There’s so much more to happiness than perfect health.
Welcome to Ask Ardra Anything, an advice column about life with multiple sclerosis from blogger Ardra Shephard. Ardra has lived with MS for 2 decades and is the creator of the award-winning blog Tripping on Air, as well as the host of AMI-tv’s new series, Fashion Dis. Got a question for Ardra? Reach out on Instagram @ms_trippingonair.
Between the last bites of turkey and the first bites of pumpkin pie, my friend Lisa, our “Friendsgiving” hostess, announced that it was time to share what we were all thankful for. One by one, each person talked about promotions and pets, friendships and families. Before my turn came up, Sue started to reflect on her gratitude for her health, but stopped short when she caught my eye. Unable to suck the words back into her mouth, she scrunched up her face into an “I’m so sorry” expression instead.
Sue needn’t have worried. I’m grateful, too, that she, or anyone I care about, is healthy. Plus, I had plenty of my own blessings to count. I might have MS (OK, I definitely have MS), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have lots to be thankful for. I didn’t feel dissed or jealous that Sue has more of one blessing than I do. We all have a mixed bag of suffering and joy. Whether consciously or not, Sue’s hesitation might have been influenced by society’s popular expression:
“You have nothing if you don’t have your health.”
This is a popular, if misguided, maxim. Meant to be motivational, it’s more of a threat to scare us into appreciating or protecting what we’ve got. It’s a microaggression at best and ableism at worst. “You have nothing if you don’t have your health” is a toxic narrative that reinforces a class divide between the sick and the well and perpetuates the idea that people with disabilities are to be pitied.
Of course, disability has an impact on my quality of life, but it’s absurd to assert that health is the singular dividing line between happiness and a hollow life. As Larry David says in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Some people are nothing even with their health.”
“Having your health’” is a broad statement, anyway. Yes, I have a chronic progressive disease, but my cholesterol is good, my blood pressure is normal, and my teeth are healthy. I assume. I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the dentist, and lately I’ve been eating pumpkin pie for breakfast.
It’s absurd to assert that health is the singular dividing line between happiness and a hollow life.
Health sits on a spectrum, one that’s constantly in motion. Everyone alive has experienced periods of poor health. When you’re down and out with the flu, do you really have nothing?
Still, the pursuit of health is not a bad thing. I will always be interested in doing what I can to improve my well-being.
If Thanksgiving is a time to take stock of our blessings, the new year is a time to reflect on how we can do better. My health-related resolutions this year will include fixing my insomnia, figuring out a diet that supports my bone health without wrecking my gut, and finally seeing that dentist. But making these changes won’t safeguard my sense of life-satisfaction.
Nobody gets out of this life alive. Making health a prerequisite to happiness assumes that as we age and as our health naturally declines, we will start to feel more and more like we have nothing. Meanwhile, Dartmouth College researcher David Blanchflower’s U-curve theory claims that happiness tends to dip in middle age before steadily increasing later in life.
Good health doesn’t guarantee happiness. Living without pain or MS symptoms is an absence of suffering, not the presence of joy. We know this because it’s natural to take good health for granted. I would even argue that taking good health for granted might not be a bad idea. When I’m hyper-focused on being thankful for my ability to walk in any capacity, or to perform basic functions, it can feel less like a manifestation of gratitude and more like fear of losing what I’ve got.
When contemplating New Year’s resolutions, it can be tempting to focus on fixing what’s broken; in my case, to turn my anxiety about MS progression into a goal to keep walking. And who could criticize that? I am desperate to keep walking. But desperation is a terrible foundation for setting goals.
Accepting that there is a limit to how much I can influence my MS outcome is a much more practical, if less popular, proposition in a world where we’re repeatedly encouraged to “fight” MS. The reality is that the degree to which any of us becomes disabled is not so simple as a battle of wills.
Rather than resolving to regrow myelin, what if I were to think about who I could help this year?
Health is a very important nice-to-have. It’s handy to be able to move about the world without too many considerations, but health is only one factor in what amounts to a happy life. The ability to climb stairs or do cartwheels isn’t what would give my life purpose. Creativity and connection are what fill me up. Writing, spending time with friends and family, snuggling with my dog, Tilly, hanging out in nature, exploring new hobbies, books, and television shows, being an aunt to my amazing nieces and nephews — these are the things that make my life abundant.
The positive psychology movement is all about enhancing what’s working, not about fixing what’s wrong. Rather than resolving to regrow myelin, what if I were to think about who I could help this year? How many new friends could I make? Is there a new community I could join? How can I carve out more time to read, write, or be outdoors?
Heading into 2023, I resolve not to set any goals that put me in a battle against myself. Being able to contemplate a present, or even a future, where joy can coexist with disability takes skill and practice. The most rewarding resolutions I will make this year will be to invest in the relationships and activities that help me to find deeper meaning in my life. These are the experiences that remind me that even though I don’t have perfect health, it is preposterous to say that I have nothing.
Medically reviewed on December 01, 2022
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