My Wish for a Healthier, Happier New Year

I spent eight years in Japan, living as the less affluent Japanese do in a small, noisy, and cold apartment, with no car, and eating mostly rice, noodles, vegetables, and fish.  It was a simple lifestyle, difficult in some ways but clean and healthy.  I was on foot, climbing stairs and climbing hills, working a lot, and spending my days off in the botanical garden or just hanging out by the river, where there were benches and some open space and relative peace and quiet.

When I returned to the USA, I thought I was lucky, and in most ways, I was.  There was more and cheaper food, more living space, more recreational opportunities — more of everything.  In terms of real standard of living, no other country offers the opportunity for the good life to so many of its citizens and residents.  Nor does any other country guarantee the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.  Certainly not Japan, where workers put in very long hours and where, without habeas corpus, one can be held indefinitely for questioning in harsh conditions.

Despite my pride in being an American, I soon I became convinced that there was a serious problem with life in my country and that it centered on what and how we eat, and on our lack of exercise.  These have been called problems of affluence, but they're not exactly that: other affluent countries such as Singapore, Japan, and South Korea are not suffering the same epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes, though their rates are rising as a result of exposure to American fast food.  The U.S. obesity rate (2017) stood at 68% (obese and significantly overweight), and, despite other advantages Americans enjoy, the way most Americans live is impoverishing and shortening their lives.  And it's not just obesity.  Upon my return from Japan, I found it hard to speak to most people because the men seemed obsessed with football and other sports — ironic because they themselves are in such poor shape — and the women seemed to live in a fantasy world of shopping, celebrity-watching, and romance films and novels.

Maybe I'm being unfair, but there is evidence for what I'm saying.  In overall life expectancy, the U.S. ranks 46th in the world, below Poland and Lebanon, and just slightly (one month) above Albania.  The leading causes of death include heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory disease, stroke, and dementia, all of them a product of lifestyle as well as genes.  I am not a medical doctor, but I know that we are dying unnecessarily and that much of it is the result of bad choices.

What I believe in, and what I practice, is a simple life centered on frugality, humility, self-control, and faith in the goodness of life.  I eat healthy vegan food, two meals a day, usually about 1,200 calories in all.  I live in a small space and rarely travel.  I prefer silence and meditation to the noise of TV, recorded music, and cell phones.  All in all, I live a quiet, restrained, thoughtful life.

When I do go out, to Walmart or to a doctor's office, I see the effects of the American lifestyle.  Many Americans are grossly overweight, to the point that they can't walk through the store and must ride a scooter.  When they leave, they load their bags into an SUV, often talking on a cell phone at the same time.

They have long forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is like to experience silence and to go without food — in other words, to fast not just from food, but from the media that control their lives.

Health, whether of the body or mind, derives from self-control, and no government bureaucracy with its "food pyramids" or calorie recommendations can supply that.  Only individuals can.  We can be free only if we demand the right to live as we wish, and we can do so only if we unplug the devices, listen to no one but our friends and wise advisers, and live simply and prudently.  Then we begin a journey that leads to true riches.

I've found those riches in silence, in the beauty of the sun and sky, in fasting and a simple vegan diet, and in independence from all but the most basic needs.  I live freely because I control my spending and consumption.  Much of what I need is purchased secondhand.  My car is old and little used (4,000 miles per year).  My entertainment consists of reading library books, walking, sitting outside on a fine day, or just thinking.  I have family and friends who enrich my life and whom I love dearly.  I am happy and in good health except for one chronic condition brought on by the stress of my former life.

And I feel sorry for the life that most Americans live — just as, I know, they feel sorry for me.  They can't imagine living so simply, in what they consider a "shabby" little house, with no large screens, no smartphone, modestly dressed, untraveled, and ignorant of celebrities and sports.  They laugh at me, and I smile. I can breathe freely, sitting in the sun, and all of this beautiful life is mine.

America is still the land of freedom and opportunity, but I fear that for most of its citizens, it is not the land of happiness.  The northern European countries stand out on the happiness rankings (questionable though they are), with the U.S. coming in at 20th, below Costa Rica and the Czech Republic.  The source of that unhappiness is not poverty or shortages of goods; it is the loss of self-control associated with an overabundance of consumer goods and media.

My New Year's wish is for Americans to recover their health and happiness.  We live in a great, prosperous, and beautiful country with the world's most generous and caring citizens, yet we are not the healthiest or happiest people.  How would it be if Americans decided to examine their lives and make the necessary changes?  Twenty twenty-two could become a year of change for America, and not in the way progressives insist.  It only takes self-control and accurate information, and lives can be improved, one by one. 

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Image via Pexels.

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