Only friendship, freedom and thought have absolute value


SECOND OPINION:One of the consolations for not having enough money is that the three most important human needs – friendship, freedom and thought – are free of charge. Coincidentally these needs are also good for health.

Alain de Botton, in The Consolations of Philosophy, uses six of the world’s great philosophers to identify ways of dealing with everyday problems. Socrates (469BC–399BC) offers consolation for being unpopular; Epicurus (341BC– 270BC) shows how to be content with little money; Seneca (4BC–AD65) deals with the frustrations of modern life; Montaigne (1533–1592) provides ideas for dealing with sexual and intellectual inadequacies; Schopenhauer (1788–1860) guides the healing of a broken heart; and Nietzsche (1844–1900) shows the impossibility of having a happy life without being miserable some of the time.

Material things

According to de Botton, happiness is often linked to material things, such as houses with bathrooms for every family member and separate ones for guests. Epicurus, although he believed in sensual pleasure, concluded that the things that make life pleasurable, however elusive, are not expensive.

Epicurus divided human desires into three categories: those that are natural and necessary, those that are natural and unnecessary, and those that are neither natural nor necessary.

In the first category he put friends, freedom, thought and physical needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Category two includes the things that people want and don’t need: mansions, big bathrooms, and lots and lots of food. In category three are those things that do not contribute one iota to happiness, such as power, fame and celebrity lifestyles.

Plausible solutions

De Botton asks why, if the things in categories two and three do not make us happy, we are so powerfully attracted to them, and argues that acquisitions can feel like plausible solutions to underlying needs we don’t bother to understand.

People shop for things they can’t afford when they need a friend, a more appreciative spouse or some thinking time. He notes that “we need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves”.

Human needs are skewed by commercial interests, which promote false visions of the joy conferred by material things. Knowing they cannot sell actual friendship, freedom and thought, they sell useless self-help books on how to fulfil these needs.

Friendship, freedom and thought are important determinants of health. The quality and quantity of friendships and other social relationships are linked to physical and mental health and also to chronic ill-health and mortality.

Research involving 148 different studies and 308,849 participants found there is a 50 per cent increased likelihood of survival for those with good friends and strong relationships. The overall health effect is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality such as obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness and social isolation have the same negative effect on health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes, or drinking more than six alcohol units, every day.

The positive effect of friendship on health is consistent across all ages and both sexes. The researchers concluded that medical checks should routinely include social wellbeing.

Positive thinking

Being able to think is important for health and most people are familiar with how negative and positive thinking have an immediate impact on their feelings of wellbeing.

Thinking is a skill which involves arguments in one’s own head, asking what is truth, what is best and why. Thinking does not so much involve answering life’s questions, as questioning answers given by the media and experts of all kinds.

Most people do not think and are happy to accept advertisers’ evaluations of products. They do not read labels and they don’t wonder about sources of health information.

Health is also linked to freedom, political rights and civil liberties. Political rights include electoral processes, political pluralism and public participation. Civil liberties include freedom of expression and belief, associational and organisational rights, rule of law and personal autonomy.

Research involving 181 countries, including Ireland (which is ranked top for freedom), found strong links between country-level freedom and health outcomes, such as life expectancy, infant mortality, measures of wealth inequality, and government spending on health and public services.

The researchers concluded that health is influenced by macro-level political forces as well as by environments and personal choices.

After last week’s budget, many people will find it hard to look after their physical needs for food, shelter and clothing. The only consolation is that that our friendships, freedom and thinking don’t cost us a red cent.

Dr JACKY JONESis a former HSE regional manager of health promotion