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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Health and happiness: Can the U.S. catch up?

It’s a story you’ve heard many times before — the United States, the world’s richest country, doesn’t even make the top 10 when it comes to the two most important measures available: health and happiness. Depending on your source, sometimes the U.S. doesn’t even crack the top 50. Is it possible for us to find our way into the top 5 in the near future? While I’d love for it to happen, I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.

The problem is that health and happiness aren’t determined by wealth and medical expertise (two areas where the U.S. excels). Rather, it really comes down to culture, philosophies, and ways of life — things that are deeply ingrained and difficult to change. Let’s take a look at a couple areas where the leaders have an advantage, and explore what we’d have to do to catch up.

We’ve stated repeatedly how important movement is to health, both in the form of structured exercise and non-exercise activity. I’d argue that the U.S. does fairly well when it comes to the former, but I’d also argue that the latter is more important. While it’s great that more Americans are going for runs or lifting weights, I simply don’t think this can overcome the amount of sitting we do — at a desk, in traffic, in front of the TV.

Contrast this to places like the Netherlands, where there are as many bikes as there are people, or Japan, where people average more than 6000 steps/day. In these places, physical activity isn’t a choice, it’s a part of life. Infrastructure and public transportation in the United States simply doesn’t support biking or walking for the majority of the population. We’ve chosen the way of the car, and turning back now is a daunting task (though some cities are giving it a go).

On the dietary side of things, we all know that the Standard American Diet (SAD) isn’t doing us any favors. What’s more interesting to me is what’s working for other countries in the nutrition arena. Health and happiness hotspots like Scandinavia and the famous Blue Zones tend to have high fish intake, and the argument has certainly been made that this quality protein and Omega-3 source has contributed to the health of these populations.

Nevertheless, people point to the success of places like Italy, the pasta and pizza capital of the world, to show that you don’t have to eat exclusively lean protein and vegetables. I’d say the advantage over the U.S. there stems from culinary habits. Our love for speed, refined foods, and giant portions isn’t doing us any favors. While Italians may not be eating a perfectly “health-centric” diet on the surface, they do put lots of effort into food preparation, emphasizing quality over quantity. They also have a much better culture around making meals a social experience, and are committed to their evening walk, la passeggiata, which has been shown to significantly blunt the blood sugar effects of a meal.

This brings us to what in my opinion are the heavy hitters. I don’t think science has been able to adequately quantify the impact that low levels of stress and strong social connection have on one’s length of life and quality of life. As Americans, we’ve decided to value productivity and independence above all else. In order to get the most work done (and therefore make the most money), you have to be the first one into the office and the last one out. Eight hours of sleep? That’s money down the drain. Miss your kid’s soccer game for a late meeting? It’ll be worth it when you’re able to gift them a Corvette as their first car. It’s every person for themselves in this country, and what’s the most respected way to deal with your problems? Hold them in and overcome them on your own.

Though people may think this is just the way the world works, it’s not the norm everywhere. Nearly all of the places where people are the healthiest and the happiest have two things in common: they prioritize close relationships over all else, and they know how to stop and smell the roses. Are these places the wealthiest on the planet? No, but maybe that’s not the most important thing.

If we truly want to prioritize health and happiness, there are blueprints out there for success. Nevertheless, implementing these strategies in the United States would mean overcoming centuries of culture, billions of dollars worth of infrastructure, and deeply held philosophies. I can’t say I’m optimistic, but who doesn’t love a good challenge?


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