Henry David Thoreau famously said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation…”
People who lead desperate lives don’t make good subjects for wellness programs, nor, for that matter, lifestyle advice from doctors. Below are two real life examples of ordinary people I’ve chatted with about matters of personal health. After both of these conversations, I was quite humbled.
I had a chance conversation with a pleasant but overweight woman I’ll call Donna, a cashier in a big city grocery store, who was about 50 years old. We were having a nice chat, and I asked her if she had opportunities to exercise after work. Donna said that, after being on her feet all day, she had to go home and put her feet up. That prevented her from having much of a social life, too. Donna said she would never have a better job, that she’d never buy a new car, nor afford vacations or holiday trips. Her rent was so high, it was all she could do to makes ends meet. Donna said her only fun in life was buying a take-home pizza and a six pack of beer once or twice a week. Take that away, and Donna said she had nothing. Truthfully, and sadly, in my heart I could not blame her.
A few years ago I had a lengthy cab ride in Baltimore and struck up a good conversation with the cab driver, a friendly, middle-aged man I’ll call George. He asked what I did for living, which resulted in a good chat about personal health. George smoked, had high blood pressure and diabetes and was overweight. He said he’d tried to get those things under control but just couldn’t. The interesting part of the story is why he couldn’t control his health risks. George said he’d lived in Baltimore all his life and had the same set of friends since grade school. One night a week, they’d go bowling, eat huge meals and drink way too much beer. Also, once a week or so they’d go to a sports bar and do the same thing. George truly believed he’d have to give up his lifelong friends if he were to cut out that lifestyle. He knew it was slowly killing him, but he just wasn’t willing give up. It was hard to blame him either.
Those are two true stories of people trapped in a lifestyle they can’t or won’t willingly forfeit. Huge numbers of people are in the same boat.
Some people are going to comply with doctor suggestions on lifestyle without any help at work. But, if Thoreau is right, there are many people out there like Donna and George.
Bad lifestyle choices can be terribly complex. They virtually never arise from the lack of the kind of information that wellness vendors push as the solution.