It’s January, and many of us (myself included) are denying ourselves our vices. We’ve got good intentions, but it can be hard work keeping those resolutions to be healthy. Why do so many of us smoke, drink, and eat unhealthy food?
There can’t be many people out there these days who aren’t aware that smoking is bad for you. Those pictures of diseased lungs on the packets do a pretty good job of driving home the message that cigarettes cause cancer. Similarly, we must all have some idea why the number of units of alcohol we tell our doctors we drink is lower than the number we actually drink, and surely nobody is under the impression that fast food isn’t bad for you.
We know that these things aren’t good for us, but we carry on doing them. Why? Because it makes us feel better.
Perhaps the significant factor isn’t awareness, but the need to get a proper break. Healthcare professionals must be more aware than most of the damage that smoking does, but plenty of them smoke. If you’re a nurse or a healthcare assistant on your break, and you’re outside smoking, it isn’t possible for you to be summoned back to work by an impatient patient ringing a buzzer. From some limited anecdotal evidence, I’ve often wondered if doctors and nurses smoke more than the general population. Apparently it’s not the case in the UK, but it is in Italy.
I’ve never been a smoker, but I’ve sometimes envied smokers for having a trigger that makes them take a break. Recently I’ve been getting that prompt from a Fitbit, but I do feel slightly ridiculous going for a walk up and down the stairs because my watch has told me to get up and get my 250 steps this hour. Fitbit sell this feature to you as promoting good cardiac health, but I wonder if the real benefit might be psychological.
We all need to take breaks, to mentally recharge, and there seems to be plenty of evidence that taking a break can make you more productive. Driving yourself into the ground isn’t a sustainable way of working. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, after all - relentless dedication to a single task dulls our wits and makes us less effective.
Similarly, it’s all very well saying that we should eat fruit and vegetables rather than pies and cakes, but I don’t want to live on celery and water. We all know that sugar and fat aren’t good for us. But we carry on eating them. And maybe that’s OK. The reason we eat cakes is not to keep us alive, or to make us physically healthy. It’s for pleasure. Humans have always come together to share feasts - to eat, drink and be merry. When it’s something that we’ve baked for those close to us, it’s about expressing love in a way that Ryvita and tofu never could. There’s a reason why we talk about comfort food - it helps with our mental wellbeing.
Focusing excessively on staying healthy may not be the best thing for us, overall. Health scares might be lurking everywhere, or at least if you believe what you read in certain mid-market newspapers, but I’d be prepared to bet that the stress induced by paying attention to them has more of a negative impact on people’s health than the actual risks, in most cases. Constant calorie-counting is not conducive to happiness, and giving up drinking might do more harm than good if it results in you neglecting your social life. We need to remember that we can’t measure everything. It’s very difficult to quantify the benefit to your mental health of going for a pint and a chat, or stepping away from your desk for a few minutes, or spending time baking. But there is a benefit, and it’s probably more significant than we realise.