‘ No man is an is­land’

The An­cient Greeks were onto some­thing when they en­cour­aged com­mu­nal well- be­ing over per­sonal glory.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - HEART & SOUL -

RE­CENTLY, I’ve been read­ing a lot about An­cient Greece: its philoso­phers, art, ar­chi­tec­ture, the love of wine – all the good stuff.

The Greeks were pi­o­neers of so much that we en­joy to­day. Democ­racy, sci­ence, medicine, lan­guage and, of course, phi­los­o­phy, are just some of the ways in which An­cient Greece sig­nif­i­cantly in­flu­enced the world – an in­flu­ence that con­tin­ues to­day. ( Fun fact: the English word id­iot stems from the Greek id­iotes, which was used to de­scribe an un­re­fined per­son who took no in­ter­est in pub­lic affairs.)

It could be ar­gued that the glory of Athens was born from the de­sire to put per­sonal glory aside for the greater good. Ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion, ev­ery philo­soph­i­cal pur­suit, all education and train­ing was geared to­wards strength­en­ing the city’s stand­ing. Civic duty, far from be­ing seen as a chore, was a joy for the peo­ple of Athens. They un­der­stood that for a city to be great, its peo­ple had to ex­cel. How­ever, those who be­came overly am­bi­tious and sought per­sonal glory could find them­selves ex­iled thanks to a pub­lic vote where peo­ple used os­trakon ( bits of bro­ken pot­tery) to etch the names of un­de­sir­ables they wanted to see ban­ished. This is how the os­trakon be­came the root for an­other mod­ern term: the English word os­tracise.

From a so­cial per­spec­tive, putting the in­ter­ests of the many ahead of the few pro­vided ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits, the main ben­e­fit be­ing that we’re here. Cer­tainly, if we evolved as a species with­out de­vel­op­ing con­cern for the well- be­ing of oth­ers, we wouldn’t have got very far.

But the prac­tice of serv­ing oth­ers – de­scribed as “the high­est pur­pose” by Socrates – ac­tu­ally of­fers a num­ber of psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal ad­van­tages. In one study in 2008, re­searchers at Canada’s Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia found that money can buy hap­pi­ness – when it’s spent on other peo­ple. Re­gard­less of in­come, peo­ple who spend money on oth­ers en­joy a higher sense of hap­pi­ness than those who solely look af­ter their own in­ter­ests.

Part of the study mea­sured the hap­pi­ness of em­ploy­ees at a Bos­ton firm be­fore and af­ter they re­ceived a profit- shar­ing bonus. Re­searchers found those who used more of their bonus to buy gifts for oth­ers or do­nate to char­ity “con­sis­tently re­ported greater ben­e­fits than em­ploy­ees who sim­ply spent money on their own needs”.

At the peak of the golden age of An­cient Greece, col­lec­tive well­be­ing and the pur­suit of knowl­edge and truth were con­sid­ered to be true riches, while pri­vate wealth was seen as sus­pect, as con­veyed in many plays that told sto­ries of the mis­ery wealth can bring. In some cases, it is ar­gued that the glory of An­cient Greece started to cor­rode when the tide of thought be­gan to turn and houses be­came more op­u­lent, streets widened, and per­sonal wealth be­came a sign of sta­tus.

Through this shift of the times, we can see that ser­vice to oth­ers helps com­mu­ni­ties to stick to­gether, as peo­ple fo­cus on main­tain­ing a so­ci­ety of col­lec­tive pros­per­ity. As we lend mu­tual sup­port, we see each other in a more pos­i­tive, car­ing light, and we are more likely to open up to oth­ers as they are to us.

It’s lit­tle sur­prise, then, that a study car­ried out at Pitts­burgh’s Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity re­vealed that pro­vid­ing ser­vice to oth­ers can lead to lower blood pres­sure. Re­searchers in­ter­viewed par­tic­i­pants twice, once in 2006 and again in 2010. All 1,164 par­tic­i­pants had nor­mal blood pres­sure at the first in­ter­view. A pa­per then re­vealed that those who re­ported at least 200 hours of vol­un­teer work dur­ing the ini­tial in­ter­view “were 40% less likely to de­velop hy­per­ten­sion than those who did not vol­un­teer when eval­u­ated four years later”.

It would ap­pear that the Greeks of old were onto some­thing when they en­cour­aged com­mu­nal well­be­ing over per­sonal glory, and it’s surely no co­in­ci­dence that the great­est spir­i­tual teach­ers through­out his­tory all in­cluded ser­vice to oth­ers as a key part of their mes­sage.

Banishing some­one for 10 years for the sin of self- in­ter­est would likely be viewed as too ex­treme to­day, but it does show how se­ri­ously An­cient Greece be­lieved that well- be­ing is a col­lec­tive pur­suit, and how en­light­ened they were in re­al­is­ing that no man is an is­land en­tire of it­self.

Sandy Clarke has been a keen prac­ti­tioner of med­i­ta­tion and con­tem­pla­tion for the past 16 years, and be­lieves that the bet­ter we un­der­stand our­selves and our emo­tions, the more likely we are to cul­ti­vate a pos­i­tive out­look and sense of con­tent­ment.

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