Maureen Tuthill

Michael Samuelson: Keep asking So, what? until you get to Aha!

Change is easy.  Sustaining change is hard.  After 40 years in the field of health promotion, Michael Samuelson has learned a few things about human behavior.  Anyone can start a diet or an exercise regimen, but sticking to it requires motivation that comes from the deepest springs of the soul. 

It has to mean something.  Samuelson, an author and speaker on health, leadership, and the dynamics of change, is also a cancer survivor who knows what it’s like to push through personal chaos toward a state of subjective well-being.  He says that staying healthy can never be about metrics, those unfeeling numbers that tell us to lose weight, lower our blood pressure or cut out the cholesterol.  Over time, we lose interest in abstract indicators because they fail to provide the answer to a simple question: How are we doing in life, really?

We are always in process, according to Samuelson. The changes we make to enhance our well-being— psychologically, physically, emotionally, and economically—should be incremental, dynamic and never-ending.  Change might begin with the intellectual or the emotional, but it won’t stick unless it’s “visceral.”  He says: “When it’s visceral it hits you right in the belly—it has huge meaning for you in the way you perceive your life and what you think you need to do.  When that occurs, your bones are shaking and your spirit is lifted.”

As Samuelson points out, we have an abundance of tools around wellness, but so often we grapple with them without truly seeing how they might deepen our lives. Sometimes, we downright reject the obvious path to well-being.  “That’s the perplexity of bright people doing stupid things,” he says.  “We’ve got the science of life down pretty well, but it’s the art of living part of it that has been the challenge.”

According to Samuelson, our current social contract around health is grounded in the practice of self-responsibility.  But to be responsible about our health, we need awareness, access, and affordability.  There is an assumption that, in maintaining our own health, we are advancing the interests of the group.  But the endeavor is still highly personal and laden with value judgments about whether the pursuit of health is even worth it.

When contemplating change that brings about wellness, we have a multitude of medical and health options that can seem like empty promises.  In weighing those options, Samuelson recommends the following: Keep asking, “So, what?” until you get to “Aha!” 

Case in point: If I do X, then Y will happen. So, what?  If Y happens, then I will get Z.  So, what?  If I get Z . . . then I will be able to spend my old age walking in the woods with my grandchildren.  Aha!

Such moments of realization do not come naturally to us, Samuelson says, because we live in a culture of distraction, compartmentalization, and constant activity where we obsess over the concept of work-life balance.  “There are tons of blips out there that are coming at people, who don’t want to stop for fear that without some kind of motion they will be stuck in a quagmire.”

Samuelson has travelled around the globe, visiting places where the struggle for survival is so acute that the luxury of choosing between work and play is incomprehensible.  In those places, he says, love, play, work, and joy blend together in a state of perpetual flow, and happiness comes in small moments of being fulfilled.  Once, while he was walking through a mud hut village on the way to Machu Pichu, Samuelson was struck by the flowers blooming outside each dwelling.  Every mud hut celebrated its own existence in the midst of what we, in our Western perception, would call abject poverty.  But to Samuelson, it was a revelation about simplicity: “Whatever your world is, is your world.”

That is why Samuelson defines health loosely, and without metrics.  Healthy people, he says, “are individuals who have a very good sense of self—they’re comfortable in their own skin.  They do not look to harm themselves or others.”  And health is not the end, he says, it is merely a vehicle to what brings meaning to our lives.

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