story of our past. That same key can open the cell door, liberating us to follow new paths that begin to align our days with our highest aspirations, our fuller potential and our authentic purpose.

These five elements are a fine recipe. Anyone using it adds their own unique ingredients. The final dish is prepared over decades, a slow-cooking example if ever there was one. But, the result is truly a culinary masterpiece that nourishes not only every human being but every being's soul.