A New Way Of Seeing: Health Is A Resource, Not A Problem
Part 1 of the Radical Concepts in Health series
by Joyce Young, MD, MPH
Managing Director, Advanced Wellness Systems
First thoughts—a challenge
Let’s begin with a quick challenge.
Before you read any further, get a notepad and a pen.
Draw a circle in the middle of a blank note.
Write the word “health” inside the circle. Stare at it a moment.
Now, somewhere near that “health” you circled, quickly write the first 5–7 words that come to mind.
Your first thoughts are the best thoughts for this challenge. Make a list, draw lines between the words to make connections, or do whatever works for you.
When you’re done, set your note aside and read on. We’ll return to what you wrote in just a bit. Right now, we’re going to take a little trip back through time to when Bacon, Galileo, and Newton were alive and when the first newspaper, calculator, and telescope were introduced, along with many other scientific inventions and discoveries that influenced the way people see health.
An old way of seeing health
Why is it so hard for people to think of health as anything other than a problem or a liability? So many still view the human body as a machine—a 17th century concept.
Our dominant, disease-focused view has been attributed to “the world view and value system that lie at the basis of the modern industrial age.”(1) This paradigm focuses on schools of thought where scientific conclusions are drawn only from studying material bodies that can be measured and quantified. For example, we can find the metaphor of the world as a machine in the writings of scientist Francis Bacon between 1500 and 1700, early in the Scientific Revolution.
Rene Descartes put forth a new system of thought based on the certainty of scientific knowledge that everything in the world can be described by explaining how its parts move and work. Descartes extended this mechanistic view of matter to living organisms and explained how the motions and various biologic functions of the body could be reduced to mechanical operations.
Cartesian reductionism implies that one should be able to understand all aspects of complex structures—including plants, animals, and the human body—by reducing them to their smallest constituent parts. Like machines, the human body is expected to break down and decay over time rather than self-regulate, self-regenerate, and self-renew as quantum systems are inclined to do.
Historically, the well-functioning human body received little study or attention; however, the investigation and treatment of the malfunctioning human body—the body as a machine—became more and more prominent as techniques and methods of scientific inquiry and solutions advanced.
A specific example of the limits of the mechanistic approach can be found in Dr. Jason Fung’s afterword of The Diabetes Code. Dr. Fung writes, “After treating thousands of patients over decades, it gradually dawned on me that none of these diabetes medications actually made any real difference to the health of patients. Whether these patients took their medications or not, they still progressed to more and more severe forms of disease. Clinical trial evidence finally caught up with real-world experience in 2008. That year, the results of the landmark randomized ACCORD and ADVANCE studies were released, followed shortly by the ORIGIN and VADT studies. Confirming perfectly my experience treating patients, the studies proved conclusively that using blood glucose lowering medications for type 2 diabetes was useless.”(2)
As physicist Fritjof Capra and chemist Pier Luigi Luisi explain in their 2014 textbook, The Systems View of Life, “...twentieth century science has shown very clearly that there can be no absolute scientific truth, that all our concepts and theories are necessarily limited and approximate.”(3)
Stuck in the past—three thought-shapers
Despite new science and growing awareness about the dynamic nature of quantum and living systems, our thinking about health hasn’t changed much. After 300 years, the disease- and decline-focused view of health is stronger than ever. We can see evidence of this outdated way of thinking in three key areas:
Media and advertising
All three reinforce the reductionistic, disease-focused view.
Health reporting at the local and national level is heavily weighted on disease status and risks for disease. Consider, for example, the US Centers for Disease Control’s well-known Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Known as “the voice of CDC,” MMWR is billed as “the agency’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective, and useful public health information and recommendations.”(4) While reporting on these topics is obviously important, it would also be useful to have equally visible, equally well-promoted, equally authoritative regular reports that tell us the status of our national health and well-being.
Growth in media promotion of health as disease delivers an enduring reinforcement of this old conceptual framework. A notable example can be seen in the 330% increase of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs between 1996 and 2005.(5)
Our personal perceptions also tend to follow this mechanical, problem-focused line of thinking. Our concept of health moves through a cycle of disease preoccupation that consists of: 1. Pre-disease, 2. Possible disease and diagnosis, 3. Treatment, 4. Post treatment / pre-disease.
With age, the expectation is that this cycle will repeat itself more often each year. More concerning is that we approach children’s health—historically a time of low disease occurrence—with the same mindset.
This cycle of disease preoccupation is all around us, especially in standard health-related messaging.
See for yourself
Here’s another challenge: Over the next three days, take note of everything you see about health. “Stories” about health are everywhere. Look for messages in videos, billboards, posters, emails, bumper stickers, break rooms, the gym, films, and so on. Also look inside any health-related news, advertisements, and messaging you receive. Keep a tally, and sort everything you find. Does its underlying story portray health as a resource or a problem?
Between November 16 and 19, 2018, here’s how my experience looked: I noted stories in the local newspaper, ads on television, and posts on social media feeds. Approximately 2% of these stories portrayed health as a resource and, for the remaining 98%, health was portrayed as disease.
Let’s return to the first thoughts you jotted down about “health.” Which words did you associate with it? What percent portray health as a resource?
Most people’s perceptions of health tend to skew toward problems.
Meanwhile, the view of health as a resource—a means to high personal capability, adaptability, and performance—is embryonic.
But health isn’t inherently a problem. The outdated way we view health is.
The way we see health shapes our confidence about it
Our beliefs about health influence our confidence about it. Clifton Meador’s description of personal perceptions of health sums up our current, collective mindset:
“Nothing has changed so much in the health-care system over the past 25 years as the public’s perception of its own health. The change amounts to a loss of confidence in the human form. The general belief these days seems to be that the body is fundamentally flawed, subject to disintegration at any moment, always on the verge of mortal disease, always in need of continual monitoring and support by health-care professionals.”(6)
Actually, health begins in the mind. Research reveals that people tend to hold one of two mindsets—one where they believe that their abilities are fixed and another where they believe their abilities can be developed. Fixed mindsets limit people. Growth mindsets fuel learning, progress, and success.(7)
Growth mindsets can apply to health. A high health mindset is one that recognizes we can develop abilities that enhance our own health and well-being, just like building a muscle. Building that muscle also builds confidence.
But first, we must see health in a new way.
Reality check: Humans are living systems, not machines
We must shift our thinking from viewing the human body as a machine that breaks down to one that sees the body as a living system with the ability to self-regulate, self-regenerate, and self-renew.(8) Knowledge exists as to how to accomplish this.
Health is not a static state of well-being but a multidimensional process in dynamic balance with our natural and social environments. This process includes temporary phases of imbalance and ill health as well as the human body’s innate tendency to re-balance and recover.(9)
The ecosystem of the human body is multidimensional. The dimensions include physical, mental, emotional, and purpose/life direction. Disturbances in any dimension affect all other dimensions. The body’s ecosystem has patterns but is not predictable. Capra and Luisi address this in their recent textbook, The Systems View of Life: “According to the systems view, an organism, or living system, is an integrated whole whose essential properties cannot be reduced to those of its parts. They arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts.”(10)
Health as a resource—not a new idea!
These ideas are not entirely new. Since 1946, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been saying that we must see health as a resource. They have exhorted health professionals to help their communities achieve a state of health that is of “complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”(11)
The next frontier of health investment will require shifting from a predominant focus on health as a state of illness to health as a state of high capacity and overall well-being. On November 21, 1986 the WHO held the First International Conference on Health Promotion during which the The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion was presented. The Charter began by defining health promotion as:
“…the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. To reach a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, an individual or group must be able to identify and to realize aspirations, to satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment. Health is, therefore, seen as a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities. Therefore, health promotion is not just the responsibility of the health sector, but goes beyond healthy life-styles to well-being.”(12)
Other scientists have acknowledged the limitations of viewing the human body as a machine(13) and have highlighted the value of measuring and promoting a multidimensional state of complete health and well-being. Compelling data emphasize the potential value of measuring health as more than a state of illness and for pursuing a multidimensional state of health that captures both physical and psychological well-being as a primary goal of health enhancement efforts.(14, 15)
The late pioneering public health leader Lester Breslow, MD, spent the last 30 years of his 60-year career promoting the adoption of a new and positive concept of health. In an interview for the American Journal for Public Health, Breslow noted:
“...we have progressed so far now as to envision moving towards seeking well-being....building health in this sense constitutes the third revolution in health….
The notion of health as a ‘resource for everyday life’ is appealing, perhaps mainly because it fits with the way individuals increasingly are thinking about their personal health. Of course they want to be free of disease, but more and more they desire something beyond that; the Ottawa Charter definition seems well adapted to express their aspirations. It implies a capability to do what one wants to do in life: Whether climbing a mountain, attending an opera, or playing cards, all require some resource (health) for the activity. Another dimension of this positive health concept consists of the capacity for resisting any forces that would constrain those competencies. Health thus betokens not only the ability to do the things one wants to do in everyday life but also the reserves to maintain that ability.”(16)
Breslow continued this line of thinking in an article for the Annual Review of Public Health, where he wrote: “The current situation now calls for a third health revolution on the basis of a view of health as a ‘resource for every day life,’ ‘not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.’”(17)
Choosing high health
The prevailing myth is that the body is a machine and health comes from externals.
Despite our long-term fixations on these externals, staggering financial expenditures, and unending calls for change in the medical industry, our current approach to health will never lead to high health and high well-being. Thinking about health from a mechanistic point of view limits our ability to even see health as a state of high functioning and capacity.
Is there any hope? I believe there is.
The truth is that real health comes from within. Cultivating it requires three things.
First, we have to see health anew. We must adopt a new vision of personal health characterized by high levels of energy, stamina, mental focus, and emotional well-being as well as an absence of common illnesses. Together these characteristics produce a state of high well-being and high personal capacity that allows people to engage in pursuits that matter most to them.
Second, we must understand that human bodies are dynamic, complex living systems. Accordingly, attaining high health and well-being requires a systems-based approach that optimizes and integrates all of life’s dimensions required for dynamic balance, stability, and flexibility.
Third, we must embrace new high health practices that work well with dynamic, living systems. Typical well-being technologies have not evolved to keep pace with this new way of seeing health. We still focus almost exclusively on diet and fitness. New apps and devices may be useful, but they don’t upend this standard, compartmentalized approach. Instead we must go beyond diet and fitness to build all the essential skills needed in a demanding, rapidly changing world. High health and high well-being arise when people engage in practices that optimize their physical, mental, emotional, purpose and life direction dimensions.
Essential skills for real health today
In recent years, much research and progress has been made to develop effective methods and techniques for achieving the dynamic balance, stability, and flexibility required to prosper in our present milieu of constant change, disruptive economies, and escalating societal demands.
A new way of seeing health
Finally, it’s time to see health as a resource and take action to strengthen it.
We value, protect, and cultivate what we identify as a resource. When we view health as a resource, we have more drive to protect and enrich it.
People need to be able to stand on their own feet and make their own decisions. Self reliance and personal health empowerment are desperately needed in today’s world.
The good news is that anyone can strengthen personal health and well-being by practicing effective, science-based methods. These states of high capacity and optimal functioning lead to personal and professional success for individuals as well as a competitive edge for businesses in today’s world.
The most powerful thing we can do to improve health is to change our concept of what is possible. Combined with adopting a systems-based approach as well as effective techniques for realizing high health, we can look forward to breaking free of the vicious cycle of disease preoccupation and realizing the empowerment and freedom that health as a resource delivers.
Marcel Proust says it best when he writes: “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.”
Joyce M. Young, MD, MPH
Managing Director, Advanced Wellness Systems
Lead expert for the High Health Network
Dr. Young is a curator of innovative practices for vibrant living and a champion of high health, well-being, and the pursuit of mastery. She founded Advanced Wellness Systems to provide effective, science-based solutions to high-health leaders seeking greater health and well-being for their teams. Dr. Young is board certified in General Preventive Medicine and Public Health and is the author of numerous peer-reviewed publications on wellness program design and outcomes. She holds an MD from Cornell University Medical College, an MPH from Harvard University School of Public Health, and completed post-graduate training at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. A voracious reader, she also loves to laugh, run, practice piano, garden, brew kombucha, and enjoy delicious home-cooked meals.
1, 3, 8, 9, 10, 13 Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
2 Fung, J. (2018). The Diabetes Code. Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books.
5 Mackey et al. (2015). The rise of digital direct-to-consumer advertising?: Comparison of direct-to-consumer advertising expenditure trends from publicly available data sources and global policy implications. BMC Health Services Research, 15:236 DOI 10.1186/s12913-015-0885-1.
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11 World Health Organization [WHO] (1946). Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/about/mission/en/.
14 Keyes C. L. M. & Grzywacz J. G. (2002). Complete Health: Prevalence and Predictors Among U.S. Adults in 1995. American Journal of Health Promotion, 17(2):122-131. doi:10.4278/0890-1171-17.2.122.
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17 Breslow, L. (2004). The Third Revolution in Health, Annual Review of Public Health, Vol. 25:- (Volume publication date 21 April 2004). Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.pu.25.022604.100011.
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