What Dexter Can Teach Us About How to Live Our Lives

dexterDexter is my favorite television series of all time. The show is – as you may have guessed from seeing its title – about a guy named Dexter. He works as a blood spatter analyst for Miami Metro Police Department, a job that entails identifying perpetrators by analyzing blood that has been left behind on crime scenes.

Dexter is not like other crime scene investigators. He doesn’t just catch bad guys, he also kills bad guys. On his spare time he tracks down murderers that have slipped through the justice system, injects them with a powerful tranquilizer, and straps them to a table. He then proceeds to wake them up and show them pictures of the people they’ve killed – before he sends them on their way.

The thing that makes Dexter different from other serial killers is that he follows a set of rules. These rules were created by his father, Harry Morgan, who realised early on in Dexter’s life that Dexter’s need to kill – a need that developed largely as a result of Dexter seeing his mother dying in a pool of blood- couldn’t be suppressed. Instead of turning Dexter into the authorities so they could lock him up in some facility, he created a code that he gave his son. The code is somewhat analogous to a life plan, in the sense that it contains a set of rules for how to live your life.

Dexter’s activities are obviously horrific; however, throughout the show, you start rooting for him nonetheless. It obviously helps that one of the key rules of the code is that he can only kill murderers. If he’d been killing kids or old people, he obviously wouldn’t be very likeable.

The point of this post is obviously not to encourage you to go out and kill bad guys. Unlike Dexter, we don’t need a code for killing. What I would argue though is that we need a code for living….

How can we navigate safely through our obesogenic, disease-promoting environment?

We live in a strange and novel environment. Over the past 12.000 years, our milieu has changed tremendously: technological devices of various kinds, domesticated and industrially produced foods, and numerous other gadgets and man-made products have made their way into our lives; we’ve built huge cities; and we’ve created transportation devices that help us get from A to B.

These changes were largely guided by our desire for comfort and immediate pleasure. In contrast to our ancestors, we have instant access to virtually everything we’re programmed to desire: calorie-dense foods, sex, and information. We’ve created our modern society in such a way that we have instant access to all of these things.

We’ve understood what it is that we desire the most and used that understanding to create things that stimulate our bodies in a novel, potent way, such as pornography, highly processed foods, and social media. The thing all of these things have in common is that they tap into the most primal parts of our brain, where they induce powerful stimuli.

It could be argued that we have cut the bond between effort and reward that existed in primal times. Today, we don’t have to put in the effort before we get the reward. We don’t have to walk for hours to get a hold of food; we can be sedentary all the time if we want; and we can fulfill our desire for attention and information simply by turning on our computer and going online.

Most people would probably say that it’s a good thing that we have access to food from all over the world, don’t have to be physically active, and no longer have to sleep outside. To an extent, I agree. There’s no doubt that many modern innovations have made our lives better in various ways.

Unfortunately, they also come with a cost. Evolution never equipped the human body with the tools it needs to thrive in the strange and novel environment it currently finds itself. I’d argue that we – contemporary humans – are surviving, we are not thriving. We live long, but we’re not healthy, fit, and mentally strong; rather, we’re overweight, sick, and stressed.

You don’t have to have a PhD in Darwinian medicine to understand why this is the case; all you need is basic understanding of how the human brain evolved and operates. We’re programmed to seek out sex, calorie-dense foods, comfort/warmth, information, and attention. Our primal forebears didn’t become sick, weak, or unhappy if they followed these desires, because in the environment in which they lived, the things they craved were not easily accessible. They had to put in some work before they had access to them. Today, the situation is obviously very different.

Many of the ancient adaptations that enhanced our ancestors’ evolutionary fitness are working against us in the modern world. If we choose to give in to all of our desires, we become sick and unhappy, because our bodies are ill-equipped to deal with constant exposure to sugar, porn, and modern technology. A lot, if not most, people do give in to many of their desires, which is not surprising, as this is what we’re evolutionarily programmed to do. Will-power and discipline are not always sufficient to suppress primal instincts.

Designing a code to live by

In order to thrive in the modern world, we need a code to live by; a code that contains a set of rules or guidelines regarding what to eat, when to go to sleep, and so forth. If we don’t have such a code, we may find it impossible to navigate the modern world without getting sick and mentally drained.

This is one of the things I like about the evolutionary health template; it contains a set of instructions regarding what to eat and how to live. This template is very useful in the sense that it can serve as a foundation upon which each individual can build his/her own unique code for living. That said, the most important thing is probably that we have a code, not necessarily exactly what the code is.

Some people would probably say that it’s stressful and constraining to have to lead one’s life according to a set of guidelines or rules. Personally, I’m not so sure that this is the case. If you design numerous strict rules, which you are adamant about always following, your quality of life may certainly suffer and you could start to annoy the people around you; however, if you keep it within reason, I would argue that having a code feels liberating rather than suffocating.

Someone who doesn’t have a code for living has to make decisions all the time, every day, and he may feel like he is constantly fighting to suppress undesirable cravings. A person who has a code, on the other hand, rarely has to make decisions in the moment, because he has already made the decisions beforehand. He doesn’t have to stress about what he’s going to eat, when he’s going to exercise, or when he’s going to bed, because it’s all planned in advance.

Last words

The biggest challenge as I see it is to create a code that ensures that you make good, healthy choices, but that doesn’t rob you off your freedom. If you have too many strict rules to follow, it may feel like you are wearing a tight suit that’s keeping you from moving freely; however, if you have few or no principles to live by, you may make poor decisions and end up sick, tired, and unhappy.

Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve cracked the code when it comes to finding a “perfect balance” between freedom/flexibility and control/constraint – and I don’t know if I ever will. What I do know, however, is that I do need some sort of code to live by, or else my health and well-being will suffer.

The thing that eludes a lot of people – the secret to all of this – is that it isn’t necessarily tiring or constraining to live by a code. Actually, it can often be the complete opposite. Over time, actions become habits and undesirable cravings disappear. This is not to say that you will never crave chocolate, sugar, or other stimulating substances ever again if you adopt a healthy lifestyle; however, your cravings will undoubtedly occur less frequently and be less severe; the reason being that the entire biological system that is you adjusts over time in response to the stimuli it is subjected to. Basically, its state changes.

Picture: Creative commons picture by Pimkie. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Freedom comes from structure. From a medical mishap that waylayed me for over a year. I’ve learned to think of proper diet and adequate sleep as the bookends to optimal health and exercise as my magic in the middle to keeping my immune system in good form. How do I check this? By being observant to my energy levels and if I’m able to outmaneuver things like the common cold. By making adjustments like getting more rest if energy low or being more vigilant with nutrients.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Great points! and I also loved Dexter 🙂

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