The Healthiest People On Earth: What's Their Secret?
Everyday conversations can be telling
Posted February 6, 2013
If you live in Japan you're probably feeling pretty good. The quality of health there is ranked number one in the world according to a decades-long study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If you live in the U.S. it's a different story, and not one to feel good about.
America's health score ranks close to the bottom. Where the nation soars to the top is in money spent on health care—billions of dollars more than any other country.
Readers of the global study will naturally want to know the secret of Japan's success. The spoiler is that no one knows exactly. Some experts go as far as to say that it's a combination of factors, but that's about as certain as it gets.
Being someone who's interested in health care trends throughout the world I wanted to learn more myself, so I decided to take my own informal survey.
While in Tokyo on business recently I asked several Japanese acquaintances about their health care practices and lifestyles to see if I could get some hint as to what's behind the extraordinary ranking.
With one exception their responses were all over the map. They credited everything from strict dietary practices, to the safety net people feel having strong family and social support in their lives, to being part of a culture that stays close to tradition and is selective about what it accepts of Western values and medicine.
But there was a common response that took me by surprise.
They were all quite matter of fact about the superior health ranking. It was puzzling to them that such a routine lifestyle as theirs would be viewed by anyone as extraordinary. The consensus was that good health is normal, not exceptional, so what's the big deal?
It may be this: that by contrast the rest of us struggle to think of health as normal.
Sound minds and bodies aren't talked about a lot in the U.S. One reason is the medicalization of society, according to Dr. Arthur J. Barsky, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In his book 'Worried Sick' he says: "We seem unable to enjoy our good health, to translate it into feelings of well-being and physical security. Rather, there is a sense of disease in the air."
If all the talk about ailments, being at risk, fear and danger were just that -- talk -- it might be stretching it to say this is a serious matter. The fact is that excessive fear and a preoccupation with ill health is not inconsequential. Chronic worrying is unhealthy.
What we're seeing today in the U.S. is a pervasive pattern of shorter lives and poorer health, reports a panel of experts convened by The National Research Council. That pattern is not what anyone wants to call normal, but are we starting to think that it is?
Some of my acquaintances in Japan brought up the point that spiritual pursuits were a normal part of their otherwise busy lives, and shouldn't be marginalized as a contributing factor. One person I spoke with was the CEO of an international company, another was a strategic planner, and another was an active mom. Their schedules were full, but they said they routinely devoted part of their day to prayer and spiritual study. They strived to be kind and forgiving, calm and patient. One woman spoke candidly about rebelling against the fear of illness and how the symptoms of illness had quickly diminished and her health was restored as a result.
To someone listening in who lives in the U.S., the conversation with this group might have been noteworthy more for what was missing than for what was said. They weren't captivated by a disease model of life. Instead, they quite naturally embraced health and spirituality and seemed at peace about it all.
Just how much that group's viewpoint is typical of Japanese society I can't say. What I saw happening in their lives suggests that it feels good to live a life free from an ailment-and-anxiety state of mind, as if ailments and anxiety were unavoidable mindsets. Take it from them, they're not. Far from it.
So, their secret? It's not one, really. A healthy state of mind is not only good for mind and body, it should be normal for both.