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How To Achieve Enduring Health and Vitality
John W. Travis, M.D. & Regina Sara Ryan
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Cultural Norms and Wellness

Robert F. Allen, PhD (1928-1987), the founder of the Human Resources Institute in Morristown, New Jersey, pioneered an approach to wellness (long before the word was in common use) through the identification of cultural norms. He, and his son Judd, who now carries their work on, focus primarily on helping people to first become more fully aware of how norms may be working against their wellness and then to change the systems that support the existing norms; for example, by modifying the impact of existing modeling, rewards, and other norms.

Mainstream thinking in Western medicine has traditionally considered the state of personal health (the area above the water in the Iceberg Model) as independent of the deeper levels and acted as if this were true. We disagree entirely.

When we first wrote the Wellness Workbook in the late 1970s, the norms for smoking were just beginning to change. When we revised this book in the late 1980s, we were impressed with how many cities - and even states - were enacting legislation that banned smoking in public places. Today, as we revise for the third edition in the early 2000s, this shift has faded into the background of our awareness - it's hard to remember what it was like to be subjected to other people's secondhand smoke, even on international flights. The norm has changed in far less time than we ever expected. Although many people had known for a long time that smoking affected people's health, it wasn't until the norm that condoned public smoking was changed that these behaviors dramatically decreased. Similarly, once Mothers Against Drunk Drivers created the concept of the designated driver," that idea quickly became imbedded in our culture and has become a new norm.

But you need only watch an hour of television or peruse a single issue of a popular magazine to see that many unhealthy norms are still widely supported. Think of eco-destructive consumerism, such as people buying gas-guzzling SUVs or "disposable _______" (you fill in the blank), or the pharmaceutical industry's relentless promotion of a drug for every "problem."

Pay attention to your values and how congruent they are with the behavior of those around you. Ask yourself: How many of the advertised products that I am assailed with are really necessities? How many are downright unhealthy? What lifestyles do these commercials or ads presume and promote? Do they fit my pictures of how life really is, or should be? These advertisements are good indicators of our cultural norms.

The overwhelming power of advertising notwithstanding, greater and greater numbers of us are taking a stand and making a change. Since the mid-1970s, running and other forms of exercise and fitness have risen in popularity to the point of becoming something of a national obsession. Other behavior-change indicators - such as greater public awareness of food addictions and eating disorders, and a massive campaign against drinking and driving - are evident everywhere. We are, at long-last, recognizing the implications that our lifestyle activities (the lifestyle/behavioral level of the Iceberg Model) have on our overall state of health. As a culture, we are finally admitting that there just may be something "below the surface."

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