The Good Life: What Really Matters | Health and Wellness | Vanderbilt University

Ted Fischer, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, discusses the “Good Life,” and why it is important to focus on what matters most.

Janet McCutchen:    Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Janet McCutchen with Work/Life Connections.  Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Ted Fischer who is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of Center for Latin American Studies.  He also is an adviser to the World Health Organization on well-being.  Dr. Fischer, thank you for participating in our Wellcast. LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW HERE ON WELLCASTS

Dr. Ted Fischer:       I am so happy to be here.

Janet McCutchen:     I wanted to begin by asking you, I think, an important question as it relates to our particular department, Work/Life Connections, as part of Occupational Health.  We are designed to help all of Vanderbilt’s faculty, physicians, and staff reach a better level of well-being. What is the key finding of your cross-cultural research on how to be well?

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Well, that is a great question, and yes, because we so often think about well-being as tied to certain things.  Income is a big one.  “If I made a little bit more money, boy, I could be happier.”  Health is another, and these are all important things.  Income is important, health is certainly important, physical security is important, relationships are important, but beyond that, it is having a larger purpose in life that we are committed to, having a balance between these things, between our work life and our family life, relationships.  Investing time in relationships turns out to be really, really important to our sense of well-being.  So, well-being is more than just not being ill.  It is being well in all of these aspects of one’s life, one’s physical health, one’s mental health, one’s social standing.

Janet McCutchen:     Well, we know that you have done a lot of cross-cultural research, and you have an excellent book, one of several, that is out now entitled “The Good Life.”  What is the good life and
how can we learn to focus on what matters versus just looking at well-being from a quantitative perspective, right?  I live in such and such dollar house.  I need to lose X amount of pounds.  Help us define that from that cross-cultural perspective.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Yeah, and again a great question because we do so often attach our hopes and dreams to these things, a little bigger house, a little nicer car, and yet often, those are not the most
important things, they are not.  In fact, I can decide they are not the most important things to our sense of well-being.  We do find the cross culture is a sense of dignity and fairness that I am treated with dignity.  In my workplace, I am free from discrimination, but even more than that sort of absence of negative, free from discrimination, people respect what I do.  Whatever it may be, a sense of dignity is really important and a sense of being committed to a larger purpose in our lives, and that can be something very specific of “I am going to master this craft the best that I can be; if I am a knitter, I am going to be the best, I am going to make this design, just the best way that I can;
or, and this is nice for those of us working in either the medical side or the university side, we are part of the larger project, right?  We are making people better, we are building future citizens and leaders,
and so there is something bigger beyond just my weekly or monthly paycheck that motivates me.

Janet McCutchen:     And you found those results as far afield from Germany all the way to the Mayan culture in Guatemala.  Tell me a little bit about that experience. What did you discover?

Dr. Ted Fischer:       That’s right, and so part of the idea behind this research was, “Okay, we all want to live the good life, but we differ and sometimes violently on what the good life is and how best to
achieve it.  What is the path to the good life?”  So, I said, “Well, let’s look at some really radically different places.  The US for sure, but let’s look at Germany, another country, another wealthy country, another developed country, and see what they think about the good life, and let’s look at Guatemala, a poor country, a country inhabited largely by rural Mayan farmers, and what do they see.”  Lots of differences as you might imagine, I mean these are radically different cultures, but I
think what is most interesting are the similarities.  The sense of people aspire to something a little bit better in their lives and those aspirations, being able to cultivate those aspirations, and crucially
believing there is a real chance that I could achieve those, not a guarantee.  I grew up, I might have said I wanted to be the president of the United States, I am not president of the United States.  It is not
in the cards for me now.  So, it is not that you are going to achieve every dream that pops into your head, but you live in a world in which if I work really hard and I am a little lucky and the stars align, this could be achievable.  That is really important for people.  If you feel like you are in a dead‑end job, if you feel like for whatever reason that again discrimination sometimes or just sort of the economic circumstances in which one was born or raised in, if you feel like there is no way out, then it leads to this frustration that can turn into violence and depression and …

Janet McCutchen:     Am I hearing then there is a certain position of hope involved?  So, it is not just a matter of what you think you would like to achieve.  It is having the aspiration, that hope, that sense of possibility, and also having systems and economies that support that.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Absolutely, and that is a great way of putting it, is hope exactly, that we need to have hope.  I think it is fundamental to the human condition,  this sort of hope, and it is what
keeps us going, yes, and crucially as you said also that there are structures that we would call in anthropology and sociology institutional structures that can help that along.

Janet McCutchen:     So, when we look at this mind-set with respect to wellness and we look at this application to our lives, what is something that we might be able to implement right now to kind of jump start of our own personal journey toward the good life?

Dr. Ted Fischer:       That is a great question.  And of course, we academics, we would like to stay in the clouds and in the ivory tower, not make practical recommendations always, but there are some lessons I think that we can learn.  One is in thinking about going forward in one’s life our plans, New Year’s resolutions, or plans for the next 5 years, or our hopes for children.  It is important for us to step back from the things that might seem so pressing in the moment.  Sure, I want to lose a few pounds; sure, I need to stop smoking; sure, I need to do all of these things; and yes, I am not saying that those are not important, those are really important as well; but it is also important for us to step back and think what is really important in life, right?  What am I going to remember in 10 years’ time?  Is it going to be this little raise that I got this year?  We would all like to have raises, and that is well and good, nothing wrong with that.

Janet McCutchen:     Yes, we are knocking that.  We want Vanderbilt to know.  We are not opposed to that!

Dr. Ted Fischer:       Absolutely.  At the same time, I need to spend more time with my family, and research shows that we remember experiences more than things much more vividly, and so while we might attach our short‑term hopes to that nice suit or dress or that nicer car or these things that cost money, actually in 20 years, we will much more vividly remember that night we stayed up late with the family and watched a movie or played a game or that trip that we took together and did something, and so investing in relationships and investing in experiences is really important and as important as income in many ways.

Janet McCutchen:     Outstanding.  So, not only for our listeners, but evidently cross‑culturally, that is a consistent thing among humanity.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       That’s right.

Janet McCutchen:     That’s a great way to jump start, I think more reading.  You have books out, you have a blog as well, and what is your blog again?  Remind our listeners of your blog.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       They can reach it at .

Janet McCutchen:     Fantastic.  Thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Ted Fischer:       It was a real pleasure.

LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW HERE:  The Good Life: What Really Matters | Health and Wellness | Vanderbilt University