You know vitality when you see it: the effervescent 75-year-old grandmother who swims two miles a day; the inspired florist whose passion for daylilies has you buying them by the dozen; the empathetic friend whose centered, calm demeanor seems to radiate inner peace. People with vitality overflow with that special something, and they stand out from the rest like shiny pennies.
All of which leads one to wonder: Why do some people have more vitality than others?
Since vitality is often broadcast via physical traits – sparkling eyes, radiant skin, an energetic demeanor – it’s tempting to chalk it all up to good health. But there’s more to vitality than robust physiology. Not all clinically healthy and ostensibly fit people seem particularly vital, after all. And some physically frail individuals still manage to emanate an extraordinary life force and joie de vivre.
To be sure, good health is a vitality enhancer, and healthy choices generally lead more directly to vitality than unhealthy ones. But in many ways, the physical body becomes a mere display case for vitality’s many treasures. Good physical health can help signify vitality – but it can’t deliver all of vitality’s goods.
So where do those goods come from, and where do they go? Do certain habits or circumstances make us more vulnerable to losing our vitality over time? And, if so, what’s the secret to sustaining our vitality – or to getting it back?
Compelling questions about vitality abound. But before we go searching for answers, perhaps we should spend at least a little time contemplating the nature of vitality itself.
Vitality: East Meets West
The general concept of vitality is universal, but it is expressed quite differently from culture to culture. In the West, vitality often refers to a strong supply of physical energy, vigor and resilience, but in the East, what the Chinese call “chi” and healers in India call “prana” refers more generally to an ineffable life force whose currents suffuse and sustain both the physical and nonphysical aspects of every living thing.
The popularization of yoga, tai chi and meditation has begun offering more Americans a taste of practices that can help us understand and cultivate this sort of vitality. But we still tend to compartmentalize it as something found in spas, exercise regimens, special diets and the like – rather than as a core component and determiner of our everyday existence.
In America, vitality is the frosting on the cake of life – and not, as in Eastern cultures, its main ingredient. In the ancient traditions of China and India, as well as in the traditions of many other indigenous cultures, vitality-related concerns encompass everything from environment and attitude to personal integrity and spiritual purpose.
Western medical experts who persist in categorically lumping “health” and “vitality” together further feed our confusion about vitality’s true foundations, says Monica Reed, MD, author of The Creation Health Breakthrough (Center Street, 2007) and the CEO of Florida Hospital Celebration Health Center in Orlando. “As a society,” she says, “we judge our health by what we don’t have; so if you don’t have high blood pressure or diabetes, [we figure] you must be healthy.”
What most Americans fail to understand, she notes, is that “if you have clean arteries [but have] a life without purpose, you’re still missing a key ingredient for vitality.”
We haven’t always been so confused about the overlapping territories where health and vitality meet. The World Health Organization’s constitution, dating from 1946, defines true health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Unfortunately, since this definition was committed to paper, much of the conventional health field appears to have vastly underestimated the importance of most of the nonphysical components of that vitality prescription.
Reed recruits two Greek words for life to describe the symbiotic relationship between health and vitality: “bios,” meaning physical life, and “zöe,” loosely translated as a person’s essence.
Bios, the root of the word biology, refers to the body’s nuts and bolts – the organs, arteries, cells and chemical processes. Western medicine is very comfortable with these elements of vitality, she notes, but tends to be far less so with matters of essence. That’s too bad, she says, because vitality requires careful stewardship of both biological needs and less tangible essentials. It’s this latter category of concerns, she notes, that moves us beyond mere survival toward satisfaction, meaning and quality of life.
Reed describes zöe as “the internal motivator that keeps us pushing forward.” It is, she says, “what makes our biological life worth living.”
Cynics might dismiss Reed’s “internal motivator” as unscientific, but they’d probably change their tune if they met Dan Buettner. Buettner has spent the past decade exploring human longevity with the support of the National Institute on Aging and Allianz Life. He travels the world looking for people who live extraordinarily long, healthy lives. In other words, poster children for vitality.
Buettner, who pens his findings for National Geographic magazine, believes the two concepts of bios and zöe go hand in hand. He describes vitality as the “holy grail of aging,” and he takes care to note that vitality seems to have as much to do with social, emotional and mental health as it does with physical habits and characteristics.
Buettner and his team have identified and studied four vitality pockets or “Blue Zones” of successful aging: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, Calif.; and the rural village of Nicoya in Costa Rica (see “Ageless Vitality,” in the July 2006
The average Okinawan, Buettner notes, lives seven years longer than the average American. In Sardinia’s Nuoro Province, men reach 100 years old at up to 10 times the rate of those in most developed countries and largely avoid the heart disease, diabetes and cancers that kill most people in the United States. And while diet and activity patterns play a big part in the underpinnings of these folks’ vitality-generating lifestyles, Buettner notes that things like a sense of life purpose and balance, solid spiritual practices, family bonds, and community ties also play very significant roles – not just in how long they live, but in how vital they remain as they age.
In more deeply understanding how we build vitality and how we lose it, it can be helpful to look to the teachings of cultures – particularly native cultures – where vitality is seen through a more holistic lens.
That’s how healing-arts educator and author Constance Grauds, RPh, learned what she considers the fundamentals of vitality maintenance.
After decades of dispensing prescription medicines as a conventional pharmacist, Grauds was disappointed and disillusioned with the results she saw those drugs producing. Convinced there was a better way, she took a continuing education course that brought her into the depths of the Peruvian Amazon jungle.
There she met and was treated by a traditional medicine man – a shaman. Within days of her first treatment, she was overcome by a sense of calm, renewed energy – and an intuition that shamanic medicine offered many of the answers she was seeking.
Grauds ended up spending the next 10 years as the medicine man’s apprentice, ultimately becoming a shamana (female shaman) herself, an experience she chronicled in her first book, Jungle Medicine (Center for Spirited Medicine, 2004). During her decade-long training, she underwent her own deep healing, and adopted the shamanic perspective that all human disease and suffering is caused by disconnection – whether from nourishment, self, community, nature or a spiritual source.
But the root of all such disconnection, Grauds came to believe, is a core fear. Known as “susto” by the indigenous people of Central and South America, this sort of fear typically originates – at least in their culture – with a major life trauma, shock or near-death experience. And once properly attended to, susto dissipates. What struck Grauds’s medicine-man mentor, though, and what Grauds knew to be true from her own experience, was that most Americans seemed to be chronically afflicted by susto. They lived in the grip of one type of fear or another virtually all the time.
The shaman suspected that this excess susto had something to do with chronic anxieties, pressures and “little fears” that Americans face every day: job stress, money worries, social pressures, relationship troubles and so on. Grauds was inclined to agree. “Our anxiety-ridden society pushes us into a fear state,” notes Grauds, “whether we’ve faced death or not.”
The net outcome of all this fear-based disconnection? One massive vitality drain. Grauds points out that the No. 1 health complaint in American doctors’ offices today is a basic lack of energy and that two of the top 10 best-selling prescription drugs are antidepressants.
From a shamanic perspective, both depression and fatigue, like all disease, manifest from disconnection. “Do some people need antidepressants? Absolutely,” says Grauds, who still feels that Western drugs have their place and purpose. But, she adds, many people need passion, meaning, emotional connection, spiritual grounding and a sense of purpose every bit as much, or even more, than they need pills.
Grauds ultimately returned to the United States determined to share what she’d learned about the shamanic approaches for reclaiming lost vitality by restoring total health – a body of wisdom she shares in her recent book, The Energy Prescription (Bantam, 2005).
That prescription, predictably, calls for plugging “energy leaks” and building connections to the things that energize and sustain us. These comprise what Grauds calls the “eight gateways to energy,” including meditation or prayer, healthy food, loving relationships, and mindful exercise. “Energy and vitality come from the joyful things we can do in life that are simple, free and right under our noses,” she says, “like petting your dog, watering your garden and taking a few deep breaths.”
“Vitality is a measure of the life force within you,” she says. “When we’re connected to our sources of vitality, not only do we have more energy to be more active and get more done, but we’re engaged, we’re present. We feel that flow of life force pumping through us.”
There is at least one area of vitality-related knowledge about which Western medicine has become quite expert, and that’s studying symptoms of depleted vitality. Researchers at the National Institute on Aging noted that chronic stress prods the body to churn out elevated levels of fight-or-flight hormones that damage cells, tissues and organ systems. Over time, the toll can shorten a person’s life expectancy.
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that getting inadequate sleep increases a person’s odds of suffering from heart disease, a leading 21st-century killer (see “Getting to Sleep” in the November 2004 archives). We’ve also learned that a lack of close social ties can disarm the immune system (more on that in “Community Matters”) and that positive human interactions can bolster it.
It seems that Western medicine is just beginning to comprehend what practitioners of Eastern medicine and indigenous cultures have known all along: that our vitality is directly determined by a complex mix of interconnected factors – not just concrete variables like diet and exercise.
We’re also getting clearer that vitality is something we must value more deeply, or risk losing at our peril. Because, as Reed puts it, “with a decrease in vitality comes an increase in disease.”
Thus, Reed recommends taking stock of your vitality as often as possible. A daily or weekly vitality review would be ideal, but even scheduling check-ins every six months or so is a great way to stop major vitality seepage before a trickle becomes a torrent.
Start by finding a place of stillness, Reed advises. Consider meditating, journaling, praying or just walking in the woods. Ask yourself how you are doing, feeling – and what you are missing or longing for. Listen for the signals that say connections may have come loose, and that others may be pulling on you too strongly.
“We don’t live in a society that encourages stillness, yet that’s what allows us to truly understand what we are feeling and to return to equilibrium,” says Reed. “The secret to vitality is to stay in a state of awareness, to slow down and to fill the gaps.”