Does Health Equal Happiness?

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Emily Rautenberg
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing public affairs

Next to the cash register at a convenience store are stacks of magazines. The fashion magazines depict skinny young women and the fitness magazines show men flexing muscles that look like they might pop.

For years, there has been a cultural fascination, or obsession, with skinny women and muscular men appearing as the standard of health.

“If you notice in American culture, we idolize the warrior physique,” said Jaclyn Urmey, Director of Psychological Health at the 514th Air Mobility Wing during her class “Sound Bodies & Sound Minds.”

The class is the second in a workshop series discussing the book, “Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind,” by Nancy Sherman. Sherman, former Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the United States Naval Academy, writes how the stoic philosophy has shaped the military.

As discussed in the first class, stoicism is a philosophy which comes from the Greek Stoics, who believed happiness stemmed from being in control of one’s own emotions. It is the belief that you are in control of your own happiness.

Sherman writes that “Stoic practice aims to help us cultivate the kind of mind-set whereby we might be able to endure the cruelest torture and survive the most devastating psychological deprivations.”

The gap between military and civilian worlds has widened, Urmey said, and there is often a misconception to civilians about what it means to be in the military. She recounted a story of when her now-husband learned she had been in the Navy, and asked her about her hand-to-hand combat training—something she had never been through.

Other attendees in the class recounted similar situations: people assuming they must work out every day, run miles before breakfast, be able to win push-up competitions, etc. Obstacle courses such as Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash and Spartan Races, all perpetuate this stereotype.

Whether the military wants to be recognized this way or not, it’s clear that as a whole, society believes military members are warrior athletes. According to Sherman, the stoic philosophy again comes into play, claiming that fitness and nutrition is a point of self-control.

“In our own culture, Goliath bodies of oversized muscle and heft seem to compete for the image of hardened strength and discipline,” Sherman writes. “Indeed, some researchers claim that among boys and young men there is an under recognized body obsession analogous to anorexia in women. The dub is ‘bigorexia,’ a species of body dysmorphic disorder that focuses on fear of not being big enough in muscle size.”

Sherman writes about bodybuilders who went to this extreme, such as Samuel Fussell.

“Fussell set out on a bodybuilding mission to make himself ‘larger than life,’ ‘less assailable,’ and ‘a little less human.’”

The class discussed this idea of becoming “less human” and how others view people of extreme fitness levels. One point of discussion was the “meathead” stereotype, which is the perception that fit people are unintelligent. Another point was that some may see others that are not fit as weak and frail, and possibly look down on them.

Urmey reminded the class that stoicism is the idea that you should focus on what is within your control. Not every aspect of your health is controllable, however. At the end of the day, people are still going to age, medications might be necessary for specific diseases, cancer cannot always be entirely prevented or cured, etc. The key, Urmey says, is balance.

“Where should my time be spent, what are my values?” she said to ask ourselves.

“The absence of health doesn’t mar happiness,” Sherman writes.

“Is this true?” Urmey asked the class.

The class discussion branched mainly into two different ideas.

The first, was that no, if you are unhealthy, you cannot be happy. If you are only fueling your body with chicken wings, donuts, and soda, then you are putting yourself at risk and are poisoning your body, which will not make you happy.

The second idea was that for those who are born with certain disabilities, or diagnosed with medical conditions that are of no fault of their own, such as missing a limb, getting breast cancer etc., it is not fair to say they cannot be happy.

Eventually, the entire class seem to agree with both sides of the argument, essentially deciding that happiness is only unattainable to those who intentionally are not taking care of themselves, and therefore the medical condition itself is not what prevents happiness.

“One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight,” Sherman writes.

“Everything has different value to different people,” Urmey stated. “We have to do the best we can with what we have.”

The last discussion of the class was around the idea of competition, and how it can help or hurt a person’s happiness.

Every day, we compete over fortune and happiness, both with each other, and ourselves.

Sherman references Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, who said, “For our competition is not to do with wrestling or the pankration—where success or failure can make all the difference to a man’s standing.”

“The end goal of life is to fulfill our purpose and that purpose is different for everyone,” Urmey said.

“The military as a whole shares a common purpose, but even that varies for individual people. What does it mean to you?”

As a closing thought, Urmey read us one more passage, reminding us that life, there are a lot of ups and down, and as the stoic philosophy teaches, at the end of the day, most of our happiness has a lot to do with our own attitudes.

“The contest of life has as its prize our own individual happiness,” Sherman writes. “We compete against ourselves, not others. To be defeated need not mean that we are out of the race.”

The next class in the series, “Manners and Morals,” will be held during the March Unit Training Assembly.

For information on the previous class in the workshop, click here:

Stoicism: the key to your own happiness?