- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 9, 2009


As the health care debate rages, from presidential proclamations to angry shouting matches at town-hall forums, some provocative developments overseas warrant our attention.

No, we’re not talking about whether some countries have mastered health information technology or resolved the infamous public-versus-private debate. Rather, we’re talking about Britain’s new “happiness czar,” Bhutan’s goal of pursuing “gross national happiness” (GNH) and an Australian elementary school’s new multimillion-dollar well-being center.

As common sense indicates, there’s a link between health and happiness — one that flows both ways — and it’s too important to ignore as we tackle health care reform.

First, the unhealthy facts:

Compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the United States has below-average life expectancy (78.1 versus 79.0 years) and above-average infant-mortality rates (6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, versus 4.9). About 44 million Americans younger than 65 were uninsured last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And the costs? U.S. health spending is expected to reach $2.5 trillion this year - more than the entire gross domestic product of all but five other nations, and more than eight times what we spent in 1980. That tab is expected to reach an astounding $4.4 trillion by 2018, according to the nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care.

The reasons are complex, but one big factor is lifestyle, from smoking and inactivity to obesity. The United States has the highest obesity rate of all OECD countries, with 74 million obese Americans age 20 or older. Among children ages 2 to 19, 12 million are obese. Childhood obesity is the top health concern among U.S. parents, topping smoking and drug abuse.

According to a 2007 survey, 32 percent of females and 18 percent of males in high school had not engaged in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in the previous week. More than 47 million Americans smoke, with about a fifth of high schoolers reporting current tobacco use.

In a fascinating multiyear study of health and longevity, explorer and educator Dan Buettner chronicled the secrets of “blue zones,” places on the planet where people — including Sardinian sheepherders and Japanese grandmothers — live longer and healthier lives. In a National Public Radio report on his work, Mr. Buettner offered four tips for increasing life expectancy: “Create an environment that encourages physical activity, set up your kitchen in such a way that you’re not overeating, cultivate a sense of purpose and surround yourself with the right people.”

Sometimes, experts have found, simple things can add up over time in dramatic fashion — things like eating nuts and a diet that’s more plant-based, building physical tasks such as gardening or walking into daily routines and avoiding smoking and overeating, which can cut a decade off our life spans. Those simple — but not necessarily easy — things also can include designing our work to include challenge, growth, service and significance, plus honoring important relationships and taking time for renewal.

It turns out that — surprise! — lifestyle drives both happiness and health. All of this takes on even more importance as our nation’s 77 million baby boomers are projected to live to 83, on average, with many living well into their 90s. Not to mention a growing cadre of centenarians worldwide.

As we live longer, why not live well?

Focusing on happiness won’t solve our health care problems. We need better technology, efficiency, incentives, cost control, preventive care and more. But let’s also look to the Himalayas, Sardinia and the classrooms of Britain and Australia - and, of course, our own lifestyles and choices about how we live, and for what and with whom. Health reform, as with most things, starts with us.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. Send e-mail to [email protected]

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