The 7 Habits of Highly Healthy People

By Warren Holleman

A quarter century ago a guy named Stephen Covey wrote a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As best I recall, it only sold a few dozen copies, so I’d doubt you ever heard of it.

Slide1Which is really a shame. I think that maybe, just maybe, the book might have had some potential, if only it had had a better title. What if this Covey fellow had named his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Healthy People”? I’ll bet he’d have sold hundreds and hundreds of copies! And, who knows, maybe he’d have become famous!

If only . . .  Here’s what might have been. . .

Habit 1: Get Your Life in Balance

I never liked the term “work-life balance.” It implies that our life only begins after our workday and workweek end. I’d like to think I live my life 24/7 and that my work is an important part of my life, not just something I do to make money to pay for my “life.” I’d also like to think that my life is richer than just a hodgepodge of activities I cram in after I get off work in the evening. I try to devote significant time and energy to at least 4 areas: my work, my family, my community, and my own self-care. Take any of these away, and my life becomes incomplete. But if I make the investment, I experience the bounties of a full and joyous life: a meaningful career; a healthy lifestyle; a happy, loving family; and a positive connection to my friends and my community.

Habit 2: Get Your Work in BalanceSlide1

What motivates you to get up and go to work each day? Is it just the paycheck, or something more? If money is all you want from your job, then I’m guessing you’re not a very happy person. Sure, we need money to survive. But we need meaning to thrive.

Take some time to think about what makes your work meaningful, satisfying, fulfilling. The most common answers I hear are: “Helping other people;” “Solving problems;” “Making the world a better place.” People also tell me they derive meaning from jobs that offer opportunities for personal and professional growth: new skills, new challenges, new opportunities. Even those who feel stuck in dead end jobs tell me they derive meaning and fulfillment from knowing they will use the money they make to improve the life of their family and the opportunities for their children.

Habit 3: Get Your Energy in Balance

If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you consume less calories than you burn, you will lose weight. And if you consume and burn the same amount, you’ll stay the same. It’s that simple. And this chart shows you how to do the math. Do you lead a sedentary lifestyle? Then up your game: stand more and sit less; walk more and ride less; and, exercise more often and more vigorously. Do you eat lots of high calorie/low nutrient foods? Then cut back on your carbs, unless of course you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail or training for a marathon.

Dietary Guidelines

(One thing I’ve learned over the years: This chart is brutally accurate. However, there’s a lag time of 3-6 weeks between my eating/exercise change and my weight change.)


Habit 4: Get Your Anxiety in Balance

I know this sounds strange. Most of us try to eliminate our anxiety, not “get it in balance.” Truth is, eliminating our anxiety is just as bad as having too much anxiety. In one case, I’m miserable because I take on too many challenges, and in the other, I die of boredom. Healthy people know that the best place to be is in the middle, where we take on enough challenges to keep us engaged and growing, but not so many challenges that we feel overwhelmed by stress.

Slide1Psychologist Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi calls this middle state the “flow channel.” Show me a person who has zero anxiety, and I’ll bet she’s either dead or high. Show me a person who has too much anxiety, and at some point she’ll starting wishing she were dead or high. Show me a person in the flow channel, and I’ll show you a person who’s loving her life. So . . . find your flow.

Habit 5: Train Your Brain

There are at least 8 components of a healthy mind: (1) awareness—both of ourselves and the world around us; (2) attention—the ability to gain and maintain focus; (3) presence—the ability to listen and observe; (4) analysis—the ability to solve problems; (5) reflection—the ability to recognize connections and implications, and thus to gain perspective; (6) creativity—the ability to see old things in new ways, to think outside the box, to make art; (6) memory—the ability to recall the past so that, hopefully, we can build upon our successes and learn from our mistakes; (7) flexibility—not being stuck in one way of viewing things or doing things; and, (8) the ability to relax. If you stay plugged to your devices for long periods of time, your brain will become programmed only to respond to beeps and vibrations. In other words, you’ll become a very efficient lab rat. If you watch TV all day, you’ll dumb down to the IQ of a (couch) potato. But if you engage your brain in mindfulness training, artistic expression, and social connections, your brain will unleash amazing power and potential.

Habit 6: Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Most of us need 7 ½ to 8 hours sleep every night, but we only get 6-7 hours. So we’re chronically fatigued. This has implications not only for our happiness and productivity, but also for our energy balance (because we feel tired, we forego our exercise and then we eat to stay awake) and our relationships with family and friends (when we’re tired, we’re irritable; or, we just don’t feel like being sociable, so we isolate). Some people try to quick-fix the problem with a pill or a few glasses of alcohol. This is a REALLY bad idea: a short-term solution that causes bigger problems in the long run. Here’s what works for me: (1) Exercise every day, so that when I go to bed at night, I’m physically fatigued; (2) Get ready for bed an hour before I plan to go to sleep; (3) Turn out all the lights except the one beside my bed; (4) read a novel until my eyes grow weary; and then (5) turn out the light, and enjoy sweet dreams.

Habit 7: Stay Centered

You can be physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially healthy, but if you lack a sense of the sacred in your life and a sense of meaning and purpose in your activities, you’re just going through the motions. My own experience is that my spiritual journey must involve a breadth of “religious” experience. My church is a part of that journey, but only one part. By getting out into nature I experience life’s awe-inspiring wonders, beauties, and mysteries, and I derive from that a sense of reverence, gratitude, and humility, and also a moral imperative to be a good steward of my planet. By delving deep inside myself via meditation, contemplation, and prayer, I experience the fruits of solitude: a richer awareness of myself and the world around me; a fuller, deeper purpose and meaning; and, a quieter, calmer, centered mind. By building quality relationships with friends and family, I experience life’s two most extravagant gifts: love and joy. Both as a giver and as a receiver.

Summing Up

Just in case it isn’t clear, I have a deep appreciation for The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s sort of like a self-help book, but it has a moral intelligence that’s rare in that genre.

I’m also interested, though, in exploring the habits of healthy people. I’d appreciate any feedback you’re willing to give in terms of whether the topic might be a good one for a book, or at least a workshop, and whether the 7 habits I chose are the ones worth focusing on. Or are there others?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading “Dr. Kildaire Doesn’t Work Here Anymore.
Special thanks to MD Anderson’s WorkLife & Wellness team for giving me the opportunity to speak to the Be Well Champs on “The 7 Habits of Highly Healthy People.”
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  1. Charlotte Chung - March 1, 2016 @ 7:20 pm


    This is a great blog post. I think an area that is not highlighted is the relational dimension of a human person. It is a huge topic in and of itself but the simplest way to capture it is that a healthy person is able to enjoy healthy intimate relationships with others (both people and God, or the divine for those of other faith affiliations). The healthier a person is (in the person’s sense of wholeness), this person is able to share one’s life with others, even give one’s life to others. This does not imply marriage as a higher state than singlehood. A single person can enjoy healthy intimacy with others as much as a married person does.

  2. admin - March 2, 2016 @ 4:40 am

    Charlotte- You are SO RIGHT about the relational dimension. I actually had that in my list but it got bumped by something else. Perhaps I need to have 8 habits or else combine a couple of the others. I just read back through my list and it’s pretty individualistic. The 1 place where relationships fit in is under “Life Balance.” There are the family relationships and there are other friendships–which for me are part of the community quadrant. -Warren

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