It is no mistake that the philosophy of Epicurus and his students still serves to inspire people 23 centuries after his death. He practiced and taught a practical philosophy and believed that this kind was the only beneficial philosophy. Though we do not have many works left from Epicurus himself, we are able to—using students and critics—establish a strong baseline for what he believed and taught and from there apply it to our lives today. He admonished that the purpose of philosophy was to attain a happy and tranquil life or ‘ataraxia’. In the public health realm, we need a new approach to create lasting change for people at the lowest levels of poverty and wellness. I believe that Epicurus may have given us valuable insight on how to start making our way there.
It is here where we must take a moment to explore what qualifies as the ‘lowest level’ and why we need to measure it differently. In the USA, the official national measure for poverty is the percentage of pre-taxed income below the necessary for the minimum food diet. The concept of measuring happiness as a measure of wellness is not new; in fact, it has been done by more than one president in our own country (Jefferson and Kennedy to name a few). In a speech, Kennedy gave to the University of Kansas in 1958, ‘…gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials’.
What he means by this is we spend all our money and time focusing on what we as a country produce and not what makes life worth living. I believe this can be illustrated well by looking at the millions of dollars we as a country spend on public health surveys asking the same questions over and over, because they have proven ‘effective’. Can we really ask people to spend their entire lives in jobs so detached from an end product that they would not know whether the pin they are making goes to a vacuum or a machine gun and then expect them to be happy and continue to work with vigor? People who work these jobs may be above the pre-taxed income requirements for the minimum food diet but fall well below any measure of happiness, and these are the people with whom you and I, as public wellness workers, will be spending most of our time.