During a recent holiday visit to an East Coast city, my daughter observed the high percentage of cigarette smokers along the city streets, whose sidewalks were heavily littered with their cigarette butts.
It left me wondering why, after years of credible information about the adverse health effects of tobacco products, more than 1 in 5 adults still regularly use them?
Clearer still to my eyes were the high percentage of young people who have switched to, or in some instances added, so-called “vaping” devices (with likely no less bad health effects) to their nicotine habit? Perhaps we are a species constantly in search of a new mind-altering, habit-forming and health-harming substance on which to spend our hard-earned money.
To wit, it seems there are marijuana shops opening up in every Colorado neighborhood these days. As a physician, it makes me want to point out that just because something is legal doesn’t make it good for you.
The root of unhealthy behaviors is not far from the root of all bad decisions. As a health professional, this gives me pause. I know that the prevailing health challenges facing our nation, and indeed our world, in the 21st century are chronic diseases linked to lifestyle choices. The future of human health, like our environment, our economy and our character, will depend on the factors that influence our decisions.
Taking a cue from the field of behavioral economics (of which I profess to know little), I am persuaded that the quality of decisions we make about our physical and mental well-being will be affected by the balance between our “automatic” choices, influenced by our desires and biases, and our “reasoned” judgments, influenced by our logic and self-control.
What does this potentially mean for the average person, regardless of baseline, in pursuit of their own best personal health outcome?
I believe that you cannot take your health for granted. Particularly in our culture and environment where we are too easily manipulated into choosing instant gratification, you cannot rely on your desires and intuition to achieve your own personal best health outcome. Rather, each of us must undertake to tip the balance in favor of better health through better decisions, occurring one by one, every day.
This is challenging because it requires effort. Yet, like all other human behaviors, those which are practiced become habit. The choice is ours to pursue behaviors linked to chronic disease or instead to practice those linked to what I will call “chronic health.”
The beauty of “chronic health” for most people is that it is a journey, or for some, even a sort of redemption story. Like a journey, the next choice you make can be your first step toward a healthier life. Like a redemption story, an insight into your own health choices can lead to fundamental change that leads to a new, healthier you.
From my experience as a health professional, the most useful tools for this journey to better health are knowledge (about what healthy behaviors are), judgment (to overcome flawed intuition and emotionally driven biases) and willpower (to enforce the decisions you make based on knowledge and good judgment).
To each of you, I wish a healthy New Year.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.