Like it or not, we’re in this whole life thing together. Whether you admit this or deny it, the people who surround you influence you. Rugged individualists, angtsy teens shopping at Hot Topic and blasting Linkin Park out of headphones permanently affixed to their ears, and everyone else may think they’re blazing a completely unique path and forging their own destiny without external input, but everyone is a product of their environment. Our identities aren’t even created in a vacuum; they are formed based on what the people around us are doing and how they’re living. We are reactions to the actions, circumstances, and personalities of other people, particularly those to whom we’re most frequently exposed.
Why do we feel compelled to upgrade to a new car when new cars start showing up in our neighbors’ driveways?
Why do we go from feeling pretty darn content with our lives to feeling like losers just because we saw a Facebook post from an old classmate who’s backpacking through South America?
How do we suddenly become unhappy with our otherwise sufficient salaries once we hear what that guy over there makes in a year?
Why does the high school valedictorian often feel average once they get to college?
We’re constantly comparing ourselves to other people. Sizing them up. Sizing ourselves up (or down). That’s what we do. How we perceive others to be doing informs our perception of how we’re doing in life. So, if the people around us – or even the people we read about and see on TV and in movies – are good looking, rich, and charismatic, we might end up comparing our circumstances to theirs and feeling like failures if we don’t measure up.
No aspect of our lives is immune to this, not even our sense of physical health. In fact, I’d say that our ideas about our own health are profoundly informed by the health of people around us. Some of us can accurately gauge our health based on how we feel, look, and perform, but not all, or even most of us. Most of us (even the ones who say otherwise) determine our own healthfulness by comparing ourselves to others. We check out what the guy on the next bench over is lifting in the gym. We sneak a peek at what shirt size the other man or woman just returned to the rack to see how we compare. We smugly note that our officemates have all come down with the flu this season, while we’ve made it through unscathed.
And, by and large, we get it totally wrong when we try to estimate our own health. We think we’re healthier than we actually are, have less weight to lose than we actually should, and are more physically fit than the previous generations. America’s weight problem? That’s “everyone else.” “That’s not me”, you say. “I’ve got a few pounds to lose, sure, but I’m definitely better off than most everyone else.” No one is immune. Even overweight and obese kids are underestimating their weight. It’s like we have a rough idea of a weight constituting “overweight,” but because most people around us are hitting that weight, and because whatever most people do appears normal, we don’t realize it’s an issue.
That probably explains why obesity is contagious among friends and communities. If your peers are overweight or obese, you are more likely to be overweight or obese. You’re more likely to be overweight because overweight has become the norm. It may not be healthy, and you may intellectually “know” that it’s unhealthy, but if everyone around you is overweight and it’s just “how things are,” you’re more likely to fall into it.
Even seemingly objective health measurements taken by a doctor are subject to this community effect. They determine our health, as represented by objective blood markers and BMI readings and blood pressure measurements, by comparing our numbers to the numbers of rest of the population. That’s why when you get a lab result you have a reference range. The reference range purports to tell you whether you’re healthy (within range) or unhealthy (out of range, either too high or too low), but often, what it’s really doing is telling you how your numbers compare to everyone else’s numbers. They try to use only “healthy people” to determine the reference ranges, but each lab has a different range and uses a different sample population, and you can’t really be certain that the healthy people are actually healthy and thus have numbers worth pursuing. What is “healthy,” anyway, since we just established that a perception of health is subjective and susceptible to influence? The overworked stressed-out 35 year old manager, the skeletal 35 year old shuffling down the street in floppy running shorts, the fit 35 year old CrossFitter, the dumpy 35 year old dad of three – these people could be “healthy” enough to qualify for the test establishing the reference range for a given lab result.
With all that in mind, are you normal or are you just common? Just because something is common doesn’t make it normal. For humans in the United States and other developed nations, being overweight and on pills is common. For the human animal given access to sunlight, good food, regular movement, and a healthy happy community life, leanness and effortless metabolic health are normal. That’s the normal we should be aiming for, not the common state of health we see on a daily basis.
You may not be as healthy as you think you are. I think you can do better. Don’t compare yourself to the sick and the overweight. Don’t use them as your baseline measure of health. Instead, compare yourself to the normal human, who is not and should not be riddled with degenerative diseases, carrying 23 pounds of extra unwanted weight, nor filling a dozen prescriptions per year.
Are you eating well, are you just eating better than most people around you? It’s not that hard to do better than bastardized tacos made from Dorito shells, frozen french fries that you toss in the oven, iceberg lettuce salads, and Lean Cuisine. Doing better than that doesn’t mean you’re actually eating as healthily as you could.
Are you truly active enough, or are you just more active than the couch potatoes around you? It’s pretty easy to exercise more and walk more steps than people who’ll circle the parking lot for ten minutes searching for that perfect spot right next to the disabled parking.
Are you feeling less than awesome, even though your lab numbers are “within range”?
Are you living up to your incredible heritage as a human? Are you getting fresh air and some semblance of sunlight everyday? Are you moving frequently at a slow pace? Are you lifting heavy things? Do you have a community, a tribe, even a small but loyal one?
We’ve got a lot of hurdles standing in our path toward optimal health, hurdles that Grok never had to face. Though we’ve got modern medicine on our side, and the masterful mechanics of the human body known as surgeons are sure nice to have around, we’ve also got sedentary jobs, countless hours of passive entertainment at our fingertips, delicious industrialized food practically designed to disrupt our endocrine systems and override our satiety mechanisms, and an agricultural system that places profit over human, environmental, and animal health all working against us. And yet we can still be healthier than we are. We don’t have to settle for what we see around us.
Be honest when you answer these questions. You may very well be as healthy as you think you are and want to be – from what I can tell from Primal meetups and the emails I get, you all are a healthy bunch – but I think even many of us can do better.
Thanks for reading, folks. I’d love to get your thoughts. How do your surroundings affect your perception of your own health?