I’m not sure that a person needs to have one overarching priority in their life – we are complex beings capable of holding multiple values and goals that conflict with each other as often as they agree. Still, we can learn a lot about ourselves by going through the exercise of picking one priority as our top one. That’s because our true attitudes only reveal themselves when we’re forced to make a choice.
If you asked me to name my top priority, I’d say it’s creative expression. What I’m seeking in life is to realize my creative vision as a musician first; then as a visual artist and writer. If creative expression is a form of achievement, then you could say my value scheme is oriented around achievement. Of course, creative expression is more than achievement; it can be a form of giving; a form of connecting; a form of prayer; but I will be simplistic and refer to it as achievement here because I am trying to draw a specific contrast.
If achievement is one priority, another priority for me is health. When I talk about health I mean “big picture” health. That includes physical health. It includes mental and spiritual health. And it includes interpersonal health, social health, relational health.
If health and achievement are two things that matter to me, what’s the problem?
The problem is that if health is second to achievement in my value scheme, it becomes a victim of compromise. To situate health in the number two slot poses no real “ask” of me – no challenge to my current habits and routines – because I can always argue that health is receiving a decent enough level of attention for its rank. It’s true that I’m not getting quite enough exercise, or making quite enough time for friendships, or giving quite enough attention to psychological well-being, but I’m doing much better than I could be.
But what if I were to swap my priorities? What if I were to position health – big picture health – as the most important thing in my life, with achievement taking second place? What if I were to dedicate the rest of my life to health, which could mean spending more time on health than on my creative goals?
When I carry out this thought experiment, a host of objections begins to bubble up in my mind and I am going to list those objections here.
I believe each of these objections is a kind of misconception that could be rebutted, but I’ll save the rebuttals for elsewhere. Whether I agree or disagree with these objections, they are lodged in my thinking somewhere, and they do have some influence over my choices. I believe they hold me back from being even healthier and happier, so I’m glad that this experiment has helped me see what they are.
So here are all the reasons why I “shouldn’t” make health my top priority:
- Health is not a path to distinction. It’s not a way to stand out. I’m not an athlete. No one’s going to remember me for being healthy, but they might remember me for my achievements.
- Health is fleeting. Age takes it away. A person can experience a health setback at any time, and everything could change in a moment – so it’s best not to become too attached to health. Achievements, in contrast, are enduring.
- The pursuit of health means sacrificing freedom and accepting a more boring, rigid lifestyle. It means giving up on the risks and indulgences that bring fun and sparkle to life.
- Health is potentially all-consuming. If I were to truly dedicate myself to health — to give it the time it actually deserves — I’d have little time left for anything else.
- Health is incompatible with true achievement. To really accomplish something hard, I need to focus on that thing to the exclusion of all else, which means compromising on sleep, exercise, social connections, etc.
- Health is incompatible with originality and creativity. Art is inspired by suffering. For example, the funniest comedians find material in their own bad habits. To be too healthy would be to become less interesting and less creatively potent.
- A focus on health is self-indulgent. It’s all about me and how I feel. In contrast, my achievements are contributions that I am offering to the world, for others to experience and enjoy.
- I’m healthy enough. No need to overdo it.
- Health is not my “style.” Health is oppressively positive. I need room for darkness and complaint, sarcasm and gloominess.
- Health is relative, impossible to define.
- Pursuing health would confront me with impossible tradeoffs. For example, living near an airport with all of its air pollution and noise pollution is bad for my health; but the community and social connections that I have in my airport-adjacent neighborhood are great for my health. It’s not clear how to resolve this conflict, or other similar ones, so I might as well not get too caught up in the pursuit of health. I should just live my life.
- Health is unattainable. Life presents us with too many stresses and challenges for us to expect to come out healthy. Illness is inevitable, in one form or another, so we must accept and cope with it rather than trying to surpass it.
But here are some arguments why health should be my top priority:
- Health is the foundation of everything else. Anything I might want to do in my life depends to some extent on my health; any effort of mine is more likely to succeed, the healthier I am.
- Health is a path to connecting and ultimately giving to others. The healthier I am, the less consumed by mental and physical struggle, the more present I can be for those around me.
- Re-framing my other pursuits – like making music – as a path to health sheds new light on those pursuits and infuses them with new motivation.
- Health is efficient. I could spend days, months, or years analyzing and trying to “cure” my dissatisfaction and distress. But if I simply get some vigorous physical exercise, eat well, and do some meditation each day, it largely melts away.
- My health — or lack thereof — defines my experience of being alive. It’s how I feel in my body and mind. I’m only alive for a short time. Might as well have as good an experience as I’m able to have, by being as healthy as I can be.