• Editor, The Gray Sparrow

Self-Reliance is Health

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

The notion of self-reliance often conjures up romantic images of sturdy cowboys bringing in the herd before sundown, or of a Midwestern farmer putting home-grown food on the table after a long day in the field. The part these characters still play in the American ethos and our collective imagination is revealing; it hints to a secret wish many of us urbanites and suburbanites subconsciously harbor.

Presumably, it is not so much the toiling in the sun that we find so inspiring, as the independence that these characters still emblemize in our culture, and the simplicity that we associate with their lifestyle. Somehow, in our mind’s eye, we also imagine them living far healthier and happier lives than our own.

Here’s something to consider. It turns out we really don’t need that much to live a healthy and happy life. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, tracking the lives of several hundred men over the course of nearly 80 years, has found that the strongest long-term predictor of an individual’s happiness (as well as health and longevity) is the self-reported level of satisfaction in his or her relationships[1]. Socio-economic status, (so-called) career success, IQ and even genetics were far weaker predictors, almost negligible in their cumulative impact on our happiness in comparison to the depth and quality of our connections with spouses, extended family, friends, and the local community.

Meanwhile, mainstream medicine has come to recognize that anxiety and depression are “as predictive of poor physical health as obesity and smoking are,”[2] taking a considerable toll on the overall health and happiness of most Americans at the turn of the century. By proxy, all life endeavors typically associated with high levels of stress and anxiety – a demanding career, chasing material success, etc. – can and should be regarded as downright harmful to our physical and mental health.

Without question, material wealth and the comforts it affords us can greatly boost the quality of our lives. The problem is that we often entirely ignore the price we must pay in order to achieve it in the first place. The time, energy, and peace of mind we sacrifice to meet the expectations of bosses, colleagues, customers, quarterly reports – all detract directly from our mental health current-account balance. Being emotionally and materially dependent on the nod of others is one of the biggest sources of stress in the modern economy.

In the final arithmetic, when we conduct a simple cost-benefit analysis weighing the pleasure added to our lives by achieving some of the better comforts that modern living has to offer, against the stress, anxiety and headache entailed in attaining those comforts – we discover how far off-balance many of our lives have become in the trade-off between wealth and health. We have put the cart before the horse, sacrificing our sanity and happiness for the sake of far more wealth than we actually need in order to be healthy and happy.

Presuming the ultimate goal for the vast majority of us is to live long and happy lives, this should be a heck of a relief. The truth is that the level of material wealth we need to live well is far lower than what we have come to demand of ourselves; in a future blog, we will discuss why a $50k combined annual income is more than sufficient for the average American household to thrive.

[1] The Harvard Gazette, The Harvard Study of Adult Development https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/ [2] Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network, Depression, Anxiety Powerful Predictors of Poor Health https://www.psychcongress.com/article/depression-anxiety-powerful-predictors-poor-health

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