Ancient Greek philosophers can teach us a considerable amount about living a fulfilled life, according to several speakers at the wellbeing workshop at the FPH conference in 2012.
Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, Chair of Public Health at the University of Warwick, began the debate by looking at how different traditions define wellbeing. Her starting point was that Descartes was wrong – and the mind and body are very much connected.
The Greek traditions of Aristole and other philosophers, along with the Eastern belief systems of Buddism, Hinduism and Islam all offer differing perspectives on wellbeing. Aristotle framed wellbeing as being about our responsibility to live in a way that allows us to flourish. For this to happen, we need positive relations with others, confidence self-acceptance and autonomy and we need to feel that we can influence our environment. Dr Martin Seligmann, founder of positive psychology, says wellbeing is about authentic happiness and being able to do more of what makes you happy. All these approaches suggest that the key to wellbeing lies within ourselves.
Many social scientists argue that wellbeing is determined by external factors social conditions like income and GDP, but some economists, including the new economics foundation (nef), have shown a very tenuous relationship between wellbeing and GDP. Stewart-Brown talked about how the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale, which she developed, is very popular because it focuses entirely on the positive aspects of mental health. For many years, the focus of mental health has been on the negatives – i.e. mental ill health, not positive outcomes about what good mental health or wellbeing looks like. Focusing on positive outcomes can be an intervention in its own right.
This focus on positive outcomes was reiterated by the second speaker; journalist, author and academic Jules Evans, who you can hear talking about his presentation here. His interest in wellbeing came about through his experience of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helped him with his anxiety and panic attacks. He found Freudian psychotherapy focused too much on the problems of the past, and not enough on how to enjoy the present.
He travelled to New York to interview Aaron T. Beck, one of the founders of CBT, about the Greek philosophical origins of this form of therapy. Essentially, he believes that while we cannot choose what happens to us, Greek philosophy gives us the tools to choose how we react to it. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus’s ancient habit of keeping a diary is one we can continue in modern times: it helps us keep track of our emotions and progress in changing behaviour.
It also demonstrates the value in putting effort into conscious decision making, which takes much more effort than our automatic habits. For example, for someone giving up smoking or trying to lose weight, they can chart their progress objectively, rather than assuming the worst if their resolve fails.