Embrace the mystery

This week brings another wave of books, research reports and expert interviews about our crushing epidemic of lifestyle disease; another round of mind-numbing statistics of human bodies degenerating before our eyes, another call for action in the face of what is beginning to look like a global pandemic of misery. People are dropping like flies and it’s time to do something. It’s a familiar refrain. But our reflexive, knee-jerk response is also familiar and frankly, wildly ineffective. What we choose to do, time and time again, is cast our public health challenges as a set of biochemical and physiological puzzles to be solved, preferably with lots of data collection, calculation and computation. If we can find the causal links in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle afflictions, then we’ll have a solution. But in practice, this approach isn’t changing much of anything. What we really need is to stop solving puzzles and focus instead on exploring the mystery of modern human lifestyle.

This distinction between puzzles and mysteries is described in a powerful new book by Ian Leslie: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It As Leslie tells it, puzzles and mysteries have radically different characteristics. Puzzles are orderly and have definite answers; once we’ve solved a puzzle, we’ve reached the end of our inquiry and our curiosity. Mysteries, on the other hand, offer many possibilities for exploration and experience. They offer something richer and far more relevant to the messy reality of actually living in the world. Mysteries can’t be answered definitively; they keep us poised in ambiguity and force us to create our way forward. Mysteries offer us multiple paths to success.

Unfortunately, puzzles can be a major distraction in our quest to change the world. As isolated fragments of inquiry, they offer an illusion of understanding, but fail to connect with the larger whole. As Leslie puts it, “Puzzles offer us the satisfaction of answering a question even while you’re missing the point completely. A society or organization that thinks only in terms of puzzles is one that is too focused on the goals it has set, rather than on the possibilities it can’t yet see.”

Obviously, our computer-obsessed society has an overwhelming preference for puzzles. When faced by a challenge of any sort–whether it be public policy, economics, education or public health– we invariably cast it as a puzzle and go to work on it with all the computational power we can muster. The puzzle may be intricate and difficult, but given enough processing power, we can eventually find a solution. The solution may not translate into any kind of practical action on the ground, but it puts our uncertainty to rest and gives us a sense of satisfaction.

This is precisely what we’re seeing in today’s approach to lifestyle disease. When we cast obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndromes as physiological puzzles, we invariably wind up with simplistic, dead-end explanations: The culprit is high-fructose corn syrup. It’s trans-fats. It’s sedentary living. It’s stress. End of puzzle, end of inquiry. The puzzles may be solved, but the larger problems remain.

A superior approach would be to view human life in its entirety as an ambiguous, uncertain mystery. When we adopt this perspective, we open our minds to a broader range of possibility and action. We honor the fact that our lives are far more subtle and complex than any puzzle. We recognize the complexity of overlapping influences, individual differences, daily judgment calls and mind-body complications. And most importantly, we honor the fact that there are many ways to live a healthy life.

And besides, we’ve already solved the primary puzzles of lifestyle disease and public health. We know what we need to know: more exercise, fewer refined carbs, more sleep, less stress, more authentic social experience, less screen time, more contact with nature and a greater sense of purpose will prevent and even heal most of what ails us. More research into the puzzles of physiology isn't likely reveal any big surprises; it’s not as if we’re suddenly going to discover that exercise and real food are bad for health. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves in the mystery of what it means to create a healthy life.

This distinction suggests an entirely new direction. Puzzles call for experts and technicians, but mysteries call for artists, guides, teachers and leaders. Yes, scientific inquiry is powerful, fascinating and essential in its own way, but in the world of public health, our compulsive focus on research puzzles is starting to look like analyzing the deck chairs on the Titanic; we may well know everything there is to know about the atomic structure of the chairs themselves, but what about the rest of our voyage?

Likewise, it’s time to dust off the humanities and bring them back into play. Remember the humanities? Those messy, ambiguous, passionate explorations of human life? This is where the real transformative power lies. People aren’t moved by information or statistics. They’re moved by narrative, imagination, purpose and aesthetics.

So please, save your data and your methodology for the journals. Instead, give us your stories, your actions, your leadership and most of all, your life. Focusing on the mystery of human lifestyle may not give us single right answers, but it may well give us something we can live and thrive with.