We Know What We Have to Do (But Knowing Isn’t Enough)
Canadians are, apparently, shaving an average of six years off of our lives due to our poor habits and lifestyle choices. According to a recent study, “alcohol, cigarettes, lack of exercise and poor nutrition… contribute to half the deaths in Canada and take six years off our lives.” Six years. That’s kind of sobering. Apparently, largely sedentary lifestyles supplemented with generous doses of fast food, booze and tobacco isn’t in our collective best interest and puts no small amount of strain upon an already over-burdened national healthcare system. Go figure. Thank goodness for long-term studies like this one to deliver these remarkable insights to us!
Of course, the study’s findings aren’t exactly revelatory to anyone who has been alive or awake and observed other humans over any length of time. Or observed ourselves, for that matter. I suspect I’m hardly the first to notice that the effect of any combination of these behaviours over any period of time yields outcomes that aren’t exactly desirable. And most of us have at least a passing awareness that heart conditions, diabetes, lung cancer and liver disease are directly linked to the aforementioned behaviours.
So, the study isn’t a surprise. What was a little surprising—at least to me—was the discussion on causes near the bottom of the article. Doug Manuel, the report’s lead author and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, agrees with me. The problem isn’t lack of knowledge. We know what’s bad for us, for the most part. The culprit, rather, is “barriers in our communities that prevent us from living a healthy life.” Manuel doesn’t say what those barriers are, mind you, but we could perhaps imagine them. We know that poverty, for example, is a major contributor to substance abuse and poor nutrition. People often can’t afford healthy food. People often self-medicate to deal with crippling social realities. There are clearly systemic social factors at work behind some unhealthy behaviour.
But there’s probably another reason for why we’re killing ourselves with our lifestyles—one that didn’t make it into the article, but which is a fairly self-evident, if unpopular one. Human beings tend to default to the path of least resistance. And we’re kinda lazy and undisciplined. Many of us don’t have to be particularly physically active to secure our daily bread. So we’re not. We like how unhealthy substances make us feel and we (apparently) have the resources to secure these substances. So we abuse them. Bad food happens to taste pretty good, and we like good-tasting stuff. So we eat it. Especially when it’s way easier than trying to cook a healthy meal in the midst of frantically over-scheduled lives.
Manuel is right—the problem isn’t lack of knowledge. But I wonder if the root cause is sometimes just a plain old boring lack of will. Not always. But pretty often, in my entirely anecdotal, autobiographical, and non-scientific view. Knowing which behaviours are good for me isn’t always a good enough reason for me to embrace them. Knowing which behaviours are bad for me isn’t always a good enough reason for me to avoid them. Sitting on the couch watching TV is easier than going for a run, as it turns out. A greasy burger tastes better than kale salad. And so, even though I know I’ll feel gross afterward, I will probably pass on the kale, thank you very much. Knowledge, in and of itself, isn’t enough.
I had breakfast this morning with a friend and we spent a bit of time reflecting on aging and the losses it inevitably entails. We talked about how all the knowledge in the world doesn’t prepare for you what it’s like to lose someone you love. We all know that we will die and that those close to us will die. But rational cognition is pretty feeble preparation for the experience itself. We’re still surprised when our bodies begin to betray us or when someone we always considered invincible begins turns out to be a mere mortal. “It takes the heart quite a while to catch up with the head,” my friend said. It certainly does. Knowing stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So what’s the answer? Are we doomed to unhealthy deer-in-the-headlights oblivion? Well, obviously not. There are people who manage to make changes in their lives and adopt healthier habits. There are people who manage to attain something like real wisdom and grace as they live with and reflect upon the inevitable reminders of our mortality. But I would wager that as often as not the motivation for change is not sterile rational cognition but a heart-felt longing for something better. Whether it’s healthier bodies or more spiritually mature souls or anything else worth striving for, facts alone are often powerless to move us. All facts require a vision of human flourishing within which to locate them and give them meaning and motivation. That’s just who we are and how we’re wired. That’s the only way that we will ever move from knowing what we need to do to actually doing it.