Reflecting on 2021 and the Courageous Optimism We Need

As we reflect upon 2021, we must first acknowledge the “Triple Existential Threat” as National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzautriple recently described it—our climate crisis, systemic racism, and a pandemic that has shone a light on inequities. Recognizing the interconnection of these threats is key to both understanding and solving them. 

And while it is essential to identify and name the problems we face—that cannot be the end. We must also explore and share solutions.

Even as 2021 was a time of challenges and upheaval across the world, for the Nova Institute it represented an important juncture in our decades-long quest to transform the predominant approach to health and healthcare. Building upon fourteen years of success and lessons learned, it was time to reaffirm who we are and what we are about. 

Over my career, I have focused on expanding the view of medicine to a more whole person approach, then, in founding the Nova Institute, I felt it was important to embrace a more inclusive integrative health approach that acknowledges the many upstream factors that influence well-being. Today we broaden our gaze even further, shifting the dialogue from disease to health, and now from health to flourishing, at all scales of person, place, and planet

Along with this sharpened focus came our new name and new website, launched just last month, to better tell the stories of our work—especially our incredible community of Scholars and Fellows and describe our focus areas.  

Despite the pandemic that kept us apart in person but not in spirit, over the past year these thought leaders conducted and published research around pressing topics that could not be more timely. These included the state of primary care in the United States and how it needs to be re-envisioned, the role that art and nature play in helping people heal, why some communities thrive while others don’t, ways to pursue health equity, how wisdom and flourishing are essential to good health, and much more.  

Our demonstration projects included expanding a successful program that teaches medical students about culinary medicine, which we are working to replicate across the country. We also launched a new initiative to help burned-out primary care providers through stress management techniques that tap into the best of heart-centered research and integrative medicine.    

We also welcomed inVIVO Planetary Health as an initiative of the Nova Institute and finished out the year by joining the inVIVO community in an incredible international conference with more than 150 presentations that left participants feeling inspired, invigorated, and hungry for further connection.   

All of this solutions-oriented work was made possible by passionate and dedicated experts in their fields who are eager to see a world where all people enjoy meaningful and fulfilling lives—no matter where they live, work, or play. Their generosity of spirit, and the sense of community we create by working together, gives me hope. 

At the beginning of the year an Oxfam report predicted that, in light of the pandemic, almost every country in the world will see an increase in inequality for the first time since records began. The report noted that more than 3 billion people had no access to healthcare and three quarters of workers had no access to sick pay.   

Given what we have all witnessed this year, no doubt summaries of 2021 will have even more dire conclusions for health.  

It will truly take outrageous acts of courage to create the change we want to see, and it will require inclusivity and collaboration, combined with knowledge and experience, to improve the entire lived experience that influences health. That’s what we’ll be focusing on at Nova, and we are excited to tackle the challenge. As a professor of mine at Columbia University, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, said, “Never doubt the power of a small group to make change; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”