Balance in Life

In a very candid reflection on his the current state of medicine in our culture, Dr. Richard Swensen writes:

“Patients don’t know what to do or where to turn. They have no social supports, no roots, no community. Their stomachs won’t stop burning. They can’t sleep at night. They think about drastic solutions. The public blames the medical profession for giving too many tranquilizers and antidepressants. But what would you do? Doctors like to see healing as a result of their work. Yet today we often must be content with far less. There are so many things wrong with people’s lives that even our best is only a stopgap.”

In his book, “Margin,” Swensen seeks to pinpoint the underlying cause of Western medical problems, and to point toward some real solutions. His general thesis is that many have lost the “margin” in their lives to restore balance and that this “margin” must be regained if health is to result in the long-term.

Much of Swensen’s book points out the downsides of social progress. Although clearly we have progressed physically (e.g., in wealth and technology) and cognitively (e.g., in knowledge and information), people increasingly have suffered from increased pain in relationships (e.g., in family, friendships, neighborhood relationships, and civic involvement), emotional health (e.g., increased stress and less contentment), and spiritual connectedness (e.g., less time for prayer, meditation, and service to those in need). In many ways, then, the progress in the tangible has come at the expense of those aspects of life that tend to be the most meaningful and enjoyable. Although our bodies can defend against these changes for a time, after a while the stress leads to a critical burnout point, ultimately leading to chronic health problems relatively unique to this culture (e.g., heart disease).

There are many possible remedies to these problems, if only individuals would choose to implement some. These include:

1. Intentionally cultivate deep, interdependent relationships with people inside and outside your family.

2. Devote yourself every week to serving someone outside of your work.

3. Engage in specific practices that enhance gratitude such as prayer and keeping a gratitude journal in which you record 3-5 unique things every day for which you sincerely are thankful.

4. Say “no” to activities that aren’t necessary or meaningful.

5. Develop a healthy sleep pattern in which you follow a routine that allows 7.5-9 hours of sleep per night.

6. Engage in an enjoyable physical activity almost every day.

7. Follow Michael Pollon’s dietary advice: Eat “food,” not too much, mostly plants.

8. Eliminate time wasters, especially including excessive use of technology (e.g., television, video games, internet, and cell phone).

9. Save 10% and share 10% of your earnings.

10. Avoid debt (except for a mortgage).

11. Emphasize usefulness over trendiness in purchases.

12. Develop your prayer life.

13. Read more.

14. Be as self-sufficient in possible (e.g., in growing your own food, making your own clothes, and generally not relying on technology to “get things done”).

15. Practice the sabbath (one day per week in which you do not work or use technology but instead devote yourself to faith, relationships, fun, and rejuvenation).

If individuals could practice these lifestyle changes, Swenson believes, and I concur, physical and mental health problems would plummet in our culture, and much of the richness of a life well lived would return.


5 thoughts on “Balance in Life

  1. jason lee

    very good article! love reading your blog, keep up the good you have other friends on your blogroll who write on similar topics as you do? i.e. christianity and science/psychology

  2. Rick Rawson

    The basic ideas that Swensen includes in his book are not entirely unique to him. I have read most of the 15 points elsewhere from time to time. What I am wondering is whether or not there are historical data that support his (and others’) contentions that people in modern (American) society a) suffer more pain in relationships; b) experience increased stress and less contentment, and c) spend less time for prayer, meditation, and service than previous generations. The null hypothesis is that these indicators of the quality of the interior life are not significantly different than they always have been, since the beginning. There is support for the null hypothesis. The Bible, an ancient book itself, portrays people who were not all that good with relationships. The level of stress may be difficult judge from historical records, but my daughter, a missionary in rural Africa, tells me that lack of good health care is a significant stressor for people in her village. For most of human history, people have lived with that stress. My reading of centuries-old literature indicates that (c) may not be true, at all. (Read William Law’s “A serious call…”, for instance.) It seems that there is lots of scope for scholarly research on this topic, since it is arguable important and, taken seriously, could potentially result in profoundly altering our culture. (I will refrain from discussing the last claim, except to wonder about the economic impact of 300 million Americans ceasing consumption of beef and moving to a plant-based diet. The consequences would not be trivial. That’s why I have inflated the argument beyond changing one life (mine) to affecting an entire culture.)

    1. Andy Post author

      Thanks for this very thoughtful comment, Rick. I agree these ideas aren’t unique! Still, I think they’re important and countercultural.

      You raise an *excellent* question when you ask about historical data supporting contentions about increased problems in today’s society. In fact, Steven Pinker recently wrote a book about how violence is decreasing. See here for an overview:

      To your specific points. . . I’m not sure about pain in relationships, but Robert Putnam convincingly demonstrates lower participation in relationships since the 1960s in his book “Bowling Alone.” Obviously, the divorce rate has skyrocketed. I’m not sure about stress and contentment, but clearly the rate of mental illness in the United States is increasing, such that now approximately 50% of American adults are estimated to meet criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lives and the #1 prescribed medicine category is antidepressants. There probably isn’t much data to support the idea that people spend less time in prayer, meditation, or service. In fact, I would guess service is higher today (maybe because it looks good on a resume). However, there definitely is an increase in the number of people not affiliated with a religion.

      Thanks for reading and engaging me in these ideas.

      All my best,


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