Along with being careful about your time and setting do-able goals, another way to foster your personal sustainability is to check in on your overall lifestyle. This might seem too much to take on. But, I have an idea for you: Cultivate a “Mediterranean Lifestyle.” To learn more, keep reading…. 


A client of mine was speaking the other day about how she and her friends are motivated to be more politically engaged. “We all have a new part time job now,” she said. Indeed. This might ring true for you as well. And, this is a good time to pause for moment. Before you get into action mode, how are you going to build the capacity to take on another task in your busy 21st century life?

There are some obvious places to start. In last week’s post, I shared lessons about effective ways to give and volunteer. Example: The optimal amount of time for volunteer work to feel fulfilling and not lead to burn out is about 100 hours per year, or two hours per week. That is a good starter goal for a consistent weekly practice of writing to your legislators, attending meetings or engaging in activism.

Along with being careful about your time and setting do-able goals, another way to foster your personal sustainability is to check in on your overall lifestyle. This might seem too much to take on. But, I have an idea for you: Cultivate a “Mediterranean Lifestyle.”

I stay current on psychology and health research. A trend I have followed recently is the development of “Nutritional Psychology.” This line of study focuses on the surprisingly direct role that diet and specific nutrients play in reducing depression and anxiety. The basic finding is that a bad diet impacts your mental health as much as your physical health. Nutritional Psychology explores less obvious influences on mood including inflammation and the role of healthy bacteria in your gut. Other studies explore nutritional mood treatments for pregnant mothers and the benefits of breastfeeding for infants’ emotional development. These findings are still rippling though mental health fields.

From Mediterranean Diet to Mediterranean Lifestyle

You probably know that a Mediterranean-style Diet (eating plenty of vegetables, fish and whole grains, along with foods high in good cholesterol like olive oil) is good for you. It improves your health and helps you live longer. The latest thinking is that it is not just the diet, but an overall Mediterranean Lifestyle that matters. This includes not only eating foods associated with a Mediterranean diet, but also enjoying strong and frequent social connections, and engaging in regular outdoor activities and exercise.

A 2015 New York Times story described how Mediterranean diet researchers were “surprised by how the people they encountered enjoyed and savored their food, turning every meal into an excuse for a social occasion with friends and family. They noticed that people spent a lot of time outdoors getting fresh air. Instead of designating daily periods of time to jog or exercise, they engaged in a great deal of leisurely physical activity like walking and riding bicycles. And they seemed to have low levels of chronic stress.” They noted: “We need to redefine the Mediterranean diet… The truth is that it’s a lifestyle. It’s the whole approach. It’s the food. It’s the social interaction. It’s getting the right kind of exercise. It’s being outside. It’s getting sunlight and sunshine.”

And it’s true that both randomized and long-term studies have shown that a Mediterranean lifestyle program had benefits for hard to treat issues like diabetes in older women and also reduced depression in sample of university graduates. There’s even a Kickstarter project to fund a documentary that debunks the the Mediterranean diet and puts the focus on the lifestyle instead.

How you make some simple changes to promote your own Mediterranean Lifestyle?

  1. Make friends with good foods and add them to your diet. Check out Jonny Bowden’s The 150 Healthiest Foods on the Planet or Cathy Thomas’s 50 Best Plants on the Planet. You don’t don’t need to be a top chef or a nutrition expert. Just get more of these foods into your diet and avoid foods that are not in these books. If you need to, start with one good meal a day and build from there.

2. Make sure you have one or more positive social connection each week. If it is over a leisurely and healthy meal, all the better. Remember that healthy social contacts lower your blood pressure, improve your immune system and help you to live longer. A good friend or even just a cheerful encounter in the day is good medicine.

3. Get outside and do some physical activity for at at least one solid stretch of time each week (in every season). Make the activity as hands-on and low-tech as you can. Yes, you can add the social factor here too. Avoid digital technologies if you want a true Mediterranean Lifestyle affect. (Hint: Pumping on a Stair Master while watching three TV feeds is not what we are looking for.)

Some Cautions:

I know some of you are saying “They had to do a randomized clinical study to figure this out?” So yes, this is common sense. And yes, the Mediterranean Lifestyle is not unique to the Greek Islands. And, by all means create your own version of a mind-healthy diet if this does not inspire you.

And don’t get into perfectionism or what’s been called “dietary tribalism.” Remember that a diet good for physical health is likely to be good for mental health, and diets that are socially and environmentally conscious are also likely to good for mind and body.

If you want to talk more, let me know. This is what I do for a living!

Be Well, Dr. Thomas Doherty

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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