What is Health, and how can we cultivate it in our lives?
Updated: May 27
Prominent neuroscientist and public intellectual Dr. Samuel Harris says “Health” has something to do with “not vomiting all the time,” as a tongue in cheek illustration of how broad, and often unhelpful, the parameters circumscribing our definitions of the term can be. We here at Harmony assert that a person’s well-being is more than merely the calculable function of the body’s quantifiable, measurable life functions and mechanisms. You’ve heard us say that “You are more than a collection of symptoms.” And we believe that this is absolutely true, if not a bit abstract.
Harris’s quip is obviously a truism of sorts, and presents us with a humorous way of framing the problem we seek to outline in this piece, which is certainly not humorous at all when contextualized in our day-today lives, and our struggle to attain and maintain health. A human being is a wondrous constellation of processes and functions, emotions and experiences, concords and discords. We are greater than the sum of our parts, evidenced by the mystery of consciousness itself, and the totality of our experiences, subjective and objective, make up our well-being.
How then, do we proceed in our inquiry? I believe that part of what makes Health a particularly difficult subject to define, is that it is subjective to some extent, and humans, as is our wont, tend desperately to objectivize it, or make it easier to digest in Western scientific terms. Without arguing for or against this tendency, I propose that we should develop tools that make it easier to discern whether or not our perceptions of our own health are calibrated properly, (that is, as free of confounding factors that hinder us from seeing the truth of our circumstances as possible.) and from there, use these tools more expansively, to then identify what we need to change in our habits and indulgences to promote sustainable well-being. The way I propose we do this is quite simple, to start. Indeed, if you’ve found yourself slightly overwhelmed by the presentation that our health is tied to the bigger picture, as it were, then I suggest you step away, take a deep breath; in through the nose and out through the mouth. Then close your eyes, and repeat this cycle for a few moments.
Are you back?
Good. Perhaps what I wanted you to do was a bit pedestrian. After all, you breathe all the time, don’t you? Never totally aware, but never completely unaware. That’s how I argue “Health” works a lot of the time. We become conditioned to ignore our overall functioning and states of being, until prompted or caused to notice them by extenuating circumstance. This, from an evolutionary perspective, is energy efficient, and promotes maximum output by essentially ensuring that you are not distracted by things until they really become a problem. But, as certain far eastern practices and ideological constructs espouse, it is beneficial in the long-term to perform daily maintenance on the mind machine if you expect it not only to function, but to thrive and provide you with fertile ground for the cultivation of happiness.
Daily maintenance, dear reader, is not just food-as-fuel thinking and cutting back on caffeine. And those things are absolutely good practices. But we must widen our scope if we are to cultivate sustainable practices. Those practices must be based on a sober estimation of your capabilities. Sometimes, it’s all you can do to sit on the edge of your bed, breathe deeply, stand up, walk to the sink and drink that first glass of water in the morning, adding 16oz to your intake for the day. And that’s a victory. I say this because burning out on your efforts to change by doing too much too fast can be worse than had you never started, exactly because you may never start again. Now, it’s worth noting that time waits for no one, and certainly, some conditions and syndromes require immediate and aggressive attention. But, what I’m trying to encourage you to think on is the basis of sustainable health, which you can start working on at any point, from any baseline. And this requires acceptance of your limitations, even if one of those limitations is your perception of your limitations.
To explain via anecdote, I offer you this vignette: A client of mine once expressed his dismay and pseudo-jealousy regarding his friend who could “eat anything he wants, and still he looks like a Greek God.”. This description is a perfect illustration of an attitude many of us have toward others of different dispositions and, in this case, physiques. We tend to think that anybody who exemplifies a particular form we have been programmed to notice as the “standard” must in fact be synonymous with health. But, as is evident in our practice, these who we sometimes perceive as standard in health, may in fact have a myriad of problems and maladies which we are not privy to in our admirations. My client’s friend may have woken up every morning with a fit of coughing, or a splitting headache. He may have had out of balanced testosterone. Also, let us not forget that skeletal muscle tissue requires an increase in oxygen saturation and calorie intake to sustain. In itself, not a problem. But, as with any multi-faceted problem, we must engage critical thinking, if we are to arrive at a conclusion that is informative.
What is the content of this man’s diet? What sort of protein sources is he utilizing to build muscle? What role does his age, and genetic composition play in the maintenance of this image? The point is, it’s never really as simple as our vanity and programming lead us to believe.
Useful lesson to take away from this:
1.) Health is more than symptomology.
2.) Don’t compare yourself to others, because they have their own struggles and they may not be as healthy as your social programming indicates.
3.) You must do what you can, as consistently as you can, and strive to attain a new level of success every day.
We at Harmony want to give you tools that you can use every day, sustainably, to improve your overall health and well-being, and the confidence to discover new ones on your own using critical thinking skills that allow you to arrive at the appropriate conclusion for the situation.
Co-Author, Lucas Walsh for Harmony Health Institute
Cover photo by Shumilov Ludmila