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“Doc, there’s more to life than health.” The simple statement put the doctor back on his heels; he’d never really looked at things quite this way. He’d been giving his patient the standard boilerplate advice to lose weight, get more exercise, eat more vegetables and all the rest. But the patient had heard it all before and in his mind, there were more pressing concerns to be addressed. For his part, the doctor was momentarily speechless; as a physician, he was accustomed to thinking that health was in fact the prime objective of human life and it was his job to make it happen. But now, his efforts seemed to pale in comparison with larger issues of human experience.

This event was reported in the letters section of The New England Journal of Medicine, a forum where physicians can address medical issues of the day. In this case, the subject for conversation was The Tyranny of Health by Michael Fitzpatrick who argues that the explosion of health and wellness propaganda is having an unhealthy effect on all of us. Doctors and other health professionals are increasingly telling people how to live every detail of their lives, a process that might well backfire and promote the very behavior that health advocates are trying to prevent.

So the question looms: Is there more to life than health? Some of us will be brought up short by this suggestion. We are so passionate about creating and preserving health, we tend to put it first and foremost on our list of life’s necessities. But in fact, there is more, much more. A quick overview of human history proves the point: Over the last several millennia, millions of people have given their very lives for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes incrementally, we give our lives for our families, our communities, our countries, our land. We also give our lives away for principles such as justice, human rights, truth and of course, religious belief. So obviously, there is more to life than health. We prove this point all the time.

This is where the health industry needs to pause and reflect. In our enthusiasm, we tend to think of health as the ultimate quest and pour our resources into making ever more of it. Exercise produces vitality and a psychophysical surplus. We can spend this surplus however we choose, but health fanatics simply recycle it back into their own personal welfare. We get fit, then use that fitness to produce more fitness, more muscle and more athletic excellence. We spend our surplus on ourselves.

This works in a sense, but it also tends to obscure a larger sense of life and meaning. By exclusively feeding our health gains back into our own lives, we shrink our awareness and our potential.  And in the process we triage out a lot of other stuff that makes life interesting and meaningful. In the extreme, this process simply turns us into narcissists.

This is the shadow side of health and to be honest, it’s not healthy. Health and fitness can only take one so far. At some point we need to give our obsession a rest and move on to larger meanings. Everyone knows that exercise and a good diet will make us stronger; it’s what we do with that strength that counts.