The causes of wellness throughout life – Professor Sir Harry Burns
This year’s lecture was given by Professor Sir Harry Burns, Professor of Global Health at Strathclyde University. It was challenging and thought provoking and made us consider all the factors which impact on our well-being.
He stressed that it is not just a case of being ‘well or ill’ but what is really influencing our sense of well-being. He used the statement from the World Health Organisation as a starting point:
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.
It would be impossible to do justice in a summary of the lecture which was detailed, wide ranging and demonstrated the complexity of achieving well-being all of which was delivered with empathy and humour. Therefore only some key themes will be illustrated and any misinterpretation is mine.
The emphasis of the lecture was on the social aspects in particular as being primary contributors to our sense of belonging and self esteem. In coming to this point he gave comparative figures in relation to the health of the Scots and pointed out the myths which surround the commonly held view that it is amongst the worst in Europe. It is not all about smoking, diet and alcohol but about what lies behind these factors in terms of social and environmental issues and that the inequalities in mortality for men, for instance, is in relation to drugs, violence and suicide whose origins are often in early childhood.
Sir Harry pointed out the changing social structures since the 1950s; the kind of housing that was developed; the loss of communities; the changing employment patterns which have all impacted on our sense of community and worthiness.
For FiOP, his emphasis on ‘man’s sense of meaning’ as “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’” (Victor Frankl) has a strong resonance and helps to further ground the importance of the spiritual dimension based on this definition. Such resonance is also carried through with the sense of community, consistency and coherence being of vital importance to how we view the world from an early age.
Probably the starkest message was in relation to babies and children in whom the impact of a lack of care, consistency and safety has a profound physical, emotional and mental long term effect. This can become evident in higher risks of violence, alcoholism being factors in a cycle of alienation. He emphasised the economic cost of child maltreatment as well the social cost. He said that it is possible to reverse the effects of a difficult life but this requires support to encourage physical activity of at least 150 minutes per week, to practise mindfulness and develop strong social connections.
Underlying the whole approach Sir Harry took was the importance of compassion and considering the assets we have within us and our communities.
He quoted Father Greg Boyle:
Here is what we seek: a compassion that stands in awe of the burdens the poor have to carry rather than one that stands in judgement at how they carry them.
Archbishop Oscar Romero stated
Let us not tire of preaching love: it is the force that will overcome the world. If there were love of neighbour there would be no terrorism, no repression, and no selfishness, none of such cruel inequalities in society, no abductions, and no crimes.
He emphasised that compassion is at the heart of all faiths.
We need to be brave and don’t forget the hugs. (Professor Sir Harry Burns)
A full set of Sir Harry’s slides is also available.
Director, Faith in Older People