Promoting health and wellbeing using ancient ideas

By highlighting the significance of ancient ideas and practices we can further promote health and wellbeing in the modern world, making specific impact on philosophical approaches to psychological therapy, with special focus on Galen, the most important medical writer in later antiquity.

The research conducted by Professors Christopher Gill and John Wilkins has informed contemporary public and professional debates on this subject through engagement with professional groups as well as the broader public through lectures, blogs and videos.

A crucial objective of this research has been to support the work of those in the medical profession arguing that we need a major shift of focus towards preventative medicine, self-care and patient responsibility for health and psychological wellbeing. Designed to help address the world-wide upsurge in obesity, diabetes, and depression, and a looming crisis in healthcare provision.

During 2009-12 a series of workshops, conferences and individual meetings were used by members of the group to develop contacts with academics working on contemporary healthcare and psychological therapy. In 2012-13, study of the usefulness of Galenic healthcare methods under modern conditions has been central to a University of Exeter funded interdisciplinary research project involving experts from the Exeter Medical School and Exeter Mood Disorders Centre.

Members of the group have highlighted features of ancient medical thinking and social practice that offer useful paradigms for approaches to physical and psychological healthcare, stressing prevention and lifestyle management. Key insights include the Galenic idea of a lifestyle based on ‘balance’ between six factors (food and drink, exercise, environment, sleep, mental state, psychological balance), and on methods of enabling patients to bring about this balance for themselves.


A joint project is now underway with the Exeter Medical School and academics from Psychology and Drama at the University of Exeter, to test the usefulness of Galenic healthcare methods under modern conditions. The project has involved four workshops exploring Galenic methods of healthcare with a well-established user-involvement focus group, involving different kinds of people (including Exeter medical students and older patients with chronic conditions).

The data captured and analysed contributed to the design of a questionnaire. In April 2013 the questionnaire was launched as a pilot within the Medical School, the University, on-line, and disseminated via the Exeter 10,000 database, inviting people from across Devon to respond, with 633 people sending replies.

The results give a rich and informative picture of current behaviours and attitudes of people in Devon, the areas they see as problematic, and the improvements in life-style and management of health they would like to make.

The project has taken the exploration of the usefulness of Galenic principles at the University of Exeter to a new level, in terms of institutional support, the involvement of medical experts, and the application of evidence-based methodology to this question. The questionnaire has also brought the attention of a very wide audience to the potential value of ancient healthcare methods.


In another strand of the project Professor Gill and other members of the group organised events exploring the potential contribution of ancient philosophical ideas (especially those of Stoicism) to promoting psychological health and wellbeing in the modern world. An Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded workshop was held at Exeter in September 2012 involving academics and psychotherapists, and this led to a number of collaborative activities. These included setting up a widely viewed blog, Stoicism Today, and an online life-guidance course, Live like a Stoic for a Week, followed by over 150 people in November 2012.

The group organised two further Live like a Stoic Week events in 2013 and 2014 (followed by more than 2,000 and 2,500 people respectively), as well two public events in London on putting Stoic ideas into practice in modern life, with 200 participants in 2013 and 300 in 2014.

The effect of the Live like a Stoic weeks in promoting wellbeing has been assessed by questionnaires (including a specially developed Stoic Attitudes Scale), and is proving very positive. The Stoicism Today blog has now had more than 500,000 views and the 2013 and 2014 Stoic Weeks have generated 20 newspaper articles and six radio interviews, including an interview on the Radio 4 Today programme (2013) and an article in Newsweek magazine (2014). The group has a number of plans for seeking funding for a more sustained collaborative project.