"A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." -- Albert Einstein
People have been searching for the fountain of youth for a long time. Even the pharmaceutical industry, which has been the subject of many critiques for its track record in fighting illness with its gargantuan profits, understands that Americans want the country's health care system and researchers to fight cancer and heart disease and improve end-of-life care even as their own top personal goals are weight management, obesity and diet. It seems Americans at least intuitively understand that their personal health decisions somewhat influence the incidence of their more global health concerns.
That is not to say, of course, that a perfect diet and exercise regimen will necessarily shield anyone from cancer. Everything from environmental poisons and radiation to tobacco and too much sunlight can result in cancers. There are known genetic risk factors for heart disease as well.
Yet with the rise of vegetarian and vegan diets, yoga as an exercise, spiritual and brain-building practice, and meditation with its similar benefits, one can sense a growing awareness in America that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to health.
The benefits of this Eastern-influenced, mindful way of life are well-documented. We learn in Susan Cain's book Quiet that being comfortable with our emotions decreases our autonomic nervous system activity, or the involuntary part of our nervous system that is usually beyond our control but hyperactive when we are stressed.
She also broaches the topic of emotional labor, which is what psychologists describe as the heavy lifting we do by acting like we are not feeling an emotion that we are feeling. Emotional labor has a large effect on well-being. Emotional styles, even positive and negative affect, have been known to influence immune response. Some researchers have even studied the link between emotional labor and heart disease and cancer.
The benefits of a plant-based diet are biological too. Excess protein has been linked to many diseases. The documentary Forks Over Knives is instructive in this case. Also, there is reason to believe that living and eating more mindfully may not only be better for the environment, in fact it may be the most impactful thing we can do individually to fight climate change.
In the future, we may look back on people eating bacon sandwiches the way we now scoff at old television and movie footage of smoking doctors. However, as things stand, asking an American to give up his or her cheeseburger is seen as beyond the pale on both right and left. It is still fashionable to herald the spiritualization of matter, but question whether cows are "moral" enough not to be slaughtered. We are still far from understanding Einstein's wisdom that the world is whole, which as hackneyed as it sounds logically entails that we live in a world of vast connections, some of which are harmonious and some of which are frayed. If holistic health were accepted more widely in tandem with modern medicine, it could improve the mind-body, human-animal and human-environment relationships.