Health and Happiness

Happy WomanBy David Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP

There is abundant evidence that our mental state also influences all aspects of our physical wellbeing. Besides, the point of being healthy is to enjoy life more. As I have written repeatedly before: Healthy people have more fun.

Both Are as Essential
As They Can Be Elusive

If fun isn’t happening, then true health probably isn’t either. In other words, for good health, happiness matters. But, while we have – politically speaking – a protected right to pursue our happiness, we are not guaranteed to catch it. That matters, too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pessimist. My life is far too good for that. I can quench my thirst quite reliably with a water glass half full. But I confess that I am not exactly an optimist either, as that would seem to require the sublimation of experience to hope. In the world as it is, pragmatism is the best I can manage.

As a pragmatist, then, I do have my trusted arbiters of success. They are Macbeth, Rudyard Kipling, and, with an application of circuitous reasoning, Moses.

Macbeth famously lamented that “to be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus.” Macbeth was ruminating on the throne, and his tenuous perch upon it. It was his, following the murder of Duncan, the prior king. But the very prophecy that motivated his regicide also indicated that no heir of Macbeth’s would reach the throne. He was, thus, king – but not “safely” thus.

Few of us have thrones to worry about, but we all have our battles, and their occasional spoils. Those among us who have far too little money tend to fret about it. But those with plenty also routinely fret about how readily it can go, e.g. when the markets go south, or new innovations make former achievements obsolete. I recall how the older brother of Hugh Grant’s fictional character, George Wade in the movie “Two Weeks Notice” warns how readily they could “lose it all.” This was despite “it all” being a sum measured in apparent billions. If even fictional billionaires are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate, who among us can even dream of ever being “truly, safely thus”?

In his time-honored poem “If,” Rudyard Kipling explored the tenuous vagaries of success both more poignantly and more accessibly than Macbeth. After all, Macbeth concerns itself with both murder and kingship – conditions foreign to most of us, as are worries about the royal lineage. Kipling, however, was just a citizen of the world, making his way much like the rest of us. His confrontations with triumph and disaster are apt to be informative of our own.

Certainly in my own experience, triumphs are ephemeral enough to oftentimes feel like imposters, although I struggle to disregard disasters as blithely. Certainly when those around me are losing their heads, they do indeed seem to have an irritating penchant to blame it all on me. Stand for anything, and inevitably heads will fall, exactly thus.

Of course, the fact that those accusing us of being wrong, and worse, are themselves wrong, does not make us right. That is addressed in another of Kipling’s rueful admonishments: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting, too.”

Success is ever a tenuous affair because even our own definition of it is subject to change, or at least should be. When both they, and we, keep moving the line – we are never, truly, safely thus.

As for Moses, I have come to doubt that he was ever actually lost. I suspect he knew that the real aggravations first begin when we get where we think we are going. A promise may never again be as fully luminous as when we are pursuing it hotly. And so it is that I doubt he was really lost all those 40 years; he was, after all, too wise and wily for that. I suspect he knew that the journey was the better measure of its destination. So he probably took his time to stop and smell the cactus flowers.

I may not have a full 40 years to go, in meandering circles or otherwise. But since I do practice what I preach, at 52 years of age it’s not entirely out of the question. Either way, I’m going to do my best to smell the roses along the way, too, and call it success every time.

Naturally, those fragrant breezes will come and go – and never be safely thus. They are as fleeting as life itself. And that’s as good as it gets. Perhaps knowing all that and fully accepting it is the safest place of all. Maybe, in other words, it all needs to be a bit less of pursuit of elusive happiness and more about happiness in healthy pursuits throughout all our days.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is the director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital in Derby, CT. For more information visit and

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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