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Dear friends, 

Throughout my twenties I was in fairly poor health. Like half of Dublin, I’d succumbed to a bad flu virus one winter, but unlike most, I didn’t recover. For nine years I was in a constant state of post-viral fatigue. Some doctors believed me, others didn’t. Even the ones who did were unsure of how to help. Eventually, a doctor discovered that my immune system was 10 times too active. Then they had to figure out a way to help.

This is all a long time ago now. When I hear of people living with long COVID, I remember all that exhaustion. I wear masks and try to avoid infection. The pathway into health was a slow one for me. I was frustrated when I was told that a year or two of yoga would help. I wanted a pill. But it helped. 

On this week’s On Being, Krista speaks with a beloved former guestRichard Davidson, together with Vivek Murthy. Richard, who goes by Richie, is a neuroscientist, and Vivek is currently serving his second term as U.S. Surgeon General. 

Right off the bat, the conversation takes questions of health to a question of well-being; Richie remembers how his father, a businessman, would use a barter system for people who were short on cash. “A transmission of kindness,” he calls it; something that helps a sense of dignity is going to help a sense of well-being too. He’s interested in how medicine can be about more than diagnosing failures, something Vivek picks up when he notes how he’d want medicine to also “explore the sources of strength.” 

Both guests this hour have a strong commitment to public health, research, data, and empirical testing. Especially in a time of pandemic, they know the measures that are often first at hand: hospitalizations, cases, deaths, school closures, unemployment figures, and so on. But they also want to bring other measurements into their question of healthiness in society: How is mental health among people who are isolating? What is their sense of connection to other people? Speaking about what a post-COVID world might look like, Vivek shares: “one of the things I really want to do in this job is not only help us to get through this pandemic, but to really think more deeply about how we do better when it comes to mental health, about how we have a broader conversation as a country about well-being and how we reflect that, not only in the decisions we make in our lives, but in how we design our schools, how we design our workplaces, and what we think of as success when it comes to public policy — not just the dollars and cents of it, but whether or not policy contributes to a sense of well-being.”

What both Vivek and Richie are addressing is the possibility of change: for an individual and for a society. Richie has been at the forefront of the field of neuroplasticity, a scientific term recognizing how the brain continues to change and develop — whether toward flourishing or not — as our life continues. Aware of the commodification of fear and division rife in our world, he speaks of how important it is to pay attention to the messages we’re internalizing. And he brings hope, noting that all studies that explore the changing brains of adults witness that change is possible, with small steps. Speaking about health, he mentions attention, connection, appreciation, purpose, and love. 

“How can we tilt the world toward love and away from fear?” is one of the questions  Vivek asks himself in his public role as Surgeon General. To know that this is the goal of public health, not just diagnosis and medication, expands the field of health into all aspects of our public life together. 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

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