‘A sound mind in a sound body’ is the translation of a line in a poem written by the Roman orator Juvenal when he was asked what is desirable in life. Juvenal was attempting to illustrate that health is not entirely physical. If you’re crazy, but physically healthy, you’re still sick.
Despite having made this revelation 1900 years ago, humans have largely ignored it in favor of an emphasis on conventional physical medicine. With chemical, biological and technological advances, we have tripled life expectancy in the past few centuries. We’ve vanquished smallpox, the largest single cause of human deaths, ever. We’ve created artificial limbs and internal organs, and are able to replicate human life in laboratories. We’ve done a lot. And, I’d venture to say that we’re still not a whole hell of a lot healthier than we were before we started all of this.
At first, this might seem counterintuitive. Let me explain why. In the past few hundred years, we have focussed primarily on the area of physical health, largely because 1) it’s the domain that we understand better and 2) it’s the one that yields faster results. As humans, if we understand it and it works fast, that’s going to be the area on which we focus our attentions and energies, because we love validation. But in focussing so much on physical health, we’ve done so at the expense of mental health.
Yes, we live far longer and with much more material comfort than at any point previously in human history. But I would make the argument that we are no discernibly happier. Granted, I don’t have a magical time machine with which I could just jump around different eras of history to check up on people and ask them if they’re happy with their life or not. However, one of the few universal truths about human nature is that it is nearly universally constant, and we have much more in common with our forbears than we know.
I think we’re about just as happy as we’ve ever been, and with all of the material and physical advances we’ve made, we should be a happier, more content, peaceful and overall satisfied people. When I started this posting, I was going to write about the shootings in Connecticut. Here’s a kid in an affluent family, with, by all accounts, loving and (more or less) involved parents. His surroundings were stable and conducive to growing up well. There was no physical reason as to why this should have happened. But it did, and with horrific results. If it’s not the physical environment, then it has to be a manifestation of under-treated mental illness. And to draw such a stark contrast between his physical health and mental health, and to still have this happen is about as clear as fate can be when trying to drive a point home with humans.
My point is this: we need to make more of an effort to balance the physical aspect of health with the mental aspect. We can live to be 95, but if the person is depressed the entire time, what’s the point? If we can overcome cancer in our seventies only to lose our spouse thereafter and feel no sense of belonging, connection or community, and then die ourselves, then what good are all of these technological advances doing for us?
I’m neither an expert in physical or mental health. And while I can’t describe what a comprehensive effort would look like, we would be fools not to seek out those answers. Perhaps we can look at some islands in Greece where, for whatever reason, people routinely live to be 100. Maybe we should start coming up with economic models to justify shifting resources into mental health, as those efforts may well pay for themselves many times over, as I would suspect. I can tell you that this should not be read as a missive instructing everyone to get on Lexapro and medicate themselves to ‘happiness.’ Substance abuse, chronic depression, relationship skills, early childhood care, basically, the art of being content and connected, all of these are areas in which we, as a society could be doing much, much better.
I know this much: a sound mind is at least as important as a sound body. I know this because we’ve focussed so much on the physical, and, frankly, I think that the results, while impressive by their own metrics, when it comes to happiness, then at least a major disappointment.