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Achieving a sense of well-being: good health: more than absence of disease

Latter-day Saints, through their understanding of the teachings on the Word of Wisdom, long have had an interest in all aspects of health. This interest was evident at a conference held recently at BYU that focused on the psychology of health, immunity, and disease. Speakers at the conference from throughout the United States discussed new research, techniques and ethical applications about aspects of health and healing. Following are excerpts from an address by one lecturer who is LDS. N. Lee Smith, M.D., is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine and director of the Stress Medicine Clinic at the University of Utah. Recently he was released as bishop of the Valley View 6th Ward, Salt Lake Valley View Stake.

This is a great oversimplification, but, basically, most illnesses or crises are either caused by stress, aggravated by stress, or the illness itself causes stress. Taking a look at what creates well-being in the face of the things we're faced with can tell us something about optimal health and spiritual well-being. . . .We have had for a long time different paradigms as to what causes disease. The simplest medical model in the old days was: "Something out there makes you sick. You get exposed to germs, to carcinogens, to radiation, or whatever, and it causes you to get sick. So the way to avoid illness is to avoid the cause, or to kill off the cause."

We became a little more sophisticated when we began to recognize that some people are exposed to the cause and get sick, while others exposed to the same cause don't get sick. . . .

We've begun in recent years to identify some very important factors as to what makes us resistant to illness. There are the obvious sources of illness, the organic and genetic. Certain people have a genetic tendency to get certain diseases. Certain organs aren't working right, balance gets off and you become more susceptible. But now it's been proven that some very important psychosocial factors play a significant role as to whether a person gets sick or not. The same social factors and coping styles play very much into one's mental and spiritual well-being.

There was a study in a little town in Pennsylvania where the people had half the national average of cardiovascular disease. A public health team went in to find out what the residents were doing and report to the rest of us information that would help us to avoid heart attacks and strokes. The researchers expected to go in and find people jogging, eating their salads, and doing all the things that you think about as cardiovascular protectors. What they found was almost the opposite. They found a little Italian-American community where the people were sedentary and a little overweight. The researchers began to scratch their heads. The people in this town had the same amount of hypertension and cholesterol that the rest of us have.

The researchers were trying to figure out what was going on, and after a lot of figuring, the bottom line came down to this: it was the family structure that promoted health in this town. They had multi-generational families. When things got stressful and difficult, there was Uncle Atillio, and there was Mamma, saying, "We love you. Everything is going to be all right." There was this feeling that everything was OK. There was a connectedness. They were part of something bigger. Somehow that factor - that feeling of connectedness, of being loved - overrode the other risk factors. . . .

A lot of research has been done on social support and health, social connectedness, being loved and giving love, being part of something bigger. The lack of those things is associated with a higher mortality rate, more arthritis, more hypertension, more depression, more coronary artery disease, diminished immune function. The list goes on and on. There is something about this being connected that is health promoting.

Connectedness may have something to do with what spiritual-well being is all about. . . .

We might ask, "What is health?" It is:

A state of well-being, not just the absence of disease. (Definition by the World Health Organization.)

That quality of existence when one is:

At peace within himself.

In good concord with his environment.

This well-being is defined as incorporating all the realms of life: physical, mental, social and spiritual.

As we move into the spiritual realm, we can look at ancient spiritual traditions. For example, if you look in the Hebrew Bible for the word for "health," there is not a word for just physical health. The closest word we have is shalom, which has to do with peace, completeness, well-being, soundness.

In the Greek New Testament, the word for "salvation" is the Greek word soteria, which was not a theological word in biblical times, but rather it was a word for health, safety, and security in general. Salvation, this whole state of well-being - that was the end that all religious and spiritual pursuits were designed to bring about. It wasn't something to be saved out there in the distant eons, but had something to do with now, here, in the present.

The bottom lines that keep coming up over and over again, if we boil it down to what is really the essence of this well-being includes:

A sense of empowerment and personal control, which includes:

Feeling heard and valued.

Feeling in control over one's responses, not necessarily over the environment. (The paradox of control is that when one tries to take control of external things, one makes control elusive; letting go and responding well brings one back into control.)

Sometimes in our culture, we want to be very productive. We tell ourselves that we are of value only if we're doing lots of things. Take a look at that. Is that a true spiritual principle? Is doing lots of things and doing them well the measure of the value of a person? One notion that brings a sense of control is mindfulness. Mindfulness has to do with doing whatever you choose to do now, in the present moment, completely with creativity, attention and love. What comes out of that is a sense of joy, a sense of gratitude comes from moments like this.

I think if we were to take one single measure of how spiritually well a person is, it would be how much gratitude he or she feels for life, for what it has to offer.

Being able to live by one's deepest values.

A sense of connectedness

To one's deepest self.

To other people.

To all regarded as good.

A sense of meaning and purpose

Giving of self for a purpose of value, having a sense of mission.

Finding meaning and wisdom in here-and-now difficulties.

Studies have been done of people who have gone through catastrophes, natural disasters, floods, or fires, of people who have lost everything. The pattern is that the people involved usually rallied, figured out what needed to be done. The people who survived the catastrophes would say things such as, "I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but this has been the most exhilarating experience of my life. I love the people I went through this experience with."

Researchers have been working with people who are dying. Those last few months of life, or the fear that they might be in the last few months, can be one of the great healing spiritual times of life, or it can be seen as awful and terrible. Stress-resilient people can find great meaning in whatever is there and enjoy the challenge.

A researcher studied the nature of happiness in people. He discovered the greatest happiness was not when they are down by the river doing nothing, as peaceful and beautiful as it is to get away. The great moments are when they have something challenging they're trying to make happen, and they're making it happen. They have some sense of creative control and they're rallying, connecting with others. Stress can actually be health-promoting if it's done in a way that enhances spiritual well being.

Enjoying the process of growth.

Having a vision of one's potential.

Hope

Having positive expectations.

What is it that brings about the state of spiritual well being? One researcher said instead of studying sick people to determine what makes them sick, we ought to study healthy people, the self-actualizers who have the characteristics of fulfilled people and determine what it is that keeps them well.

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