MASSACHUSETTS, June 11, 2013 — If you live in Japan you are 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 is 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. The U.S. spends 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 is a combination of factors, but that is about as certain as it gets.
What do the Japanese credit their health care practices and lifestyles to that hints to what is 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.
There was a surprising common response, however.
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 is the big deal?
It may be this. By contrast, the rest of us struggle to think of health as normal.
Sound minds and bodies are not spoken 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 are 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 in Japan brought up the point that spiritual pursuits were a normal part of their otherwise busy lives, and should not be marginalized as a contributing factor. One person 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 were not captivated by a disease model of life. Instead, they quite naturally embraced health and spirituality and seemed at peace about it all.
The question is how much that group’s viewpoint is typical of Japanese society. However, what is 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 are not. Far from it.
So, their secret? It is not one, really. A healthy state of mind is not only good for mind and body, it should be normal for both.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
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