"Can't Laugh? Smile. Can't Smile? Fake It."
A recent trip to Africa altered the way I think about many of life's necessities, among them food. Like most people in the United States--the sort of people Robert Ornstein and David Sobel address in "Healthy Pleasures"--I've learned to monitor my diet, choosing "good" foods and fleeing "bad" ones with a high seriousness that suggests that moral virtues or vices truly do inhere in oat bran or thick, marbled steaks. In Mfuatu, a village in rural Zaire, people eat not what's good or bad for them but what they can get: manioc roots and leaves, at the least, together with fish, termites, palm grubs, cicadas, or whatever other protein source is in season. A scarce delicacy is ngembo , a bat the size of a newborn puppy. And the gentle guest had darned well better eat the piece floating in her dish of beans and rice, even if it does still have the fur on and it's been cooked in palm oil, which, as every righteous American knows, is terrible for your arteries.
But were you having a good time? Ornstein and Sobel--the former a psychologist and brain researcher, the latter a physician--might well ask me. You bet I was. I was having the time of my life. Good! they'd say. That's what counts. For the premise of "Healthy Pleasures" is that "our attitude to life and our relationship with other people often counts far more than fitness or medical regimens" in strengthening our immune systems and protecting us from illnesses ranging from the common cold to coronary heart disease to cancer.
Not that the authors would necessarily endorse the use of palm oil, high in saturated fat, if some other oil were readily available. They are not advocating an irresponsible attitude toward health, and they are quick to acknowledge that "some indulgences, such as cigarette smoking, high alcohol consumption, addictive drugs, and reckless driving, are unhealthy and should be knocked off, whether you fancy them or not." But they warn against "medical terrorism," whereby the overgeneralized and over-dramatized results of medical research, often on small numbers of high-risk subjects, create a sense of "health dread" in the population at large. Since dread can be damaging--"there is evidence to suggest that stress and worry about anything--including fats in the diet--can itself raise blood cholesterol levels," for instance--our society's "healthism" may actually frustrate our search for well-being.
The fact that health "streams naturally from within" and is signaled by feelings of pleasure and satisfaction is too often overlooked, the authors say. They cite numerous studies suggesting that delights to the senses--from tropical fish to Pachelbel's Canon in D, from garlic and chilies to sexual orgasm--can improve immunity, ease pain and promote healing. As for physical exercise, " 'No pain, no gain' is simply and completely wrong: The biggest gain comes with the least pain," in the form of pleasurable activities like gardening, walking, and dancing and even small amounts of exercise are better than none.
Mental satisfaction is equally beneficial. Wholesome happiness appears to lie in reconciling where one is with where one expects to be and in balancing novel with familiar events. Even mechanisms widely held to be detrimental, like denial, can lead to good health by increasing optimism. And self-indulgence, that moral bugbear, turns out to have its merits: a little chocolate, a little wine, a stroll through the mall, a silly movie or a tear-jerker can all relax and enliven us. Even more powerfully, caring for others--spouses, children, pets, and the wider community--results in emotional strength and a kind of "helper's high" that have been shown to increase contentment and even longevity.
One of the pleasures Ornstein and Sobel's book withholds, unfortunately, is the pleasure of the text. Badly written and badly edited, the prose is often inelegant (people "experienced traumatic experiences," for example) and, in places, downright garbled. Frequently, even simple ideas are repeated and most of the ideas are simple. Most troubling, the majority of "healthy pleasures" named are familiar to the point of triteness: Watching sunrises or sunsets is one such recurrence. Now, I like sunsets immoderately (though I have no use for sunrises). Who doesn't? But therein lies the problem. By defining pleasure in terms of cliche, the book circumscribes rather than liberates readers' experiences, leading them to look for their pleasures only in predictable places and actions. Admittedly, the book is directed at a general audience. But I don't see why readers should be expected to put up with bad writing, simplistic rhetoric, or stereotyped examples just because the publisher hopes there will be a lot of them.
I, too, hope there will be a lot of them. I may wish this were a better book, but I approve of its approach wholeheartedly. We are not, on the whole, a robust people and too often the measures we seek on our own, or are advised by medical personnel to practice to augment our health, deplete rather than invigorate us. In emphasizing the importance of pleasing rather than punishing ourselves, Ornstein and Sobel encourage us to think of the basic elements of our existence--food and drink, rest, sex, work, sunrises and sunsets too--in a refreshingly affectionate light.