In which I embark on a year-long journey of continued self-discovery by learning about and measuring my well-being through quantitative and qualitative data.

The Vitruvian Man

1994 words about health — 07:00 · 24th Feb 2019

I started a new journey last month.

Except, it wasn’t so much of a start as it’s a continuation.

It’s the, almost obvious, next chapter from when I suddenly started eating porridge and fruits—having thought a can of coke and a snickers bar was a good snack before that.

Because change is rarely an overnight thing.

It’s taken me almost 5 years to get from the coke can to where I am today.

Instead, one thing blends into another until one day you look yourself in the mirror and the face staring back at you has wrinkles it didn’t have before, grey streaks where dark-brown hair once flowed and muscles you didn’t know could exist.

But struggling with the Happiness journal, as much as I did, made it painfully apparent how much I had neglected to take care of my mind even though I had started taking care of my body.

So I became obsessed with mental health, finding out what happiness meant, where and how to find it.

Obsessing about mental health is probably a pretty good indicator of one’s mental health.

I practised meditation and studied the teachings of Buddha.

I got shitfaced with strange men I met on Tinder and did drugs.

I found happiness and longevity studies from Harvard spanning back decades.

I explored my kinks and tried erotic electrostimulation with a device that looked like something a guy named, “Gary,” had built in his garage.

But the more I researched, the more the word, “happiness,” turned into, “well-being,” instead.

Well-being, in turn, could best be described as a Venn diagram of physical, mental and social harmony in one’s life.

Balance all three and well-being is only a heel-click away.

So I returned to The Harvard Second Generation Study because their conclusions seemed to agree with most of my own research.

According to their research, it all comes down to answering a few simple questions.

Carlos Eriksson as a Disney character and Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.
Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio.

The well-being questions

Now I imagine, that answering, “Yes,” to all of these doesn’t necessarily mean I’m happy, or “being well” but I suspect it’ll get me a lot closer.

So, if that’s well-being, where am I?

If these are the questions, how do I start unravelling the answers?

I treat my life as an observation experiment in which I’m both the experimenter and the subject. I establish a routine, change a variable, and observe my performance, and when the novelty wears off, I tweak the variable again. If nothing else, it keeps things interesting. Ruth Ozeki

Am I physically active?

According to professor John Ratley, our palaeolithic forefathers walked about 14,900-19,800 steps (12-16 km) a day.

Fast-forward to today and a recent study at Stanford1 on more than 700,000 people across 111 countries—the largest data I could find—reveals that the average Brit takes ~5,400 steps (4.3 km) a day.

Meanwhile, the average American is trodding by at ~4,800 steps (3.8 km) a day, just 100 steps short of the world average of ~4,900 steps a day.

Both the National Health Service (NHS) and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have some pretty clear ideas for how much exercise we should be getting—ignoring for the moment the studies that suggest none of it matters if you then spend 8 hours a day sitting at a desk.

Their unanimous minimum recommendations for physical activity is; 150 minutes moderate aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk, and at least two strength exercises every week.

A brisk walk, according to the CDC, is 5 km/h or faster so that means a 2.5 km walk every weekday for 30 minutes is enough to meet the minimum recommendation.

That will be my baseline.

Throughout the year I’ll be using a Fitbit Alta HR and Google Locations to track my physical activity.

Do I have mature mechanisms for coping with life’s ups and downs?

As we discovered in Mellowing My Motherforking Moods, although I still have quite a few mature coping mechanisms to learn, I don’t feel as overwhelmed by my moods as I used to be.

The Defense Style Questionnaire (DSQ-40)2, or the abbreviated 14-question version I found, seems like a good compass for which coping mechanisms I should focus on.

Meanwhile, The Patient Health Questionnaire-4 (PHQ-4)3, is a very brief and accurate measurement of depression and anxiety.

As anxiety and depression are the two most common illnesses among patients and in the general population, it makes sense to keep an eye on them.

And for a more detailed measurement, I can complete The Brief Symptom Inventory 18 (BSI-18)4, an abbreviated version of SCL-90 intended to reduce cognitive overload—because who wants to complete a 90-question form?

BSI-18 measures; somatization, anxiety, depression, and the Global Severity Index so whilst I completed both last month, in reality, I think I’ll probably use the PHQ-4 to screen for whether I should then also complete the BSI-18.

Throughout the year I will also be using Daylio to track my daily mood, learning mature coping mechanisms and the different questionnaires to assess my long-term mental health.

Do I enjoy fulfilling relationships?

Which matters more, being happy in unhealthy relationships or unhappy in healthy ones?

[…] our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has [sic] a powerful influence on our health. Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

I’ve been researching this one and truth be told, I’m not sure what to make of it.

Healthy relationships seem to be described as having life space, i.e. boundaries, a common outlook on life, i.e. shared intentionality, and growing and nurturing trust.

Healthy relationships are built. They require time, work, patience, and a deep look inward.

They also include words such as mutual respect and communication.

If I accept all these things to be true, I also have to accept that I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a healthy relationship before.

So, for now, I have more questions than answers, such as;

  • What is a healthy relationship?
  • Am I spending enough time with the people who are important to me?
  • Am I spending too much time with toxic people?

I could do things like aggregate messaging data and look at reciprocity and tonality but I’m not entirely sure if this tells me how enjoyable and fulfilling my relationships are.

Throughout the year I will be exploring this topic more and taking a closer look at how my formative years limited my idea of relationships and unlearn everything which is preventing me from having healthy relationships with the people in my life.

Do I enjoy a healthy weight?

Body mass index (BMI) is acceptable for large groups of people but absolutely shit for individuals.

Instead, I’ll be using body fat percentage and waist circumference5 to estimate if my body composition is healthy.

According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average body fat percentage for men between the age of 20–39 is 26%.

Meanwhile, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) says that anywhere between 6–24% is considered healthy. Though they also include more specific ranges, such as 14–17% which is considered, “Fit.”

But none of this tells me if I’m “enjoying” my weight, which after all was a big part of the question.

So I’ll also be asking myself, in the form of a weekly survey, how I’m feeling about my weight.

Throughout the year I will be using a RENPHO Smart Scale, body tape measurements and the survey to track my weight and body composition.

Bonus; Am I learning?

A bonus because, as part of the Glueck Study—a study within The Harvard Second Generation Study focusing on inner-city men as opposed to academic men—they found that education had an additional impact on well-being.

The more education the inner city men obtained, the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation. George Vaillant, Aging Well

Unlike previous assumptions, neuroplasticity, i.e. your brain’s ability to be flexible, doesn’t actually stop as we age6 and learning new things is great for the mind.

Even something as simple as brushing your teeth with the other hand is enough to create new neural pathways.

Throughout the year I will be researching things such as pedagogy and spaced repetition and exploring how to learn.

The quantified self

At first glance, I thought these simple questions would be easy to answer.

It’s only by giving them enough attention that I’ve realised how incredibly difficult some of them are.

They might be simple, but they’re not easy.

And whilst I focus on answering them I’ve also added a few more data points, such as sleep because we spend a third of our lives sleeping and I think it deserves a closer look, in the form of, “Are you sleeping well and enough?”

I have added more than that but need to figure out a sensible way to organise them.

Now I don’t think more data is necessarily better but whilst I’m figuring out which things are important to me I have cautioned on the side of more instead of less.

The intention is to scale this back to the bare minimum, especially for active and manual data tracking which requires my attention on a more frequent basis.

Because it seems people either track everything but use it for nothing.

Or try to change their lives with assumptions and guessing.

My intention is to do neither.

Throughout the year I will be reviewing key data points in weekly increments and making adjustments to my life when and if needed.

As I’m about to enter the third month of an already five-year-long journey which, let’s be honest, is promising to be life-long one I’ve come to realise that the end isn’t what matters.

Because my goal isn’t a goal.

There isn’t even an end to this, not really.

Instead, it’s about becoming more mindful and present in the moment, but making better choices in those moments by having a deeper understanding about my place in the universe and the things which make my life more valuable.

Whether that’s meditation, electrostimulation or something else entirely.

  1. Tim Althoff, Rok Sosic, Jennifer L. Hicks, Abby C. King, Scott L. Delp, Jure Leskovec. “Large-scale physical activity data reveal worldwide activity inequality.” Nature 547.7663 (2017). 

  2. Andrews, G., Singh, M., Bond, M. (1993). The defense style questionnaire. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 181(4), 246-256. 

  3. Kroenke, K., Spitzer, R. L., Williams, J. B. W., Löwe, B. (2009). An ultra-brief screening scale for anxiety and depression: the PHQ-4 Psychosomatics, 50, 613-621. 

  4. Derogatis LR. BSI-18: Brief Symptom Inventory 18 - Administration, scoring, and procedures manual. Minneapolis: NCS Pearson; 2000. 

  5. The InterAct Consortium (2012) Long-Term Risk of Incident Type 2 Diabetes and Measures of Overall and Regional Obesity: The EPIC-InterAct Case-Cohort Study. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001230. 

  6. Erickson K., Gildengers A., Butters M. Physical activity and brain plasticity in late adulthood. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2013;15(1):99–108. 

You’ve just read The Vitruvian Man.

In which, 4 years ago, I wrote 1994 words about health and I covered topics, such as: journeys, data, quantified self, exercise, wearables, and psychology.