Before you read further, pause a few moments and ask yourself, “Why do I want to be healthy?”
Chances are your answer boils down to this: You want to be able to enjoy life. You want good health to feel vigorous, so that day after day you can exclaim, “It’s great to be alive!”
Few will deny that robust health is one of the most precious assets in life. But suppose you were confronted suddenly with the disheartening news that you had a chronic ailment which might rob you forever of some of your previous vigor? What would happen to your enjoyment of life?
Whenever I pose this question I like to think of a patient I will never forget. He was a business executive who, at the age of fifty, had almost everything one could ask for. He was in excellent health, happily married, a great success in a prospering business, and respected in his community. His way of life was moderate. He slept well, kept his weight normal, and found more than ample time for travel and recreation. The thing he loved most was sports, the more violent the better, especially tennis, squash, and handball.
One day his world collapsed. He suffered a coronary occlusion. The shock of having had a heart attack wiped out his cheerful, optimistic attitude toward life. In his mind, a heart attack meant only one thing – a life of invalidism. Every time I saw him in the hospital he was morose.
His typical remark was, “I suppose I am pretty well washed-up. From now on, I’m not going to be able to do all the things I like. No more tennis. No more handball. No squash.”
“That’s right,” I said. “No more of that. But I would not recommend such vigorous sports for a man your age anyhow.”
My task was to convince him that a heart attack was not the end of the road. I assured him that he would still be able to walk, swim, play a moderate game of golf, and that he could learn to engage in many other activities and enjoy them. In short, I attempted largely to show him what he could and was going to do, not what he should not do. He was utterly skeptical when I told him that a person with a heart condition sometimes learns to enjoy life even more than one who has the physical health and prowess of a young athlete.
Today, more than ten years after his heart attack, he constantly assures me that he never felt better in his life. He enjoys golf and swimming and is as vigorous and cheerful as ever. He says his coronary thrombosis was an asset, not a liability, because it taught him how to enjoy life more than ever before.
The answer is obvious. It is life we enjoy, not a particular state of health.
Thomas Mann, one of our greatest modern writers, often took as a theme the idea that before man could truly appreciate life he had to experience a condition that brought him close to death. Many of Mann’s heroic figures were thrust into near-tragic situations so that they could thereafter speak authoritatively, with motivation, of the great miracle of life, the sheer joy of being alive.
It is this kind of joy that enabled my executive heart patient to snap back to his old cheerful self. A near-tragic situation taught him to make the most of his health as it was, not as it had been.
The point I want to make clear is this: you need not approach or experience severe illness to acquire the most prized possession of all – a sense of well-being. It is the aim of medical practice to help you attain a sense of well-being. Having a sense of well-being is having the best health in the world.
It is not in the dictionary.
I cannot give you a precise dictionary definition of “a sense of well-being.” It is purely a subjective reaction to your life. It cannot be measured by science or reproduced in the laboratory. When you have it, you know it, and your life takes on bounce and vigor and meaning. You want to make the most of every living moment. You enjoy everything about you-your friends, your family, your work, your hobbies. It is a feeling that equips you to accept responsibility and purpose in life, but not at the expense of a balanced sense of humor. It arms you with a defense for the ups and downs of life. Certainly, you will have your normal emotional reactions. You will feel compassion, outrage, resentment, love, and anger; you will react sadly to bad news. But none of these emotions will interfere with your enjoyment of life. Your sense of well-being will help make your life one rich experience after another.
In spite of themselves.
If good health alone provided a sense of well-being, then we should have nothing but pity for millions of the physically handicapped and chronically ill people. But don’t waste your pity. It has been my experience that some 25 to 50 per cent of all persons who possess good health do not enjoy life as much as many handicapped people do, simply because they lack a sense of well-being.
Essentially, good health means a body that is relatively free of disease and whose normal functions are not upset by emotional difficulties. Most of us are endowed at birth with good health. But as we grow older, we tend to lose much of our youthful vigor and spirit. We look back wistfully and say, “Ah, to be young again!” But youth and good health do not guarantee a sense of well-being.
Some people, in spite of having the very best of health, simply will not allow themselves to experience a sense of well-being. I recall, for instance, an elderly lady who had been blessed with excellent health all her life. Whenever I told her there was nothing wrong with her, she seemed to resent it. On one occasion, she became thoroughly annoyed with me when, having found her suffering a minor ailment, I refused to telephone one of her relatives and give a report that would have been sheer exaggeration of her illness. One of the few times I detected a note of cheer in her voice was when she telephoned to give me a great deal of bad news about herself.
This lady apparently enjoyed the sympathy of relatives and friends more than she appreciated her state of good health. She never did, and probably never could, have a sense of well-being.
Help yourself to cheer.
If we have the will to be cheerful and optimistic, even organic disease should not make a sense of well-being impossible. I do not mean that you have to walk around with a fixed grin as if your mouth were cast in marble. Nor do I mean that you have to go around patting people on the back, exclaiming, “cheer up!”
One of my middle-aged patients suffers from a severe case of arthritis. She gets about only with difficulty and considerable pain. Yet she carries out her daily routine and gives every appearance of enjoying a sense of well-being. She is invariably cheerful, but not an unbearable Pollyanna. She derives her good cheer through recognizing that her illness has placed certain limitations on her body and that she must live within those limitations. Because she does it so well, she has won nothing but admiration and respect from others. She knows sympathy cannot help her, and she doesn’t look for it. I don’t doubt that she has her moments of normal sadness but the sadness does not consume her. In due time she bounces back. Her sense of well-being is the best possible medicine. In the absence of a cure, I could prescribe nothing better.
Keep a fighting spirit.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Walter C. Alvarez, the eminent Mayo Clinic emeritus consultant in medicine, likes to tell the story of a patient whom he had first seen in 1912. The patient was then a young man so weak and frail that he felt he could not possibly live long or, if he did, would be unable to work. At that time, Dr. Alvarez told the young man that he had no hope of “making him over.”
Said Dr. Alvarez, “I thought the best thing he could do was to learn to live with what little strength he had. I asked him to hoard his energies and not to waste them. Then perhaps he might have enough strength with which to carry on and earn his living.”
Over the years, Dr. Alvarez’s patient had to undergo several operations which required the removal of certain organs. It was only recently that Dr. Alvarez saw the same patient again. He was now graying, still thin and weak looking, yet not the least bit disconsolate. The man who thought he would never be able to earn a living was proud that the company for which he worked was about to present him with a token of appreciation for having finished “forty years of faithful and devoted” service with them.
“The essential point,” said Dr. Alvarez, “is that this man never lay down and quit.” Certainly, this man was not physically in the best possible health. But he was able to live a full and fruitful life because he had learned to make the most of his abilities, and to ignore or minimize his disabilities.
Money can’t buy it.
There is no price tag on a sense of well-being. I know a number of wealthy people who enjoy all the comforts of life, good families, good health, and reasonably untroubled business affairs. Yet they just can’t seem to make the most of it. It seems as if the more they have, the more they lack. Their lives are without luster, without zest. Every minor discomfort becomes a portent of terrible illness. These people are not neurotics. They simply have not learned that they must rely on themselves to enjoy life. A sense of well-being cannot be delivered to them by chauffeured limousine.
I sometimes think some of us have become too urbane. A doctor or a friend advises us that we can’t buy a sense of well-being with money and the very triteness of the advice provokes a shudder. Hackneyed advice? Perhaps. But still true. Maybe the constant repetition of such advice gives it a feeling of staleness, of a locker room pep talk. But that does not alter its soundness. If you are to enjoy a sense of well-being, it is up to you.
We also need faith.
One of the most important ingredients in a sense of well-being is faith. We must have faith in something that is stronger, more lasting than any of us. We know that some things in life are inevitable, like the sure rising of the sun. If yon derive faith from your religion, then by all means put that faith to work for you. Let it become a vital part of your life.
I recall a professional man who was an agnostic. He neither criticized nor professed any particular religion. Whatever thoughts he held on religion, he kept strictly to himself. But it was obvious that he had never been inside a house of worship, except perhaps as a child. His health was fine, but he had difficulty sleeping; this deprived him of enjoying completely a sense of well-being. He was frequently fatigued and lacked zest for a more ample recreational and social life.
One day, for some unknown reason, he showed up at church. As the saying goes, he “got religion.” He did not become an evangelizer, but it was plain that he had decided there was something in life bigger and stronger and more permanent than himself. His personality remained unchanged, but not his sense of well-being. He became a new man in that he no longer complained about sleeplessness, and he pursued more recreational activities than ever before.
The responsibility is yours.
The doctor can only cure or ease pain and distress. He can prescribe surgery, drugs, diet, and psychiatric guidance. To be sure, he can provide the inspiration for hope and the assurance to help you face the problems of your health. But the one great goal that medical science hopes to achieve – a sense of well-being that will help you capitalize on every advance in medicine and on all the advice your doctor can give you – can only be attained through your own efforts.
One of the ironies of medical practice is the sight of very sick people, even terribly crippled people, coming and going from your office with a spirit that almost moves one to tears. These people may not have flawless health, but they certainly exemplify a sense of well-being. They usually make the most of medical advice.
Yet from time to time doctors will see patients who are perfectly capable of enjoying a wonderful sense of well-being except that they allow relatively minor physical discomforts to deprive them of the blessings of health. I have in mind a patient who was physically well, except that he insisted on overeating. Of course, he continued gaining weight, but he was thoroughly miserable after each meal.
He complained constantly of general sluggishness and lack of sleep. Unlike the caricature of the heavy-set man who is always jolly, he was invariably a pretty unhappy fellow. He was a man who had every reason in the world to enjoy a sense of well-being but could not. It took me a long time to convince him that there was nothing basically wrong with him, that he would be perfectly well and would enjoy life much more if he would simply learn to eat normally and not stuff himself with portions larger than he should consume. I also urged him to add a little exercise to his regimen. The results made him such a completely new person that now he promotes reducing with missionary zeal.
What we must recognise.
It would be splendid indeed if we could live all of our lives in perfect health. But that ideal is not, and never will be, a possibility. It is most important to recognize that changes in physical condition are inevitable, and we should acknowledge them, and live with them. If you achieve this understanding, you are well on your way toward making the most of medical advice and reaching the most priceless goal that medicine can ever offer – a sense of well-being.
It is in this light that you must consider and accept the principles that govern healthful living.
What to Remember About A Sense Of Well-Being
1. Know your limitations and enjoy life in spite of them.
2. Be cheerful and optimistic.
3. Don’t avoid normal emotional reactions.
4. Have faith in something stronger, more lasting than yourself.
5. Recognize that changes in health are inevitable, and that the best medical advice is designed to help you cultivate and maintain a sense of well-being.