Monthly Archives: December 2011

“It’s perfect!”

Per-fect: [adj., n. pur-fikt; v. per-fekt]:  Flawless, faultless, complete, excellent, blameless, exact, pure, without deviation, undefiled, conforming absolutely to an ideal.

Plain Talk:  Unspoken ideas of a perfect world affect everything in our lives, including ideas of health.  Where we get mixed up is in thinking that health is the ultimate perfection that we should aim for.

Ah, perfection…have you thought about how the concept of perfection is the standard for life?  What do we think about as the measuring stick for choices?  Studies of consumer behavior point indirectly to this idea of perfection.  We shop, we look, we analyze, and we try to find what will most satisfy us with regard to beauty, quality, and utility.  There is a quiet undercurrent in our thinking and living that houses the notion that there is a perfection to everything.  It usually plays out like this:

The shop-a-holic:  “It’s not perfect, but it was on sale.”
The ecstatic shop-a-holic:  “It’s so perfect for the party!”
The excuse-maker: “I’m not perfect. No one is.”
To my OCD friend:  “Hurry up!  It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
The sufferer:  “Someday there will be no more tears or pain.”
The lover:  “I love you.”
The courtroom:  “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
The gift:  “It’s the perfect gift for her.”
The teenager:  “It’s the bomb!”
Mathematician:  “I have the answer.”
The prayerful: “Forgive my sin.”
Religion:  God.

More often, awareness of perfection manifests as “should” and “ought”.  The way life should  be, and the way others should  treat us.  Though we make allowances for ourselves and others because we know perfection is not possible in this life, we still hold it as the benchmark by which we compare everything else.

Just as in our moral lives, the concept of perfection drives ideas of health.  And steering ideas in health is a combination of what abilities the research world has at hand to develop health into a more perfect state.  All you need to do is peruse the health headlines in popular media.  Researchers continue to map the human genome to find secrets in the DNA that we can tinker with to prolong life, annihilate disease, and improve the quality of living.  We want to cure cancer, live longer, destroy depression once and for all, combat obesity, and have perfect children. 

The perfection quest is, after all, what backgrounds the widely-used term, “health-related quality of life”.  Quality of life is an alias for our pursuit of perfection.  Unfortunately, it ends in a relativized version of perfection, because of other factors in our lives that hinder perfection…hindrances like genetics, lifestyle choices, income, and the nature of our relationships with friends and family.  Quality of life, in its perfected form, would be described as peace and purpose.  A health-related quality of life, therefore, is based on an abstract perception of perfect health.

Where I take issue with the idea of health-related quality of life is that happiness, peace, and purpose are equated to health.  Just look at the TV commercials for health products that promise vibrancy, bounce, energy, longevity, sexual ecstasy, and love!  Health is big business, and money is pouring in for these promises of the intangible positives that health seems to promise but can’t deliver. 

Questions for you:
1. How is that we have this innate idea of perfection?  How is it that we are able to perceive the idea of perfect health, perfect life, perfect love, perfect family, perfect self, perfect peace, and perfect truth?
2. How does health-related quality of life affect personal peace and sense of life purpose?  Is it possible to have a poor health-related quality of life yet still experience personal peace and life purpose?  If so, how? If not, why not?

Plain Talk:  When children are deprived of love, it affects their DNA, immune system, and brain function!  The implications of this for understanding health are astounding! 

Yale School of Medicine (article here) has discovered that a lack of nurturing in orphans induces epigenetic changes in DNA that weaken the immune system and adversely affect brain development and function.   

If that doesn’t astound you, then you haven’t thought it through.  Lack of love causes changes at the genetic level that result in weakened bodies and minds.  That alone should blow your mind.  Human beings are creatures made to thrive on love.  Who are the most contented people, regardless of disability level?  Those who are loved, who have purpose in life, and find meaning in life…meaning that includes generosity to others…love.

You should be thinking now of what that means for health research, health interventions, and health policy.  If ever there was a call for health scholars to lobby for money for well-being research, this is it.  And if ever the was a reason to advocate for infants and children, this is it.

For an intriguing look at epigenetics, read this article from TIME, “Why DNA Isn’t Your Destiny” …A great read!

Plain Talk:  Well-being is not equal-being.  Attempts to equalize income and opportunities for all people ignore the life-sustaining necessity of being in loving relationships, a fact being borne out in the physiological research.  Healthcare researchers should focus more on this dimension of health. 

“Vulnerable populations”

“Health disparities”

These are the designer catch-phrases in modern health.  The problem, as I see it, is that vulnerability is such a broad term that can mean anything from extreme deprivation to normal life events experienced by all people, like loss of a parent.  Bottom line is that everyone is vulnerable in different ways at different times.  The current paradigms of health, while claiming to be focused on well-being, actually only advocate meeting physical and psychological needs.  When vulnerability is so defined, then only the poor qualify for the remedy, because only the poor have been assigned vulnerability status. 

Does that strike you as odd?  It does me.  Since when are only the poor vulnerable?  The wealthy are also vulnerable, but in less visible ways.  First of all, there is not much research on vulnerability of the wealthy.  Using a scholarly search engine through a library, there was only 1 hit for “vulnerability of the wealthy” compared to 89 hits for “vulnerability of the poor”.  Psychological research and Gallup polls tell us over and over that well-being of people does not vary that much over income levels once life’s most basic needs are met.  This is true across the world.  It’s because peace and purpose are not dependent upon equalizing socioeconomic status.

It’s true that income correlates with longevity.  Here’s the rub:  Somehow we have come to equate longevity with well-being.  Is this true?  Is long life the mark of a life well-lived?  The well-lived life is not a life lived long!  Naturally, most people hope to live a long life.  But they want a long, happy & satisfied life.  People seek peace and purpose.  Those that don’t experience it may consider suicide.

There is a need to match the FIT between what it means to be human and what it means, ultimately, to be healthy.  We have to move beyond vulnerability thinking, move past the idea of the “multi-problem poor”, to the bigger picture of what it means for people to live in harmony with themselves and those around them.  This is the life people consider as “well-being”…that sense that even during adversity and vulnerability, they still stand strong…and more often than not, that involves a social network of “relational belonging”…or, more simply, love.

Rate the well-being and vulnerability of these two people:
Bob, age 44, is a millionaire several times over, divorced, has no close friends, and has contemplated suicide, despite the fact he could buy anything he wanted.

Frank, an 86 year old widower, barely makes enough to meet expenses, has a close-knit network of family and friends, volunteers his time, has found meaning in life’s adversities, and is thankful for his life.

Or consider this true-life example:  J. Paul Getty, one of the richest men in the world said, “I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success.”  This from a man who was married 5 times.

Well-being should never mean the same as alleviation of vulnerability.  If it does, then we do not understand what it means to be human beings…beings for whom thriving means acceptance, affirmation, belonging, and loving.  Thriving is not realized in self-isolation.  Thriving is found in “relational belonging”…or love.  And love can occur alongside vulnerability, and is capable of disarming many forms of vulnerability, according to the latest neurophysiological research.

What do you think?

If you’re interested, here’s the results of my Google search.  Notice how both vulnerabiltiy and well-being are assumed to be related to income.
Google search results on vulnerability:

  • vulnerability and poverty – 22,500,000
  • vulnerability and wealth – 11,100,000 
  • vulnerability and low income – 8,780,000
  • vulnerability and high income – 3,400,000

 Google search results on well-being:

  • well-being and poverty – 163 million
  • well-being and wealth – 180 million
  • well-being and low income – 114 million
  • well-being and high income – 141 million

For the most exhaustive scholarly research on well-being, check out Ed Diener, psychologist, who has been researching this for 30+ years and has 300+ publications on the topic.

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