Personal Environments

Health comes from how each person’s unique biology responds to its environment. As an example, an article to be published in the Public Library of Science Genetics argues that the environment can affect how genes operate. I don’t mean mutations from toxins. I mean the response to geography and way of life.

I think the salient question for us all is “What environments are healthy? How do I find them? How do I create them?”

I don’t want to promote the tired view that your health is entirely up to you. We know enough about the social determinants of health to avoid that pit. Nevertheless, two news items last week turned my attention to the issue of how each person can adapt their personal environment for better health.

The first item reported on yet another weight loss study. The newsworthy piece of this research was that people who were better at keeping a food diary tended to lose more weight. There were many things wrong with the design of the study, not least of which is the obsession with weight gain as a disease rather than a symptom of metabolic imbalances with its own causes that need attention, principally social and physiological stress. But that’s another story.

On its face, both the news and the research leads us to believe that keeping track of what you eat will help you change your eating pattern: a simple idea about how to change your personal environment. It sounded very appealing. I was immediately suspicious.

I was reminded of the Hawthorne Effect, well-known in social research. It was discovered over one hundred years ago. When researchers observed how people did their jobs, they noticed that their work performance improved. And when the observation stopped, work performance dropped back. The Hawthorne Effect is now generalized to include any temporary change in a person’s environment that elicits an equally temporary change in behavior. When the weight loss study ends, what happens to the food diaries?

For the study, everyone was supposed to keep a diary. Some were more diligent that others. Those who were more diligent diarists lost more weight. Was it the diary or the diligence or something else that preceded both?

This is an obvious demonstration of how different people learn things differently. Some people in the study took to the diary, some did not. For the people who didn’t, what other method might have worked as well for them?

In another study, researchers examined what might predict whether a child at 12 who doesn’t smoke would become a smoker by 16. While acknowledging the effect of known factors such as whether a parent smokes, a parent’s approval of smoking, the child’s awareness of cigarette advertising, and how adventuresome the child is, the researchers found that two things added to the risk of children becoming smokers: how easily the child thought they could get cigarettes and whether they had friends who smoked.

While the article discussed various public health policies for reducing these factors and their impact, what I wondered was what methods the children themselves could find to control their personal environment in order to avoid cigarette addiction.

What these two studies tell me is that everyone needs some help in learning how to adapt their personal environment—learning that is specific to each person, their circumstances, and their capacities and powers. Although affected by the social context created by commerce and public policy, it’s possible for each of us to better understand the way in which we learn and the opportunities we have to create a better life.