Phil Hanlon: Change one day at a time

Concept of prosperity without growth is replacing material acquisitiveness, such as banking scandal
Concept of prosperity without growth is replacing material acquisitiveness, such as banking scandal
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Major alterations are required in the way we live our lives, but these can be effected on an individual and manageable basis, writes Phil Hanlon

Many of Scotland’s health problems might best be called “dis-eases”. Problems such as obesity, addictions and loss of wellbeing reflect an “inner” struggle to cope with modern life. Such “dis-eases” belong to a suite of modern problems which also include climate change, inequalities and debt. They are consequences of the world we have created for ourselves.

So, when the AFTERnow project originally asked “What’s next for the health of society?”, my answer was “The future is emergent”. The “dis-eases” will only improve if we make quite profound changes in the way we live our lives. What’s interesting is that we have discovered many people throughout Scotland who have come, independently, to similar conclusions. They are asking “how should we live?” These are some of the lessons we have learned from them.

Live with joy: Economically and ecologically, our current trajectory is unsustainable. In many ways, this is a cause for celebration. It gives us the opportunity to escape from a variety of manifestations of modernity that we have simply “taken too far”. For example, individual freedom is liberating – but selfish individualism is isolating and damaging. If we concentrate on what we are moving towards, we can live with real joy.

Live with acceptance: Modernity brought many benefits. We must keep the best while accepting that the era of seemingly endless growth (of people, money, consumption and waste) is now over. We should accept that we now need “prosperity without growth”. We should happily accept that within a generation the whole world’s population will be older and declining in numbers. We should accept that we are living through a massive transformation at the end of which we will have created new “inner worlds” that will manifest new outer worlds.

Live with imagination: Our current “maps” of the world are not working. If we are to navigate the transition, we need to imagine a future that is profoundly different. We need to find the creativity to make our dreams a reality. The good news is that this type of imagination and creativity is evident throughout Scotland (we have seen many examples). How do we live with greater creativity? One profound truth is that play helps us to be more creative. Make time for fun and adventure in your life. It is a vital necessity, not a luxury. Make time for reflection. Get yourself into circumstances that cause you to think differently. It is from these experiences that new “maps” will emerge.

Live with compassion: Start with yourself. My colleague, David Reilly, often says to patients: “Would you feed your dog what you feed yourself?” “Would you deprive your child of sleep in the way you do yourself?” His point is obvious. We care for our pets, our families and for others in a way we sometimes fail to care for ourselves. Given that we all pretty much know how to care for our bodies, we need to care enough about ourselves to live accordingly. At the other extreme, we need compassion for the whole world – for its entire people and the ecosystem that supports us all. It’s true that our instincts were formed in groups that were tribal. But our history since has been of faltering but steady progress towards a more expansive consciousness. Compassion comes out of creative engagement: getting involved in a charity that links with people and places that might currently seem foreign is a good way to start. In time, our whole way of life will be informed by a global consciousness.

Live with vocation: The word “vocation” refers to an occupation or activity to which a person is specially drawn. One striking feature of our learning journeys was that – where we found projects engaged in transformational change – the individuals that were making things happen were clearly acting out of a sense of vocation. Each individual’s story was different yet the core narrative was the same. Individuals described their growing sense of dissatisfaction with their previous life and work. Then, they talked of how they imagined something different. Finally, they made some kind of statement to the effect that they could not imagine doing anything other than the activity to which they had now become fully committed.

Live with a community of support: Those who are most actively seeking transformation tend to do so with a group or network of like-minded people. Small groups and networks are emerging all over the country and, for that matter, the globe. What unites them is an awareness of the crisis or modernity and the need to create something better. I think a movement is emerging. It is not a political movement. Rather, I think it is an expression of that wonderful human capacity to respond creatively to crisis.

Live with less: The challenge of sustainability means that we all have to learn to “use less stuff”. However, we should remember that less can often be more. I hope it is not trite to say that we would improve our wellbeing if we had less advertising, less pornography, less consumerism and less waste. Many would like less mindless choice, less “targets” and less bureaucracy. Recognising that less can be more leads to voluntary simplicity. Some may be thinking, “It’s all very well for you to be talking about living with less and living with creativity, but the life circumstances of many in Britain make such advice very difficult”. I agree. People like me should be very careful about offering solutions because we can never truly understand the circumstances of others. Yet, none of that changes the realities we face. We do have a crisis of sustainability. The whole world cannot “level up” to the consumption patterns of those who are wealthiest. So, yes, the objection is valid but there is a danger that we limit our repertoire of possible responses because good ideas are not equally appropriate for all members of our population.

Live with ideals: Some will judge much of what I am saying to be impossibly idealistic. Yet, one of the problems we currently face is that we lack ideals: our vote goes to the party we think might put a few more pounds in our pockets. We need ideals.

Live with balance: We need ideals but we do not need is ideologies. The 20th century is scarred by conflicts between nations that embraced different ideologies. So, we need to be idealistic but realistic about human nature.

Live with a personal daily practice: The people we met who inspired us most live with some form of daily practice: meditation; reading and contemplation; spending time in nature; prayer; and a variety of other activities.

Live with hope: It must have been tough for our earliest ancestors in the African forests when the climate changed. Yet, that hardship forced them to learn how to survive on grassland and led to the “out of Africa” migration and subsequent population of the rest of the world. How traumatising it must have been for crofters to be pulled off the land and into factories when the industrial revolution started. Human beings have made great transitions before and we can do so again. This is why we should live with hope.

• Phil Hanlon is professor of public health at University of Glasgow