This ER Doctor Shares Four Secrets to a Good Life

Ever feel overwhelmed because it seemed like you had just too many things going on at once in your life? Or maybe you've wondered before if you're living the wrong life entirely or perhaps just temporarily on the wrong track?

Life gets hectic, and as an emergency room doctor in a busy hospital, Matt Poyner knows he needs to mind both his physical and mental well being if he wants to keep on top of his game. Throw in being a husband, a dad of four boys, a carpenter, an artist, and a graphic designer, and you might wonder how the guy could ever find any time to himself.

Fortunately for Dr. Poyner and his family, he is also a bit of a philosopher and has spent considerable time reflecting on how to make his busy career and many interests add up to a life of incredible fulfillment. “I don’t chase happiness; I choose what’s worth struggling for,” he revealed in a recent interview. “There are four things that contribute to happiness or, rather, a fulfilled life,” he added.

Dr. Matt’s evidence-based pillars of a good life have their roots in the study of human evolution. They are simple for any of us to understand, and can even be measured merely by just being aware of how we feel at any time.

Spending quality time with your family and close friends.

Not to be mistaken for the use of online social media, we are talking here about real, in-person interaction with people who you care about who are close to you and you are close to them. Humans evolved in groups of 100 to 150 people; that is our natural environment – a relatively small group of high-quality, close relationships.

When we skip out on these pleasant, in-person interactions or water them down by relegating our interpersonal interactions to the digital world, there's a real cost to our happiness and sense of well-being.

Robb Wolf, author of the excellent book Wired to Eat: Turn off Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods That Work for You, agrees with Matt: “Social isolation is recognized as a huge stressor and appears to be a key piece of addictive behavior, including overeating,” he says.

Health and fitness

Dr. Matt reminds us: “We evolved to move and we evolved to move well, and we need to make a choice to develop or even re-develop that ability. If we don't, it's proven to have an impact on our happiness.”

Using evolution as a backdrop here, picture your ancient ancestors – the strong ones, who survived animal attacks, famines and disease. These early people had to possess incredible physical and emotional resilience and the way they built that up was through the daily physical demands associated with life in their day. "Anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherers walked 6-10 miles most days in the course of their daily lives," says Wolf. “Where once we routinely walked miles, many of us now walk less than half a mile every day as we shuffle from house to car to office.”

As a parent, Dr. Poyner believes that the way kids are meant to move is in unstructured play. Kids are naturally active, and they did not evolve engaged in structured sports, and they evolved following their parents around as their parents worked, and playing with each other. His own kids have as much unstructured play time as possible, and the family emphasizes activities such as backcountry camping to further encourage this.

Get yourself into flow

Flow states are experiences that you as an individual can totally immerse yourself in, whether it's a sport or art or music – it's something that you immerse yourself in, and you will typically lose track of time while you are doing it. Something you find intrinsically rewarding in and of itself. "If I pick up a brush and canvas, for example," says Matt, "I can lose a day; I can miss meals and not even notice. That’s the kind of immersive experience I’m talking about.” It can take many different forms, but it is deeply rooted in the fact that as a species we evolved as problem-solvers, moving, encountering challenges and then solving them. We also evolved creating things such as cookery and tools.


Doing good things for other people even when we don’t have to. We are social animals, but also comparatively weak to much of the animal kingdom. We don’t have big claws or big teeth or armor, but we have a super advanced ability to cooperate with each other, which includes being kind and looking out for each other. We know that about each other, and we can judge each other’s characteristics and willingness to cooperate.

The flipside of this is also that we feel intrinsically rewarded when we do something kind for another person. It feels good to us, and Matt believes that is no accident: the natural biofeedback we get from philanthropy is likely an evolutionary mechanism to help us stay connected to the tribe. In today’s world, we don’t need our tribe to protect us from saber-toothed tigers or invading barbarians very often – we can enjoy doing a good deed simply because a good deed is its own reward.

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