A lot of what I’ve written so far has been about balance – the balance between being with others and being alone; the balance between sorting out your own problems and reaching out for help. Here’s another balance than works for me – the balance between looking after myself and looking after other people.
It is entirely reasonable to wish to have a pleasant life, to seek to be happy and contented as much as possible. We all need to chill out, pamper ourselves, enjoy protected ‘me’ time. But it is also good for us to engage in purposeful activity, to devote time and effort to people or things other than ourselves.
I write ‘good for us to engage in purposeful activity’ deliberately. I don’t just mean that it is morally good, or the right thing to do. I also mean that it is probably good for our health.
There is evidence that a combination of looking after self and looking after others helps us to stay healthy. Carol Ryff is a very thoughtful psychologist from Wisconsin in the United States. She is working on some elegant studies with older people to check out the relationship between different sorts of well-being and future health. She’s shown that increasing your personal well-being can improve your blood sugar levels, and that people who look after others are less likely to develop of diabetes. Also that greater psychological well-being - including positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance – helps you sleep.
If you look back at the well-being recipes that we produced on this blog a few weeks ago, you’ll see that they all contain a combination of looking after self and looking after others. So, perhaps instinctively, we are aware of this need for balance between self and other.
What sorts of purposeful activity are good for us?
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we should be involved in moral communities, using our skills to enrich our own lives and the lives of those around us. Martin Seligman (another US psychologist) distinguishes between the good life, which involves us in gratifying engagement outside ourselves, whether in work, love or play; and the meaningful life, in which we place ourselves in the service of something larger than ourselves.
I’m not sure that it matters too much what we do, as long as we do something. I’m a believer in starting simple, and close to home.
And we don’t always have to rely on the wisdom of philosophers and psychologists. As the incomparable Otis Redding puts it, we could just try a little tenderness:
But while she’s there waiting
Try a little tendernessThis is strong on the page, but so much stronger on the stage. To get the full effect, go and click on www.youtube.com/watch?v=dael4sb42nI