“To Optimize Mental Wellness, Carefully Curate Your Mental Diet”, with Liam McClintock and Beau Henderson

Curate your “mental diet.” When I was training in Bali, as well as on subsequent silent meditation retreats, I eliminated most inputs. This meant no phone, computer or even books. It was an extreme version of the “low information diet” whereby you carefully determine what is actually worth paying attention to. Whatever’s entering your awareness throughout […]

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Curate your “mental diet.” When I was training in Bali, as well as on subsequent silent meditation retreats, I eliminated most inputs. This meant no phone, computer or even books. It was an extreme version of the “low information diet” whereby you carefully determine what is actually worth paying attention to. Whatever’s entering your awareness throughout the day is influencing your subconscious mind and perceptions of the world, which is why advertisers are fighting for our attention any chance they get. What I experienced in Bali was that as soon as you’re no longer consuming social media, news, advertisements or other forms of information, your mind feels sharp and novel ideas begin to flow readily.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Liam McClintock. Liam McClintock received a B.A. from Yale University and worked as a venture capitalist before traveling to Asia to study meditation full-time. Passionate about bringing a scientific meditation approach to a wider western audience, Liam founded FitMind, a mental wellness technology company that provides training to Fortune 500 companies, addiction centers, schools, government offices and now individuals through the FitMind meditation app. Liam is an RYS Certified Meditation Instructor and has trained in Vipassana (Insight Meditation), Transcendental Meditation (TM), Vedic Meditation, Dzogchen, and Meditation-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Asa child, my mind was completely out of my conscious control. I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and later attention deficit disorder (ADD). So I started taking medication and seeing a therapist with limited results. Then, while in college, I stumbled into meditation when I heard on the Tim Ferriss Show that 80% of the most successful people in the world interviewed, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ray Dalio, meditate regularly. “I want to be successful, so if that’s what it takes,” was the line of thinking at the time.

Meditation went from a once-a-day practice, to then long weekend retreats and eventually inundated every aspect of my life as a mindset. As my meditation practice began to deepen I noticed profound transformations taking place. I could finally control my attention and resist my compulsive tendencies. But I also began to question the root motivations behind my actions. Humans are very good at self-deception, and the introspective metacognition in meditation helped me begin to understand myself better. I didn’t like a lot of what I saw. I was working in finance at this point and knew without a doubt that I had to leave and study meditation full-time. I felt a calling to make this practice more accessible to others.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A year ago I sat down with one of my mentors and was asked to map out a one-year vision for FitMind. I told my mentor I would be working on an app with a teammate exactly one year in the future. She asked when specifically I’d meet this teammate and I answered March.

We transcribed this vision but I forgot the details until a couple of months ago. Sure enough, here I am working on the FitMind app with a friend whom I met in March. Other very specific parts of this one-year map came true as well in areas I won’t go into.

I don’t like to posit paranormal explanations for this type of fortunate outcome, but do think that having a precise vision works wonders. It’s like planting a flag out in the distance that you can sail toward, rather than aimlessly drifting wherever the currents happen to take you. The clearer the vision, the more likely it will come to fruition in my experience.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

When I was first getting into meditation, I attended a class with my mom while visiting her one weekend. At the very end of the class, the pinnacle of peace and stillness, my phone’s alarm decided to rudely interrupt our meditation. Unluckily, my phone sat in my mom’s Tote Bag, which she seemed to disown the moment it burst into a buzzing cacophony.

I sheepishly got up from my seat and rustled around in the bag for what felt like ages before successfully extracting the phone and silencing it. Although nobody said anything, I could feel the entire class’s irritation. At the end, the very wise instructor made a teaching moment of it: he said that meditation isn’t about drifting into tranquility, but rather staying present. Noises that we deem “annoying” are just another part of the environment, and therefore part of our meditation practice.

I learned to silence my devices properly, but also to view obstacles in meditation as training tools for further progress. When the mind is restless or annoyed, it’s like lifting heavier weights in the gym.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Wow, there are so many! I’m especially grateful to my parents who didn’t once try to talk me out of my decision to leave finance and pursue an unusual path. I remember hearing from my friends how crazy their parents thought I was for leaving a job in finance to go meditate, and it couldn’t have been easy for my parents to explain this either. Yet they expressed an incredible faith in my vision and saw the passion that was driving me to go this route.

There are also many mentors who have helped out along the way. For example, I met a man named Mark while squatting on the same rack in the gym. After telling him about my passion for spreading meditation, he took a chance on me (only one month into launching FitMind) and invited me to give a series of workshops at his resort on Nantucket. I’m so grateful to Mark and others who have taken early chances on entrepreneurs like myself and made our dreams possible.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Stay true to your own mission. It’s fine to keep tabs on what others are doing, but also easy to get overwhelmed in competition and lose sight of your own internal compass. Staying aligned with your personal values and recognizing what you can uniquely add to the world will prevent entrepreneurial fatigue.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

There’s some fascinating research on baboon vs. elephant leadership styles. Basically, elephants are led by a knowledgeable matriarch who’s in service to the group. Everything she does is for the group’s wellbeing, making sure it gets enough water, food and protection. She’s not trying to take more resources for herself nor dominate anyone else. Her authority is granted by consensus, not taken by force. Baboon leaders are much the opposite, except when their group faces an external threat.

You can see these two leadership styles (usually a blend) play out in politics today because our evolutionary psychology gave us a capacity for both. But it seems elephants are more successful, stable and ultimately more inherently rewarding to work for. I think creating a fantastic work culture involves embracing your role as the elephant leader who is trying to serve the greater good of the organization, rather than selfishly trying to garner prestige and resources for yourself.

This also creates the feeling of a true team, rather than a hierarchy where someone’s trying to assert their authority. In the modern economy, if someone doesn’t like working for you they’ll just pack up and take their talent to a competitor.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

Wonderful, I’m so glad you pointed out this misconception about mental health! I dream of a world in which everyone is focused on optimizing their mental wellness. We’re all searching for happiness and fulfillment on some level, and it makes sense to prioritize that which we have the most control over: our minds. I’ll provide five areas for optimization, roughly in order of the impact I think they have on the mind.

Step 1: Form meaningful relationships. 46% of Americans say they are lonely. Even more shocking, the average adult says that they have zero close friends to confide in! Yet if you look at the environment in which our brains evolved, millions of years spent bonding in hunter-gatherer groups of about 100 members, it becomes evident why we’re wired for socialization. We crave a feeling of belonging and purpose in groups.

So finding like-minded individuals to spend quality time with provides essential psychological sustenance. Although we no longer rely on each other for protection or our next meal, as our ancestors did, we still rely on each other for optimal mental wellness!

Step 2: Curate your “mental diet.” When I was training in Bali, as well as on subsequent silent meditation retreats, I eliminated most inputs. This meant no phone, computer or even books. It was an extreme version of the “low information diet” whereby you carefully determine what is actually worth paying attention to. Whatever’s entering your awareness throughout the day is influencing your subconscious mind and perceptions of the world, which is why advertisers are fighting for our attention any chance they get. What I experienced in Bali was that as soon as you’re no longer consuming social media, news, advertisements or other forms of information, your mind feels sharp and novel ideas begin to flow readily.

Just as if you were trying to lose weight you might decrease calories and increase exercise, similarly you can go on a mental diet, decreasing dopamine-rich information and increasing meditation. Which brings us to step three…

Step 3: Train your mind with meditation. We are constantly building our minds in each moment because the brain rewires itself depending on how we use it in what’s called neuroplasticity. Meditation is self-directed neuroplasticity, you’re applying your attention in a specific way to optimize your mind.

There’s solid science to suggest that the altered states in meditation become more permanent “altered traits” in the brain with practice. One Ph.D. geneticist named Matthieu Ricard was dubbed “the happiest man in the world” by scientists who were amazed by his brain’s production of high-frequency gamma waves (signs of heightened awareness and bliss) as well as structural changes that had occurred as a result of his meditation practice.

Step 4: Eat whole foods. Nutrition isn’t just about looking good, staying healthy and increasing longevity. Food forms the building blocks of your brain as well and has an almost immediate impact on your mental state.

You may have heard that your second brain lives in your gut. This “brain,” or rather the enteric nervous system, evolved half a billion years ago in the first vertebrates and perhaps even gave rise to the brain itself. The gut is heavily integrated with the rest of your cerebral functions and contains 500 million neurons that connect to your brain via the microbiome-gut-brain axis. It also serves as a “happiness chemical” factory, producing a shocking 95% of your serotonin and 50% of your dopamine.

Nutrition can be controversial in that so many people claim to have the “right” diet. Although the jury’s still out on the perfect set of nutrients, which undoubtedly vary by individual, experts all agree on this: your body evolved to consume whole, unprocessed foods. So if your great great grandmother couldn’t identify it as a food (i.e. if it didn’t come directly from nature), then avoid it.

Step 5: Get out and move. The mind-body connection runs deep. Since your brain is in fact just a giant command center for your nervous system, and your nervous system is linked to the whole body, how you move directly affects your mind. The Romans had a phrase for this: mens sana in corpus sano (a sound mind in a sound body).

Your brain loves rewarding you for exercise, sending bursts of adrenaline, endorphins, and other “happiness chemicals” when you run, lift, jump and dance. Exercise increases what’s called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein responsible for growing and maintaining neurons (brain cells).

I say “get out” and move because nature has proven mental health benefits as well. Getting sunshine and spending time around plants seems to reduce stress levels. I love swimming in glacial lakes in the summertime to get a trifecta of wellness perks: exercise, nature and hormetic cold exposure.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

Related to step one above, my research suggests that finding your “tribe” is difficult but essential in retirement. In fact, loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day according to one study.

My parents are retired and have found their tribe. They wake up every morning to bike with a group and then gather at the local Peet’s coffee shop to bond and gossip. The teamwork required to get a group of cyclists safely from point A to point B creates deep, lasting bonds. They leave no rider behind and work in a rotation to reduce wind resistance, sometimes cycling 100 miles in a day. They embrace the struggle, rather than shirking pain and planting themselves comfortably in front of the television in their living rooms at home. They often organize charity rides, rain or shine, giving the activity true community values. As a result, they reap the fulfilling rewards of modern tribalism.

The brain also begins to atrophy when it’s not stimulated with new people and places, leading to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. So mixing up one’s routine, whether by taking up a new hobby, traveling or simply taking a new walking route, can keep the brain young and agile.

Finally, I have to mention meditation again. Research has demonstrated that 50-year-old meditators exhibit the same brain structure (in terms of gray matter) as those of 25-year-olds. I’m a broken record, but the mind creates our entire reality in each moment — it makes sense to train it at all ages!

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

It’s especially important for teens and pre teens to carefully curate their consumption of information and use of technology. The brain continues to develop throughout our lives but is especially malleable at these early ages. If a teen spends his or her free time scrolling on Instagram, then they’re training a short attention span and wiring the brain to require instant gratification in the form of quick hits of dopamine (a habit-forming pleasure chemical).

I recognize that it’s challenging to navigate the social teen world with good digital hygiene, but surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals and spending limited time immersed in virtual online worlds will set them up for long-term success. We have the entire world’s knowledge at our fingertips, accessible for those with the discipline and focus to take advantage of it.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Yes, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harrari. The book’s ability to zoom out and take a 30,000-foot view of human history, how we got here and where we’re headed, completely changed my perspective. I think this should be the first thing taught in school because you can’t understand why we have money, companies, beliefs, sports, or countries without looking at humanity’s biological and cultural evolution.

There’s a fun story here. A family friend knew what a profound influence this book had on me, so he showed up to Dr. Harrari’s office hours at the university in Israel where he teaches. My friend then persuaded Dr. Harrari, a very busy and by this time famous man, to accept my phone call. We spoke briefly and afterward emailed back and forth for some time, and I told Dr. Harrari that his book had convinced me that our species needs meditation more than ever. He responded that he agreed, and in fact goes on two-month silent meditation retreats annually, but thought it was too difficult to gain widespread adoption. But sure enough, Dr. Harrari recommended meditation as an antidote to modern living in his next book! Even if it’s unlikely, I’d like to believe our conversation played some role in that.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Yes, I am actively trying to bring about a “mental fitness” movement. This has become my mission in life. I envision a world in which we care for and train our minds, just as many people do their physical bodies.

Neuroscience research has confirmed that we are building our minds in each moment. What you pay attention to and how you pay attention “wires” your neural circuits. And so in our current attention economy it has never been more difficult, or necessary, to control one’s mental diet. If you’re consuming short music video clips all day long, this is high-dopamine content with low-psychological sustenance. It’s training a short attention span and probably programming materialistic beliefs depending on the video. This is equivalent to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. We’re essentially suffering from an overabundance problem in the mental realm. Companies in the attention economy hack into our primal psychology in the same way that the food industry taps into our innate desires for sugars, fats and salts (previously rare and nutritious).

We could spend all day blaming those companies and trying to regulate them or get them to change, but I believe that change in the world starts with each of us individually. We can all improve our attentional control and learn the self-awareness that serves as a circuit break between stimulus and response. Humans, unlike all other animals, are not left to the whims of our biological conditioning and actually get to determine our own individual evolution by intentionally applying our minds. So each of us can train ourselves to no longer be a victim of the attention economy, programmed into certain beliefs and desires by someone else.

Since our brains comes with a lot of maladaptive biological “software,” wired for fight-or-flight scenarios, instant gratification and out-group exclusion, we must actively train them through meditation and in daily life.

I believe that mental fitness is the next major health revolution, a cultural shift that will occur in the coming decades. Just as it took widespread physical exercise time to take off long after the scientifically proven health benefits, the mental fitness movement will take charismatic celebrities (think Arnold Schwartzenegger) and great brands (think Nike).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

The Buddha said, “A man who conquers himself is greater than the one who conquers a thousand men in battle.” It’s the background for my phone and I try to live by this quotation.

While we tend to spend so much time competing and trying to gain “success” in the outside world as defined by others, true success I believe comes from the ability to control your mind, to find joy regardless of external circumstances. I try to view each hardship in life as mental training, an opportunity to improve my internal reactions.

Recently I went on a month-long “dopamine fast.” For me this meant a month with no social media, videos (unless work-related), sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or phone notifications. I was inspired by the Buddha’s words and felt increasingly energetic and focused as the month went on. Now, after this monk-like month, I have a more sustainable lifestyle (I love tea and videos!), but I felt the need to prove to myself that I could exert this control over my mind for some time.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I recently created a Twitter @liam_mcclintock.

Thank you so much for these great insights!

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