But why? It’s our bodies. They’re our choices. It’s the food or the cigarettes we buy with our money. It’s the gym we neglect with our time. So why?
Because health is an identity.
When I identify myself as a healthy human being, I am first and foremost saying I am free from any major or life-threatening diseases. But I am also making an evaluative statement about my choices, that I value my life and my quality of life enough to make sacrifices. It is this last part that people tend to focus on, because we believe it is our job to keep ourselves healthy. In part, this is because we have a survival instinct as well as a happiness instinct. And, as Schopenhauer pointed out, “health is not everything, but without it, everything is nothing.”
Most of us have very different ideas of what it means to be healthy. For some it may be as simple as limiting their alcohol consumption to only red wine. For others it’s a completely organic, vegan, gluten-free diet with hours of exercise built into everyday routines. I’ve met both kinds of people. Both would tell you they are healthy. Both would say that health is an important value to them. Because in some way or another, they are working on their health, toward the goal of healthy living.
But health is also an accident.
When I say that I consider myself to be a healthy individual, I’m also saying that somehow my genes and status worked out so I don’t currently have concerns about my body’s situation. Our lives are a giant gamble of genetics, economics, and circumstance. How much we eat, sleep, and exercise does influence our overall state of well-being, but so does how happy we are. According to this article, happy people keep healthier with age. Furthermore, in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, he first recounts the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a story of unprecedentedly healthy people. These people had excellent life expectancy, heart health, and more. But they weren’t doing anything different than the people who did have those problems; they drank, smoked, drove, ate butter, etc. Except that they lived in community with one another, people who understood and genuinely cared for them. This, and this alone, made them happier and thus healthier.
But even if you eat right, exercise and keep a cheerful disposition, genetics play a major rule in our everyday health.
I’ll cover that next time.