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.