People really like labels. We like them so much that we slap them on everything in our lives, in fact. Some are useful as in the case of danger signs which alert us to potential threats or open and closed signs which let us know when or if we can do business.

But signs are only one example of how we like to label things; and though we probably don’t give it much conscious thought, their direct usefulness typically ends there. Labels, after all, are simply — good or bad — a verbal or visual shortcut which allows us to convey information quickly, if not completely accurately, without going into an extended explanation.

Labels are such a universal part of our lives that back in 1935 R. Stan Avery invented a machine that produced a self-adhesive label to make our need to label things easier. With an initial investment of $100 from a school teacher (who later became his wife), Dorothy Durfee, he combined a washing machine motor and parts from a sewing machine and saber saw. This eventually led to the little plastic contraption with its spool of sticky plastic “tape” which delighted generations of children and annoyed generations of parents who inevitably would need to peel “Property of Mike” labels off television remotes and cookie jars that had not, in fact, been labeled properly.

Mr. Avery and the former Ms. Durfee generated a legacy that lives on in shampoo bottle labels, various business supplies, the automobile industry, and even self-adhesive postage stamps for the United States Postal Service.

The enterprising future couple fulfilled a need and built a business empire which generated billions of dollars, all based around our desire — and yes, in some cases, need — to slap labels (literally) on things. But in spite of the fact that labels might generate an image and an implication on how we would need to react to a certain person, place, or thing quickly, there is often important supporting information which is ignored in that quick reaction.  

Aside from the somewhat inaccurate property claims of “Mike,” there are a nearly infinite number of other things which have been labeled too quickly, and with far too little thought. As someone far more clever than I once observed, “Why do we park in a driveway, but drive on a parkway?” Yes, there is a very long list of things which could benefit from a judicious relabeling, or in many cases an un-labeling. A perfect example of this is people.

Mother and father, daughter and son, and even the assorted labeling of aunts, uncles, and cousins are still serviceable for their point of reference qualities. But labels lose their benefit and effectiveness when applied on a personal level. Who we are, how we think and react to the world around us, and how the world around us impacts our personal health and happiness isn’t quite so easy to reduce to a one or two word label. Just those two words — health and happiness — could mean radically different things to separate individuals, even those within the same biological family.

Still, we want the labels, the shortcuts, because it gives us a sense of order in an often chaotic universe. It saves us a lot of time and thought and helps us to avoid reinventing the wheel each time, so to speak. In fact, I think I’ll start labeling everything in my life under the category of either “work” or “home.” Sounds quite streamlined and simple and should be relatively easy to accomplish. What I’m doing right now will be slid under the work label, and that sandwich I plan on having after while will definitely be under the home category. Pretty sweet, because I only have to remember two things, after all.

The problem with this is that few if any things are ever that simple. What if, for instance, I get really busy and just eat my sandwich while working? Does it become a work sandwich then? Or, what if I answer a work telephone call from home; does that phone call become home entertainment or homework? Suddenly it isn’t so sweet, and my labels need to be longer than one word each. In broad terms it works, but in more personal terms the categories are much more challenging to define. By the way, if you take a nap while working from home, should you clock out first? Asking for a friend …

  Although this can and should be applied to most labels, resisting the urge to distill everything down to a single or few words is never more important than when we consider our overall health. Being “healthy” isn’t something that can be applied unilaterally to every individual with the same number of qualifiers. Healthy for one may not be healthy for another, especially when using superficial modifiers like weight and activity. We all have individual needs after all; the person rocking the “dad bod” might actually be healthier than another person who seems to be in phenomenal shape. This isn’t always the case, of course, but that is the point. Healthy should mean healthy for you, or healthy for me. Shortcuts seldom apply to both.

Shortcuts such as labels can be useful, but only if they serve our needs rather than define us. Healthy food, for instance, is a useful label because it gives us a range of foods from which to choose that we know have positive benefits. But those benefits need to be applied to each of us somewhat differently.

Peanuts, for instance, are considered a “good” food to consume for most people. But only most, because some people are severely allergic and have a dangerous reaction to the otherwise “good” food. This is one extreme example, of course, but it is a reminder that labels such as “good” aren’t universally accurate.

We need to remember that health — and even happiness, for that matter — is a process that we are going through on a personal, non-generic, basis. Take advice from professionals, by all means; but the real trick is discovering how that advice impacts each of us. Lose weight, gain weight, run marathons or take slow walks in the park with your dog. It isn’t about labels, after all, but about how we feel and what we can do to improve our lives. And along the way, hopefully, we will all smile a whole lot more when we stop judging ourselves on how a label says we should live.

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