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Looking Outward to Look Inward

photo by dawn ashley via flickr creative commons

photo by dawn ashley via flickr creative commons

In one of my very first posts on this site, I talked about the power of perspective, and I’ve been meaning to return to this theme ever since.  The sense of perspective I felt the morning I wrote that post – shortly after hearing about the incomprehensible shooting in Newtown – arrived like a thunderstorm, surrounding and consuming me in a way I couldn’t see coming.  While obviously (and thankfully) not with the same intensity I felt it that morning, I think about perspective a lot, particularly as I write about first-world luxuries like juice cleanses and spin classes and choosing to have relationships with people I love.

When I talk about perspective, I’m not talking about comparison or longing/lamenting what we have and what we don’t.  It’s deeper than that, and for me, it’s about being mindful of each of our relative positions in the universe and the gifts and opportunities and responsibilities that come with that position.  As a little girl, my dad always told me “you had no control over where you were born.  You could have ended up anywhere, and you were somehow lucky enough to be in a place where you’re [safe, warm, fed, and loved].”  This stuck with me, and it made me feel like I had a responsibility to honor my gifts while doing what I could to help people who were born into difficult, or even unimaginable, situations a few towns over or a world away.

I think this concept is particularly compelling when we think about health, particularly proactive or preventative health and wellness.  And it makes me wonder, might each of us work harder to be more well if we had a clearer idea of what it feels like not to be?  At the most basic and individual level, one way to think about this is the sigh of relief and gratitude we feel when we get over being sick.  Tasting after not being able to taste makes mealtime more special, and exercising after being in bed for a few days makes us work a little bit harder and enjoy it a little bit more.  Taking it a step further, might people eat healthier diets if they understood the reality of malnutrition?  Might people be more motivated to go out for a run if they knew that across the world, a woman their age would love to do the same, but doing so would put her life in danger?  Might people be kinder to their partners if they understood what a gift it is to commit to someone by choice and not force?

To try to understand this, I did a bit of digging in the areas of altruism, empathy, gratitude, and motivation (this is a land mine of information, btw).  I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for, but I did find a study looking at the effects of volunteerism (as a form of altruism) on happiness and health.  The study found a strong connection between volunteerism and current and future health and well-being, basically saying that altruism –> happiness –> health.  This doesn’t address my question about perspective and motivation, but it does point to awareness and care for others as foundational to good health.  If you have any thoughts about this – or know of any research that supports it – I’d love to hear them.

But in the meantime, if you’re interested in looking outward and expanding your sense of perspective about health, here are a few organizations that might be worth learning about.  I’m not an expert in social enterprise, but I asked a good friend who works at the Skoll Foundation to name a few organizations she thinks are doing amazing work, so this list is a consolidation of hers:

  • Partners in Health: Founded by the legendary Dr. Paul Farmer, PIH helps patients living in poverty obtain effective drugs to treat tuberculosis and AIDS. PIH also oversees projects in Russia, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, and Peru.
  • Riders for Health: After seeing women in labor being carried to the hospital in wheelbarrows, the founders of this organization strived to give the poor in seven African countries an efficient way to get to the hospital by training locals to fix the cars and motorcycles that have broken down and been abandoned.
  • The Girl Effect: A project from the Nike Foundation, The Girl Effect focuses on investing in adolescent girls so that they can maximize their potential
  • Focused on bringing safe water to those who are without it, has driven innovations in the way clean-water projects are delivered and financed and developed demand-driven water and sanitation programs, using microfinance.

What, if any, role does perspective play in motivating you to get and stay well?  What do you do to keep things in perspective?  I’d love any ideas about this, as I’d like to continue to cover this topic now and again…

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