Sunday, May 17, 2009

Are We a Nation of Sybarites?

Before the new era of civic virtue can dawn we are going to have to pay for our past sins.

Intemperate self-indulgence has been doing us in. It has also imposed excessive burdens on our medical system. Now the system is awaiting its medicine in the form of universal health care.

We were not just living beyond our financial means. We were living beyond our physical means. We had become a nation of lotus-eating sybarites. Now we are going to have to pay the price for disrespecting our bodies.

All this to say that a considerable portion of the nation's gigantic health care bill goes to pay for illness that could have been prevented or attenuated by lifestyle choices.

The fault, as Daniel Akst wrote in the Wall Street Journal, lies in a failure of self-control. We have been seeking and finding a myriad of different pleasures and we do not care what effect this has on our health. An ethical failing has caused a health care crisis. Link here.

Here's a strange thought. What if we were enticed into bad behavior by the knowledge that the world's greatest medical system had our backs?

Television is overflowing with shows where physicians wage a heroic and mostly victorious struggle against the most awful illnesses. Have these shows, fictional and real, persuaded us that we can do as we please and not suffer the consequences?

When we no longer have to pay for health care directly, will that make us more or less likely to improve our lifestyles by practicing more self-control?

Truth be told, human longevity is not merely a function of great medical care. It is not just a story of doctors defeating diseases and saving lives.

Much of the credit for our healthier lives must go to sound policy, especially concerning good hygiene and better sanitation. Link here.

While we are waiting for the next generation of antibiotics to cure the worst infections, the best cure is not to get the disease. And the best way not to get the disease involves better hygiene. If doctors and nurses washed their hands more often there would be fewer transmissible infections.

But that involves self-control, too.

Everyone knows that we need healthier lifestyles. Some of it has taken hold. Witness the dramatic decrease in smoking over the past few decades.

And yet, we are still suffering inordinately and spending excessively to cure illnesses that could be prevented by good habits.

I would hypothesize that we do not adopt healthy habits because we do not believe in habits. We believe in spontaneity and enthusiasm. Many people think that running on a treadmill makes them feel like laboratory animals.

And I would also hypothesize that we do not value self-control because it requires work. A healthy lifestyle does not involve seeking the greatest amount of pleasure. It involves taking charge of your life; getting up, getting out, and getting moving.

Our culture values a healthy lifestyle; it looks askance at people who indulge bad habits in public. But it also is telling us that pleasure is the meaning of life, that we must go for the gusto, and that we have a human right to have fun.

And somehow the culture has taught us that healthy and pleasurable are at cross purposes. If you work out too much you will turn into a sexless automaton. And no one wants that.

Haven't we all learned that Puritans are killjoys and that sensual deprivation causes mental illness? And haven't we accepted that the Protestant work ethic is bad for our health?

While the culture is telling us to develop better habits, it is also telling us to shed that corporate uniform and to jump into a leisure suit. Isn't vacation where it's really at.

As it happens, this is a false dichotomy. Sybarites, voluptuaries and other practitioners of the hedonistic arts are not necessarily the happiest and best adjusted among us. Sometimes I think that they have become desensitized to the joys of life, and thus, have to work at experiencing pleasure.

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