The Keys to a Happy, Healthy Life

The holiday season is synonymous with overindulgence—too much eating, drinking and partying. The new year is here and with it, the resolutions to “repent” by joining a gym and stocking up on salad fixings. But, too much cross training or celery-eating is no better than too many late nights or cocktails. In fact, too much of anything, no matter how good, is not a good thing at all.

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When Lenny, 53, dropped onto my couch exhausted, he explained that everyone describes him as a workaholic. His wife and kids never see him, friends have given up including him in plans and even his boss believes he shouldn’t work such long hours. Lenny was always sure that to be successful, “more is better,” but when his internist told him his blood pressure was dangerously high he began doubting the certainty of this philosophy. In therapy, Lenny learned that when engaging in “all or none” behavior there is a trade-off, which is not always immediately obvious. For example, most people know that chronically overeating indulgent foods results in significant health problems (the “all”), however, not as obvious is that extreme dieting can be equally detrimental, contributing to disordered eating, nutritional deficiencies, slowed metabolism and body image problems (the “none”).

The resolve to exercise—that hallowed road to health for almost everyone following the last glass of New Year’s champagne—also comes with potential problems. Committing to a high intensity interval training class (HIIT) at least five days a week can soon lead to suffering from overuse injuries, exhaustion and hatred of exercise…leading straight back to the pre-new year resolution to not exercise at all.

It’s probably becoming clear now that “all or none” doesn’t work and can significantly interfere with a productive, balanced life. No matter how “good for you” something may seem, there is always a trade-off that negatively impacts other aspects of life. Some people take an extreme position as a way to assure themselves they will not waver from the commitment (obsessive dieting, working, hitting the gym…). For others, extreme behavior represents a loss of control (overspending, overeating and other compulsive behaviors). No matter the reason, it is exceedingly difficult—often impossible—to sustain the extreme behavior. And the crash-and-burn when it becomes too difficult can lead to feelings of failure, even depression. For those who are able to keep it up (Lenny has been working 70-hour weeks for 20 years), it is not without its share of negative consequences (Lenny’s wife is now talking divorce).

It is both physically and emotionally healthier to make changes that are realistic, sustainable in the long run and do not negatively impact other aspects of life. For example, when considering a New Year’s resolution to exercise, the program should be based upon prior experience, available time in the daily schedule and current physical health. Jumping into an extreme exercise plan, even if everyone is doing it, will surely result in failure. But an initial plan to exercise perhaps once or twice a week, and feel proud of doing it, is much more likely to result in sustained success. This approach can and should be applied to all aspects of life. Thus, the next time someone suggests you are a neat freak, they might be right. But perhaps a little messiness will go a long way in balancing that out.

dr. susan bartell

dr. susan bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. She also speaks throughout the country on a wide range of topics to help individuals and groups improve emotional and physical health and life balance. drsusanbartell.com