American life is out of balance. We have neglected our bodies, hearts and minds. We are so busy being angry and anxious that we forget to breath, to make music, and to give thanks.
The American Psychiatric Association reports that American anxiety levels have “sharply increased.” Reuters conducted a poll on “American anger” before the November election. Its conclusion, “Across the country, people are seething.”
This is all happening in a world that is doing relatively well. Yes, there are fires and mass shootings. But in general crime is down. The economy is booming. And science and technology provide us with unprecedented wonders. There is much to be thankful for. But we don’t feel that way.
Some blame our prevailing angst on politics. Psychologists have even described something called “Trump anxiety disorder.” But politics only produces anxiety if we are already susceptible to it.
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A deeper cause of our malaise is a general neglect of physical fitness and spiritual hygiene. A recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services states, “Approximately 80% of US adults and adolescents are insufficiently active.”
Physical activity is essential for good physical health. It is also a key to spiritual health. An active life is good for weight control, heart health and so on. Physical activity is also good for mental and cognitive fitness. It is associated with better sleep and reduced risk of dementia, anxiety and depression. When we are tired, anxious or depressed our spiritual apparatus can malfunction.
Time for a healthy body and spirit
The HHS report suggests that adults should do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, with strength-training twice per week. Those suggestions can be translated into suggestions about spiritual practice.
What if we spent 150 minutes per week focused on spiritual exercises: meditation, prayer, contemplation, art, literature, music, and service to others. Twice a week we should wrestle with ethical dilemmas and philosophical problems.
It also helps to cultivate wonder and gratitude. In this season of Thanksgiving, it makes sense to count your blessings. We become less angry when we are thankful. We are less anxious when we develop a sense of wonder.
And since we are talking about Thanksgiving, let’s also think about what we consume and how it contributes to physical and spiritual health. Just as we ought to avoid sugary foods and trans-fats, we should also avoid violent and angry images. Just as we ought to eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables, we should consume healthy ideas instead of mental junk food.
Spiritually healthy people are active and upright. They breath from the belly. Their posture demonstrates courage. Their eyes sparkle with energy and honesty. Their hands are at work, doing good deeds. Their arms reach out in love. Their faces shine with compassion.
Step away from the screen
But our screen-oriented culture deforms our bodies and warps our minds. When you watch TV or surf the Internet your shoulders are stooped. The diaphragm is collapsed. We spend so much time hunched over flickering screens, it’s no wonder we can’t catch our breath.
Passivity breeds discontent. And screens undermine our need for concrete human interaction. We need to be in touch with other human beings. A life spent observing the two-dimensional figures flitting on our screens is dissatisfying.
The philosopher Felix Adler linked physical and mental health to “moral athleticism.” He explained, “Ethics is a science of energetics. Bodily and mental energy are favorable to ethical energizing.”
Ethical behavior is the movement of an active body. Spiritual and moral energy develop out of physical health and human interaction.
An analogy comes from music. Music requires an active body that drums, strums or blows. The human voice is produced by the sustained effort of diaphragm, throat, mouth and face. Great music is performed by energetic bodies who move in concert with other human beings.
Much of this is common sense. If you want to be less anxious, take a walk or make some music. If you want to feel less angry, find something to be thankful about. Watch what you eat. And watch what you think. In general, get up and get moving. An active, engaged and energetic life is good for the human body and the human heart.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala