On Wellbeing and Being Ill

I was invited to become a Fellow of the RSA a few weeks ago. I looked at their website and decided that the idea was appealing. What I like about the RSA is their focus on improving lives. They do this in many ways, through the arts, education and thoughtful discussion – all of which is the sort of stuff that stimulates thinking and broadens horizons. (End of punt for the RSA)

Yesterday, while sitting in various waiting rooms of Addenbrookes hospital in preparation for being poked, prodded and perforated in the pursuit of health, I paged through the RSA’s journal. It seemed fitting, given where I was, to read the article written by Havi Carel and entitled simply, “Illness.” As both a philosopher and the sufferer of an untreatable lung disease, she is eminently qualified to write about what it is to be ill.

Her article is a powerful reminder of the fact that we don’t know how to deal with the uncomfortable things in life.  And when we’re uncertain about how to deal with things, we tend to do them badly.  Her approach to long term illness is staggeringly healthy. She has developed the ability to see what’s really important and, rather than dwelling on the things she can’t change, looks to those where she can make a positive impact on her own life and those she cares about. How many of us can claim to have that taped?

I decided to look up Havi’s book online and discovered a whole series of books on the Art of Life. One of them is entitled ‘Wellbeing’ by Mark Vernon and judging from the title you would be forgiven for thinking that its subject is the direct opposite of Havi’s book. But not so. According to Mark, wellbeing is fundamentally driven by having a real sense of meaning and purpose. And if you look at the topics covered in each book, “Illness” and “Wellbeing”, or you read the article in the RSA journal, you find a common thread: That in illness you can have wellbeing, and in rude health it is also quite feasible to lack wellbeing.

Perhaps we should reframe our concepts of illness and wellbeing.  Its all in our sense of perspective: