The components of physical health are rather straightforward: balanced lifestyle, proper and timely treatment of illnesses, as well as prevention of complications. Diet and exercise have been advocated for as long as we can remember. Genetics also play a crucial role, and while largely beyond our control, early detection of disease is important, so that complications may be anticipated.
The importance of mental health has come to light in recent years. Factors that shape and contribute to issues of the psyche include not just biological factors (e.g., brain chemistry or family history), but also life experiences and an individual’s unique capacity to cope. With the pandemic upon us, most are not spared from the anxiety/fear of getting infected and passing it on to loved ones, limitations in recreation and/or occupational activities, and feelings of isolation. Aside from this shared worldwide trauma, there is a myriad of other sources of stress, as this can be anything that is outside our usual routine. In fact, even seemingly positive events like winning the lottery or giving birth to a healthy baby may rack up more stress points than getting sick.
Humans are, by our very nature, social beings. To be socially healthy is to feel a sense of belonging and concern for others, and having the ability to create and maintain relationships with friends and/or family. Even introverts have at least one person they feel a connection with, or at least a yearning for interaction. While our world situation has made it increasingly difficult to physically be with our usual circle, technology has now caught up, bridging the distance and traversing time zones. Social media provides several platforms to cater to entertainment and networking for all ages, but beware of the paradox of being connected yet feeling “dissociated,” if social media becomes prioritized over real interactions that nourish our growth.
An oft-neglected fourth pillar of health is financial wellbeing. This does not necessarily mean working to become filthy rich, but rather having financial security for the future. While the old adage “money can’t buy true happiness” resonates with many, being able to control our day-to-day finances and having the capacity to absorb financial shock are goals we would be smart to work on as early as we can, while we can. At the very least, having enough for long-term needs can give us peace of mind. With the high cost of critical illness treatment, it is essential that we are financially prepared to ease the burden on our family and friends, and facilitate faster healing and recovery.
And now I ask, if you were made to choose between happiness or health, what would you choose? Whatever your answer is, it’s good to know that happiness researcher Robert Holden conducted a survey that found “65 out of 100 people would choose happiness over health, but that both were highly valued.” Fortunately, we don’t have to choose; happiness and health go hand-in-hand.[i] As Holden reiterates, “There is no true health without happiness.” Studies have concluded that positive emotions and mental states were associated with healthier hearts, with less likelihood of suffering from cardiovascular disease and stroke.[ii], [iii] There is also ample evidence that show emotions being intimately involved in the beginnings and progression of diseases like cancer, HIV, and even autoimmune disorders. Unhappiness, depression, anxiety, and stress are all linked to poorer health outcomes. Striving to be positive and joyful can improve our immune response to help us handle infections better. Conversely, prolonged negative states can dampen immunity and increase inflammation in the body, which can trigger the aforementioned diseases.[iv]
So how do we work on attaining a joyful, total wellbeing?
First, we can start viewing exercise not as a chore and start learning how to incorporate it into our daily grind. For example, even when we are seated and stuck in an online meeting or tuned in to our current Netflix binge, we can perform these activities just for one minute: arm and leg movements, repetitive standing up and sitting down (this is already modified squats!); or core exercises with mini-sit-ups. Doing these every hour, even for just one minute, can already increase your calorie burn, metabolism, muscle tone and strength, and endorphin levels for a natural boost of contentment.
Second, I encourage you to take this time to reach out to a loved one or a friend, especially if you think they might be feeling isolated or lonely. We’ll never know when we will need to be at the receiving end of comfort, so maintaining relationships through these trying times can help ensure we will still have our tribe when things get better.
Third, while we strive to be entertained and connected through social media, bear in mind that perfection is often curated and unrealistic in perhaps 99% of the world’s population. So try not to be influenced into believing that you are anything less. Some of the measures I take to preserve my sanity include setting an alarm when I browse social media (so I don’t go overboard and find myself wide awake at 3 A.M. staring at mukbang videos that aggravate my hyperacidity), and only following accounts of people I personally know, or whose posts either *spark joy*, inspire me, or provide useful information.
And yes, you don’t always have to add to cart. Let’s remember the usually least prioritized pillar of health—financial security. What I usually do is I let my cart sit for a while, and if I still really want the items after a few days, then I know I’m not just caught up with unsettling FOMO. Prioritize meeting needs over acquiring wants, and you can start speaking with a trusted financial adviser in order to meet these goals.
Total wellbeing is a work in progress, and deciding to be in a state of joy is an exercise we must strive to do as often as we possibly can. Stick post-its on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself of things that you are thankful for. Take comfort in the fact that you don’t have to get everything right the first time around. Don’t be ashamed to seek professional psychiatric help if needed. We’d like to add life to the years, rather than the opposite, and taking care of our total wellbeing will help us live our best life.
[i] Holden, R. Be happy: release the power of happiness in you. Hay House Publications, 2009.
[ii] Boehm JK, et al., Prev Med. 2020 Jul;136:106103. Epub 2020 Apr 26
[iii] Boehm JK, Kubzansky. Psychol Bull. 2012 Jul;138(4):655-91. Epub 2012 Apr 16.
[iv] Barak Y. Autoimmun Rev. 2006 Oct;5(8):523-7. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2006.02.010. Epub 2006 Mar 21.