Living in the present: illness, phenomenology, and wellbeing

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


The Stoics considered living in the present a way of securing one’s happiness. Indeed, they suggested a set of spiritual exercises (askêsis) to promote that existential stance and allow those who practise them to flourish. Some of the exercises focus on delineating a present moment, untarnished by regrets about the past and worries about the future. This sounds simple, but attaining such a moment of pure presence was, for the Stoics, a superb achievement. A moment of perfect happiness, achieved by securing relief from the agitations of the mind: ataraxia. However, the Stoics have an unresolved problem plaguing this spiritual exercise: living in the present can only be a source of happiness if that present is pleasurable. But what if the present is full of pain, disability, or limitation? What if the present is a space of suffering? This is the first challenge illness confronts us with: I call it the obstacle to happiness challenge.
The obstacle to happiness challenge is frequently the first challenge ill people face upon symptom appearance or diagnosis. They may experience pain or feel anxious and alienated from their bodies. They may experience illness as bodily betrayal, or feel anger and fear. These experiences pollute the present moment and make happiness unattainable until they are addressed and tranquillity of mind can once again be pursued. I faced this challenge as a person diagnosed with a chronic progressive lung disease. As a patient and philosopher, I wanted to know if and how I would be able to flourish within the constraints of illness. Could we attain present happiness within the context of serious illness?
This chapter poses this question, and proposes a particular philosophical method, phenomenology, to enable us to (1) understand the experience of illness; and (2) reassess the possibility of happiness based on this understanding of illness. As a philosophical contribution to a volume on the history of disease, this chapter focuses on the present. Both the present time in which we live and experience illness, and the Stoic idea that the present moment is where happiness is to be sought.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge History of Disease
EditorsMark Jackson
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science


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