Dr. Benhase’s Prescription for Well-Being (356)

What if loving our neighbor was not only the primary and most important way (as Jesus says) we love God, but also was remarkably good for our personal health and well-being? Consistent research indicates that across all races, ages, genders, income levels, and social classes the lack of regular neighborly connection causes a risk of premature death that’s about twice as threatening to us as being obese or smoking. The research shows the best way we can improve our well-being is to devote ourselves to neighborly relationships like the ones we have with our family, friends, and, well, our neighbors.

And yet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes what’s called their “Time Use Survey,” which sounds like what it is, a survey of how we use our time. Its survey says that the average American invests a little more than one half hour a day on neighborly interaction compared to three hours watching television and around one hour on personal grooming. We do this even though the overwhelming research about human well-being tells us that the most consistent predictor of our well-being depends on the time we spend on our relationships with others. In other words, if we want to have personal well-being we should really be spending less time alone, not more.

Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, writes that the above data is virtually ignored by much of the advice given about well-being found in self-help books, at seminars, or on retreats. She says these mostly pitch well-being as an “inside job,” where we seek to find our “true self” unencumbered by our relationships. We’re urged by these so-called experts to become emotionally independent (not interdependent), diving deep into our souls to “discover” ourselves, thus finding personal contentment and well-being.

On the surface this sounds like a good spiritual exercise. And it can be. Such soulful introspection can help us become more self-aware, thereby understanding ourselves better. But the more self-aware I become, the more I “discover” myself, the more I realize just how awful I can be to other people, how so often I tend to be overly self-focused bordering on self-centeredness. The last thing I need for my well-being then is to become more that way. When I take a deep-dive into my soul, the discovery I make about my “true self” is that I’m, at least in part, a self-absorbed sinner. Not a news flash.

What pulls me out of my self-absorption isn’t more “me” time. It’s the claim my neighbor (i.e., my wife, children, friends, colleagues, community members, etc.) has on me simply by being near me (“neighbor” literally means one who’s “nigh” or near to us). Now we may not like their claim on us. It may seem at times like a burden. It may even appear to us that they only have one goal in mind: making our lives difficult. Still, their claim on our love for them is God-commanded and, as it also turns out, the best thing for our long-term well-being. It seems that God has so ordered the creation that we can only thrive (i.e., have well-being) through the often messy, joyful, and complicated love for our neighbor. So, Dr. Benhase has a prescription for your well-being: “Go, love two neighbors as yourself and call me in the morning!’



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