Last week a friend of mine asked me this straightforward question. At least on the surface it seems simple. And for someone who has a masters in public health, has worked in the field for seven years, and does everything he can to be in top physical and mental shape, you’d think the answer would roll off the tongue.
I’ve been asked why I wanted to pursue a career in public health. Before that, when I considered the MD route, I was asked why I wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. Naturally, many of my initial motivations centered around the commonly-given answers of “wanting to help people,” or some derivation.
But this is a more fundamental question. Why do I value my own health?
The other week I had a wonderful conversation with the chair of the philosophy department from the University of Minnesota whose research focuses on the the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of well-being, virtue, and “living a good life.” In one of her recent book chapters entitled, “Well-being, values, and improving lives,” she argues that we achieve well-being through value fulfillment. In other words, “a person’s life goes well to the extent that she pursues and fulfills or realizes things that she values.”
Naturally, the topic of health came up and it’s relationship to living a value-full life.
But here’s the big question we discussed: Is health a value in and of itself? Or, do we simply value health because it allows us to do other things we value, say live a long life, spend more time with our family, or travel and explore the world? In this sense, is health a means to a more fundamental end?
For the amount of time I think about my own health, the health of my coaching clients, and the health of communities, I thought my answer would be that I value health because health is important.
The more I wrestled with the question, though, the more I asked myself “why,” the more I found myself thinking about health as a means to an end. At the most basic level, I want to be healthy because it enables me to do other things in life I care about.
I wonder if others feel the same way. If so, does public health need to rethink some of its tactics? Like me, do we assume that we value health in and of itself? Do we create programs, interventions, and communications strategies to try and appeal to the notion that people value health for health’s sake? Or, as I did, should we spend more time thinking about what people fundamentally value and how health can enable them to fulfill those values?