“Life hacking” has become a universal concept. We all know what it means. It can be fun to find creative ways of doing things, or to see what crazy stuff other people have come up with. Sometimes we see people taking it too far, though. The very word ‘hacking’ implies a quick and easy fix that will make things better. Life-hacking can be a way of cramming ‘more’ efficiency into your day without asking if you needed to be doing all of it in the first place. Efficiency and speed aren’t always goals, and it’s not worth doing well what didn’t need to be done in the first place.
I say this primarily because I was thinking about ‘health hacking,’ especially in the forms of biohacking and it’s spin-offs. This is a subculture encouraging widespread use of ‘natural’ supplements, light and sound therapy, fasting, special devices to aid in exercise, and even do-it-yourself implants. Even ‘gratitude’ and ‘mindfulness’ can be hacks – because keeping a grateful mindset can improve your mental health.
But I’m going to caution against believing too much in this sort of thing. The whole movement is strange on a couple of levels. Despite all of its claims of science, it’s rather superstitious and it’s not new. Things like this have been around forever. Look up devices like the old electric ab strengtheners. And the image of otherwise educated and prosperous individuals sitting around trying to come up with new combinations of things to ingest or experience that will make them live longer resembles nothing so much as the alchemists of old.
Experimenting on yourself to see what makes you feel better isn’t actually scientific. There’s no hypothesis and no experimental control. There’s no real proof, because the placebo effect in individuals is so strong. The hacker knows exactly what they did and how they wanted it to make them feel, so they often feel it. Perhaps that’s the real appeal of biohacking – the illusion of control over your own biology. But the science is often dubious. For example, it’s never really been clear that taking vitamins does a lot of good, except in cases of noticeable deficiency, as the human body may not be very good at absorbing or using vitamins delivered in this artificial form – which are often not exactly the same chemical that you would find in the natural vitamins in your food.
Biohackers are like the alchemists in another way – what they’re doing may actually be dangerous. Consider this – if you are taking many different vitamins, supplements, and nootropic (brain-enhancing) drugs, and you actually believe they work, shouldn’t you be worried about interactions? That’s something we have to worry about when taking even 2 or 3 medicines at the same time, or even when taking medicine and then drinking alcohol. That should still be a worry with anything you are taking to deliberately alter your body. None of the biohacking is likely to be as natural as it’s proponents claim, but even if it was natural that doesn’t mean it’s safe in any quantity or combination. Alcohol is 100% natural after all.
The truth is this sort of thing sounds tempting and yet rarely works when it comes to complicated systems. And in terms of complicated systems that we don’t understand, human health is pretty high on the list. It will often either do nothing, or not do what you think it will. The urge to take the easy way out is behind a lot of health problems in the first place. Being healthy is based on daily habits and lifestyle, including always a degree of physical activity and eating small amounts of normal, healthy food. You can’t expect a handful of extra magic foods or 10 minutes of whatever a day to have more effect than the rest of your life.
The problem we face is that in a hunter-gatherer environment humans were forced into regular strenuous exercise and eating small amounts of natural food. Taking advantage of the easy way out is actually biologically encouraged – gorging on whatever happens to be available is a powerful instinct, since it’s good to take advantage of rare opportunities. But the modern world gives us the easy way out almost constantly, and that’s a big part of why we are so much physically weaker and more emotionally tired than in the past.
Biohacking isn’t fighting against this, it’s more of the same mindset. Let’s go back to that gratitude example. If you want to you should sincerely practice gratitude and mindfulness in order to become a better, more thankful, more aware person – not because you think it will help you keep your sanity together in your fast-paced life and career. If how you are living your life is that debilitating don’t use spiritual techniques as a ‘hack’. Figure out how to actually change something about how you live your life.
Health in our time has to be based on discipline and conscious habit formation. Hacking is the opposite of that. At best it ignores real solutions. At worst it’s probably hurting you. And in any event, it’s definitely keeping you from addressing the underlying problem. There was a time when fast food, prepackaged food, and white bread were ‘hacks’ in the sense that they were created to give busy people food faster. Look where that’s brought us.