‘Healthy living’ zaps the fun from life

Kicking off a brand new debate about medicine, GP and author Michael Fitzpatrick says there’s more to life than ‘bovine contentment’.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

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Today, spiked and Wellcome Collection launch a brand new website to debate the best and worst ideas, phenomena, developments and practises in the history of medicine, in the run-up to two big live debates in London on 26 June and 17 July. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick kicks off the discussion with his nomination for the worst idea: the exhortation upon people to obsess over their health.

In a society of lowered horizons and diminished expectations, security and safety have become the highest values and the goal of preserving health has become the zenith of human aspirations.

Postponing death, through austere regimes of diet and exercise, moderation and restraint, and through regular submission to the medical surveillance of check-ups and screening tests, now takes precedence over enjoying life.

Having replaced heaven (in either terrestrial or celestial forms) as the goal of human existence, health has been reduced to the anatomical and physiological functions of the human organism. The highest aspiration of the modern individual is biological survival, complemented by the state of bovine contentment celebrated as ‘happiness’ by government advisers, a condition to be achieved by making healthy lifestyle choices, appropriately corrected by short courses of cognitive behaviour therapy.

For Aristotle a true state of health meant a ‘flourishing life’, not merely in terms of prolonging our bodily existence, but in terms of personal achievement. What matters is not merely feeling good about ourselves, but living and acting well. Happiness is the result of human activity in the world, it is not just a state of mind, and even less mere animal fitness.

Contrary to the solipsistic outlook reflected in the burgeoning demand for screening tests, a true state of health has an inescapably social as well as an individual character.

The fetishism of the body in contemporary culture, expressed in cults of body enhancement as well as the narcissism of the complete check-up, is linked to a pervasive fear of disease and an ultimate terror of death. These preoccupations reflect a fantasy of mastering the unmasterable, and a disavowal of death.

Though subjecting the body to a relentless regime of prevention and surveillance is unlikely to make much difference to the duration of our animal existence, it is certain to reduce the scope of our humanity – as well as imposing an unsustainable burden on our health services.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in London and author of The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle. He will be proposing ‘health-obsessed living’ as the worst idea in medicine at ‘The Best and Worst of Medicine’ debates at Wellcome Collection in London on 26 June and 17 July. For more information, and to join the debate, click on the icon below now.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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