Fifty years ago Abraham Maslow talked about the core processes and elements of human flourishing. He put them in a hierarchy, and at the bottom he said there are basic needs for food, water, shelter, rest, and security. After you have those, then you can pay attention to things like belongingness, love, and social needs. Ultimately, the hierarchy peaks at meaningful activity, which he called self-actualization.
There’s no question that if you don’t have the basic needs of food and water and shelter, it’s very difficult to think about self-actualization. But we now know that it’s not really quite a hierarchy, because the very things that drive wellness can be done almost anywhere and anytime and don’t necessarily need to go through a hierarchy.
It’s really more of a network.
At the center of that network is the answer to the questions: Why? Why are you here? What is your purpose? What is meaningful in your life?
Here’s how most people answer that question:
- Altruistically— “I’m here to help others. I’m here to take care of my family”
- In religious terms—“I’m here to give back to God or to praise God.”
- In social terms— “I’m here to help myself at the expense others”
- Or personally—“I’m here to make money or gain fame or get power.”
Usually those latter items don’t last very long in the hierarchy of happiness. Once the questions about meaning and purpose are answered, one can then look at other components of the hierarchy that enhance human flourishing.
These are things like psychological resilience, social bonding and cohesion, intimacy, sleep and exercise, optimum nutrition, and substance use. Without knowing the “why,” it is hard to get to the “how.” Or if you’re just told to do the “how,” the data shows that very few people do that for very long.
Surrounding these behaviors is the environment that either allows us to flourish or interferes with our ability to do engage in healthy behaviors.
These “environments” include the physical environment; the social environment, where many of the social determinants of health are; the health care environment, which contributes only about 15% to human flourishing; and the leadership environment of those who hold the power and resources of stewardship in their hands.
What are we passing on to our children?
A recent report published in Nature Medicine showed that fear induced in male rats could be genetically transmitted through two generations. This means that the experience of fear actually showed up in the genes of the grandchildren. These “molecules of emotion” are somehow grafted into our genes beyond our lifespans.
If we can pass on fear, we can also pass on happiness.
The French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) was right. What is embedded in our genes can be formulated through experiences. Evolution isn’t just passive selection; the environment actively shapes it. Think of the profound impact that we could have if every parent and child got a positive experience deeply embedded in their genes before they had children.
Fortunately, children are extremely good at recovering from negative experiences – if they’re given the opportunity. There was a study of children aged seven to nine with chronic abdominal pain, which is a frequent manifestation of stress. Abdominal pain accounts for about 25 percent of the pediatric visits during that particular age. A relaxation technique that the child learned through imagery markedly improved those symptoms. Once learned, the effects of the technique are permanent.
The children can relearn how to control their own stress – managing their own “molecules of emotion.”
The mind has an extremely powerful and ubiquitous influence on our health, and yet its use is often ignored because it’s invisible. Mind-body practices can not only alter our genes, they can influence our decision making, and they can enhance our wellbeing and productivity. They’re the foundation for behavioral change. They can be used to treat many conditions: depression, anxiety, pain, insomnia, high blood pressure, etc., at very low cost.
How can you use mind-body practices in your life?
If you’re interested in learning to optimize your self-healing, download Your Healing Journey.