Shards of Consciousness

Why Don't Researchers Study Health?

Wired had an article about Kaiser Permanente starting a study

into the complex interplay of genetics, environment and lifestyles that cause many common diseases.

Don't misunderstand me. The more we know about the interplay of these three factors, the better off we will be. But do correct me if I'm missing something. Why does most, if not all, research about human health have to focus on disease. Has anyone ever funded a study in which the participants are totally healthy to find out their genetic, environment, and lifestyle backgrounds to see which factors seem to lead to greater health. It seems to me that if medicine wants people to be truly healthy, it would look for what to do right, not what to avoid.

For example, select a population who have similar habits in terms of smoking, diet, exercise. Divide this population based on psychological factors such as an internal/external locus of control, or general level of contentment with their life. Will one group show up healthier than the other? Doing experiments such as this may get more to the point of what factors lead to health.

Research such as this may be more to the point since many of the most disabling disorders in the industrialized nations are degenerative disorders that you cannot point to one thing and say - "This is the cause." Even in cases where you can, other factors enter in to the equation. Flu, generally acknowledged to be caused by an external organism, can strike one person in a household and leave the next alone. Same environment, same genetics, yet one person gets sick and the other doesn't.

All human behavior is the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. The medical profession defines health as the absence of disease. It focuses on the avoidance of pain end of the spectrum. Health is not just an absence of disease. Health is a positive expression of physical, emotional, and spiritual life. How about we put a fraction of the time and money we spend on medical research into pursuing pleasure and not just avoiding pain.

1 Pingback to Why Don't Researchers Study Health?

  • [...] In a comment regarding my post on Why Don’t Researchers Study Health, Dr. Karen Shue spoke about the happiness ’set point’, or subjective evaluation of well-being, that research seems to show that we have. I’ve heard a little about this before, and decided to look into it a little more. I’ll be talking about this all week (today, Wednesday, and Friday). Today’s post will be about the concept of the happiness set point itself. [...]

5 Responses to Why Don't Researchers Study Health?

  • Great points! And I'm so glad you asked... ;-)

    And I'm happy to share that there is at least some research going on about health and how people flourish. There is a whole, relatively new, branch of psychology called "positive psychology" that studies what leads to happiness, success, creativity, etc. etc. We even have our own "Diagnostic Manual of the Sanities" called the Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues. And there are an increasing number of "therapy" approaches that focus on increasing life satisfaction instead of decreasing unhappiness (e.g., Quality of Life Therapy by Michael Frisch -- a book hot off the press I'm just heading home to peek into!).

    For more about positive psychology, try some of these sites: for the Positive Psychology News Daily

    or do an search for books by Martin Seligman -- he is one of the founders of the movement that produced the field and has a number of approachable books -- I'm sure there will be links to books by others that are similar.

    I just recently found your blog and I'm really enjoying it. Thanks!


  • Hi Karen! Thank you for the links. I appreciate them and will be doing some exploring. I haven't kept up with growth psychology or new psychological approaches since I left school. Is anyone in the medical field interested, or devoting some dollars to seeing what character traits correlate with health (if any)? Lawrence Leshan wrote a book called The Mechanic and the Gardener. I would love to see if our medical professionals could be gardeners rather than mechanics.

  • Rick --

    For sure, there are people starting to explore character and health, but most of the ones I would be aware of are in the positive psychology areas. One big characteristic that is associated with health is optimism. Although there seems to be a kind of "set point" for people around their level of optimism (i.e., it hovers around a consistent level without changing too much), there do seem to be strategies for helping people to live on the upper end of their optimism set point -- and feel physically and emotionally better as a consequence.

    There are other positive characteristics being studied as well -- resilience, for example, is another big one. And it seems that in most cases there are things we can do to raise our levels of these characteristics and our overall health and well-being.

    I haven't read the Leshan book, but it's on the list now ;-)


  • One more bit on this from me and then I'll move on to your other excellent posts ;-)

    Today, I came across a book not-yet-hot-off-the-press that relates specifically to research on positive characteristics and health and I though I should pop over and share the link:

    (Whew -- that was long, hope it works.)

    Just in case, it's called Why Good Things Happen to Good People and is written by Dr. Stephen Post and Jill Neimark. Here's a bit about it:

    "A longer life. A happier life. A healthier life. Above all, a life that matters—so that when you leave this world, you’ll have changed it for the better. If science said you could have all this just by altering one behavior, would you?

    Dr. Stephen Post has been making headlines by funding studies at the nation’s top universities to prove once and for all the life-enhancing benefits of caring, kindness, and compassion. The exciting new research shows that when we give of ourselves, especially if we start young, everything from life-satisfaction to self-realization and physical health is significantly affected. Mortality is delayed. Depression is reduced. Well-being and good fortune are increased. In their life-changing new book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Dr. Post and journalist Jill Neimark weave the growing new science of love and giving with profoundly moving real-life stories to show exactly how giving unlocks the doors to health, happiness, and a longer life.

    The astounding new research includes a fifty-year study showing that people who are giving during their high school years have better physical and mental health throughout their lives. Other studies show that older people who give live longer than those who don’t. Helping others has been shown to bring health benefits to those with chronic illness, including HIV, multiple sclerosis, and heart problems. And studies show that people of all ages who help others on a regular basis, even in small ways, feel happiest.

    Why Good Things Happen to Good People offers ten ways to give of yourself, in four areas of life, all proven by science to improve your health and even add to your life expectancy. (And not one requires you to write a check.)"

    Sorry if this got a bit long!


  • Thank you, Karen! This is exactly the type of thing I was looking for. I see it's not out yet. I'll be going to pre-order my copy now!

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