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Eric Fromm and Classical Chinese Conceptions of Health

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

In 1976, Fromm, a sociologist and psychoanalyst, published a book called To Have or To Be? and modern medicine began to understand health in ways common in the Far East for millennia

The ancient Chinese took a much broader approach to health than we in the modern West conventionally do, an approach which is codified as ‘The Nine Palaces of Heart Health’. If you look below at the schematic representation of the palaces it’s only the central palace, the Physical Health Palace that seems to speak directly to health as we conventionally consider it.

The palace of physical health has a central position in this schema because the health of the body in some way underpins all the endeavours implied by the other palaces. What might be less immediately obvious is how those other Palaces support the physical health of the body. However advances in medical science are uncovering just such links.

It’s now well known that, for men at least, marriage improves life expectancy (Palace of Partnership), while having children can also increase life expectancy, although the mechanism is unclear (Palace of Family) and engaging in life-long learning (Palace of Knowledge) has been shown to help combat age related declines in mental function. There’s also very clear links between social isolation and loneliness and a whole range of health complaints: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and increased mortality. But what does any of this have to do with Eric Fromm?

In 1976, Fromm, a sociologist and psychoanalyst, published a book called To Have or To Be? In it he suggested that we have two modes of being, the having mode and the being mode. These modes are not mutually exclusive and relate to two types of needs; ‘Having’ type needs, such as the need for food and shelter etc. and ‘Being’ type needs, such as the need to be loved, to be valued and to create that value for others etc. Fromm thought that Western society had become stuck in the having mode to the detriment of our health, which might be better served by a rediscovery of the being mode.

The cognitive scientist John Vervaeke describes as modal confusion our attempts to get our being needs met from within the having mode. In fact we have a whole industry, the advertising industry, predicated on instilling this modal confusion. It’s why the focus of an advert is rarely on the thing being sold and much more often on the context within which it is appearing. The thing represents our essentially limited having need while the context taps into our deeper, broader, being needs.

What struck me looking at the schema of the Palaces above is that of the eight Palaces that surround and support our physical health, only one, the Wealth Palace is about having as Fromm described it while the others are about being. Although one might argue that the cultivation of gratitude, a more being mode activity, might be placed in the Wealth Palace, it remains true that once we have sufficient resources to meet our basic physical needs we are free to deepen our relationships with our family, to work to strengthen our social networks, to improve our knowledge, to be more creative etc. The word that springs to my mind here is cultivation, these are all things we can cultivate, that lead to greater happiness and life satisfaction, and in cultivating them we are simultaneously cultivating our health.


Bruce Bell is a fully trained 5 Element Acupuncturist working in the Midsomer Norton / Radstock area, and also from a clinic on the edge of Bath.

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