In his book “The Life You Can Save”, Peter Singer(1) mentions some research which shows that old people are healthier and live longer when they do some voluntary work. Whilst some of the benefit of this may just be down to them being a bit more active, it seems likely that the feeling they get from contributing something worthwhile is also involved. This doesn’t surprise me at all, and in fact I would suspect that it does not just apply to old people; I would think that everyone’s health would benefit from a sense that they are contributing in some way.
The word health is etymologically related to the word ‘whole’ – the Old English word ‘hal’, meaning ‘hale, whole’, is where we get the word health from. (So, really, the term “holistic health care” is a tautology). Health then is about being connected up properly, both within ourselves, and, I would suggest, with the world around us. When we are separated, or even alienated, from that world, our health will suffer.
This suggests a relationship between ethics and health. OK, we are well used to the connections between what we eat and drink and our health, between the amount of exercise we get and our health, the amount of stress we are under and our health, but do we ever stop to consider the health consequences of the way we behave in the world? A Buddhist text(2) enumerates some of the benefits of having a kindly attitude towards others in our life, and these benefits include getting to sleep easily (how many people would like that!), waking up easily, and having a bright complexion.
This kindly attitude is not some sentimental fluffiness, but an ability to fully empathise with others and a willingness to help others when they need it. Its opposite arises when we build walls between ourselves and others, either because we feel threatened by them, or because of greed. It’s not always easy to develop this kind of attitude, but it can be done.
And as Singer’s book so clearly demonstrates, most of us now have every opportunity of helping others in a major way – we can literally save lives. Making sure we do contribute to the welfare of others is, I would suggest, one of the ways in which we can promote our own health. So, make sure you get your eight bits of fruit and veg a day, but maybe also make sure that you do your best for other people.