Wellbeing – a doctoral thinking post

It’s an intangible concept, wellbeing… it carries with it notions of happiness or comfort and research in this area is the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes and lament what rubbish academia is all about.  However, if my research is connected to wellbeing, I need to have some kind of clarity about the term.  What I am discovering is that no-one can decide (Dodge et al, 2012;  Statham and Chase, 2010; Pollard and Lee, 2003)  – even about its grammatical construction… hyphen, no hyphen? This uncertainty is hardly helping my sense of well,  you know…

Governmental organisations – and not just in the UK – have expressed the need to focus on wellbeing.  Were you aware that it was nearly a decade ago, that David Cameron (2006) gave a speech about his commitment – not to GDP, but GWB – the general wellbeing of the people? (Hmmm, yes, quite).  Perhaps it is inevitable that the terms set out here are related to economics and managing austerity:

“wellbeing evidence can not only help target public spending more effectively at improving people’s lives, but in many cases has the potential to deliver significant long-term savings by reducing demand on public services” (Berry, 2014, p.1)

Wellbeing in the 2014 all-party parliamentary report is posited as an outcome of something financial – a benefit that goes hand-in-hand with a comfortable income and purposeful employment, perhaps as one of the Wellbeing Analysts recommended (ibid., p.3) for each governmental department.  Apologies, my left-leaning petticoat is showing…


Let’s return to potentially safer ground and think about Ancient Greeks for a bit.  Epicurus was the chap who wrote first on hedonia – the reduction of pain and prioritisation of happiness or pleasure, although not necessarily the wild and indulgent behaviour, disregarding of others, which we have been led to understand by this term.  Aristotle appeared more focused on eudaimonia, where complex ideas about fulfillment through practical, rational actions such as supporting friendships perhaps reflect the more nuanced ways we may now perceive wellbeing (Waterman, 1993).


The tensions between these ideas have given rise to some complex and confusing descriptions of what wellbeing may be.  Dodge et al (2012) provide a really useful overview of these debates… is wellbeing a satisfaction with – or quality of – life, the fulfilment of goals, an absence of illness or a sense of ‘normality’?   The definitions become distorted as we grapple with questions of whose perspective? whose values?  Seligman (2011) tried to draw these nuances together in exploring elements such as engagement with others and finding accomplishment in one’s actions, which may not generate ‘happiness’, but are nevertheless important if one is to flourish.  Dodge et al,(2012), in attempting to pin down a formula for measuring a closely defined definition of wellbeing, suggest that the key is an equilibrium or  balance between one’s psychological, social and physical resources in the face of challenge.


The World Health Organisation (2014) has focused particularly on mental health wellbeing – a state in which ‘every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the daily stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’  Some elements here are problematic:   We are not necessarily talented at recognising our own ‘potential’ or the steps we take towards it (and are we ever ‘done’ with reaching it?)  Coping with ‘ordinary’ stresses is also complex – for some, their ‘everyday’ would floor most of us – caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, pressing on with life after a cancer diagnosis or parenting in poverty.  For others, this may mean the courage to simply step outside one’s front door, managing the impact of unseen illness.  Often, working ‘productively’ in a community is an aspect significantly tied to economics and the world of employment and those struggling to find or keep work may feel they therefore do not contribute.  It may take the perspective of a friend or colleague to help us appreciate the contribution we do make – the kind word, the act of generosity, the offer of time to listen.

#wellMAKING, Craftivist Collective, 2014
#wellMAKING, Craftivist Collective, 2014

I am rather partial to the interpretations of wellbeing proffered by the New Economics Foundation (NEF).  In contrast to the organisational name, elements to support wellbeing appear more to do with one’s spirit  than finance or employed work –  including the need to Connect and enrich one’s experience through social relations, Be Active in anything from walking to dancing, Take Notice, catching sight of the beautiful, Keep Learning, to increase competency, sociality and self-esteem and to Give, sharing in mutual reciprocity (Thompson and Aked, 2011).  This is not merely fluffy idealism.  Wellbeing does have something to do with reflective mindfulness and may not be entirely to do with being ‘happy’ – although anecdotally it probably helps.  Michaelson et al (2009), also writing for NEF, focus on a dynamic approach to maintaining a sense of wellbeing and capacity for resilience through being vitally engaged in activities which make us feel competent.

What this has to do with knit and crochet needs to be explored in more detail for a post over on Recovered Threads, especially as in June I am hosting some ‘sit and stitch’ workshops for the LAHF / RSPH Creativity and Wellbeing Plus Week at Sheffield Hallam University and online… I’ll put a link here when it’s written.  If you are around for the workshops – digitally or physically, come and join the conversation.


Berry, Christine (2014) Wellbeing in Four Policy areas.  Available at: http://b.3cdn.net/nefoundation/ccdf9782b6d8700f7c_lcm6i2ed7.pdf

Cameron, David (2006) Speech to Google Zeitgeist Europe. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/may/22/conservatives.davidcameron

Dodge, Rachel; Daly, Annette, P.; Huyton, Jan and Sanders, Lalage, D. (2012) The Challenge of Defining Wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing 2 (3), pp.222-235.

Michaelson, Juliet;  Abdallah, Saamah;   Steuer, Nicola;  Thompson, Sam and Marks,  Nic (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet. Available at: http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org/public-data/files/national-accounts-of-well-being-report.pdf

Pollard, Elizabeth, and Lee, Patrice (2003) Child Well-being:a systematic review of the literature. Social Indicators Research 61 (1) pp.9-78.

Seligman, Martin (2011) Flourish – A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Statham, June and Chase, Elaine (2010) Childhood Wellbeing: a brief overview. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/183197/Child-Wellbeing-Brief.pdf

Thompson, Sam and Aked, Jody (2011) Five Ways to Wellbeing: New applications, new ways of thinking. Available at: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/five-ways-to-well-being-new-applications-new-ways-of-thinking

Waterman, Alan S. (1993) Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (4) pp.768-691.

World Health Organisation (2014) Mental health: a state of wellbeing. Available at: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/


Does Quality Matter?


It fell to me this week to present to our PhD Art and Design seminar group – the topic was to examine notions of quality and ‘yardsticks’ in evaluating exhibited work (or, as I was rather more interested, whether work needs to be exhibited?)

I am, in my lefty, arty way, uncomfortable with the language of ‘quality’ – is that with a capital Q, and therefore bringing in ideas about quality assurance and an established view of what must be best? Am I nevertheless reliant on seeking out signals of ‘quality’ and authenticity, as in marks like this on a Moorcroft vase in my dining room?
John Carey, in ‘What Good Are the Arts’ (2005) articulates my concerns in presenting the problem that “Value […] is not intrinsic in objects, but attributed to them by whoever is doing the valuing” and so we use the same semantic field for the striking sculpture of Barbara Hepworth as for bargain cheese in a supermarket.

We are operating in a complex world of definitions: The root of the word comes from the Latin ‘Qua’ (who?) and from this we have ‘qualis’ or qualitas’ – roughly translating as ‘of what sort’. The Latinate base is still seen in 13th century French, where ‘quality’ indicates a person’s character, disposition or temperament. A century later, it is used for the first time in Old French to indicate social ranking. Varied dictionary definitions now furnish us with ideas about inherent traits or characteristics, special or distinguishing properties – along with a standard, as measured against others, or as a measure of excellence – free of defects.

But we still have to deal with Carey’s challenge of who is doing the measuring – and what influences us in this. For example, here is an exhibited work of art – what do you think?
Do you feel differently about its quality if you know this is a work by Charles Bronson? To what extent does our cultural and social framework affect our views?

Bronson can be considered as an example of ‘outsider art’ – where makers are self-taught amateurs who refuse to fit with conventions of approach or ‘quality’. However, we have also now codified this concept, so there are notions of excellence and meeting a standard… Pearl Alcock is just one ‘outsider’ artist now widely exhibited and positively critiqued.
And don’t get me started on that art / craft binary debate we somehow still keep having. If you look at the work of Jenni Dutton, recently exhibiting at City Hall in London, there can be no question about the quality of the emotive, skilful ‘Dementia Darnings’

and yet textiles is often still viewed as marginal.

I am particularly interested in participatory art – the emphasis being on the creativity of the amateur participant. For me, it is the ‘quality’ of the experience which holds more significance, as people have an opportunity to make something mindfully…
Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema (2009) write on the need to reframe our view of the ‘qualities’ offered through shared critical making and engaging in practice together. Participatory arts, according to Toby Lowe (2015) are perhaps more about ‘equality’ and authenticity, but still grapples with our question:

“However, what is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?”

Stephen Pritchard has also blogged about this dilemma – In a fierce response to Lowe’s work, he examines the dialectic where the ‘quality’ of participatory art is judged – and therefore that there must also be poor or unacceptable outcomes. What impact does facing this have on the fact that participatory art is the new hot potato for economic and cultural policy makers?

The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment.

Eleonora Belfiore, in her independent work (2015) and that with the Warwick Commission (Neelands et al, 2015) is grappling with the problems created by placing an economic value on art – for the purposes of funding and policy making – when cultural aspects of art have the capacity to improve wellbeing and the ‘quality’ of our social lives. However, as these things tend to go, there has also been criticism – for example from Voluntary Arts (2015) – of a focus on established notions of art and ‘quality’ which has left the importance of grassroots, community creativity out in the cold.

It is a Gordian knot, but I think it is important to keep evaluating what we mean by these terms and the impact it can then have on the way we view ‘quality’ in the arts. In my frustrated reading on the subject, I enjoyed this, and so I will leave you with it:

‘Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the “betterness”? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?’ (Pirsig, 1974. p.184)

Belfiore, E. (2015) ‘Impact’, ‘value’ and ‘bad economics’: Making sense of the problem of value in the arts and humanities.Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2015, Vol. 14(1) 95–110
Carey, J. (2005) What Good Are the Arts . Faber, London
Lowe, Toby (2015) Quality in Participatory Art (online) http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2015/02/04/quality-participatory-art-toby-lowe/
Neelands, J.; Belfiore, E.; Firth, C.; Hart, N.; Perrin, L.; Brock, S.; Holdaway, D.; Woddis, J.(2015) Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. The Warwick Commission, Warwick.
Pirsig, R. M. (1974)Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Bodely Head. Oxford.
Pritchard, S. (2015) Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification? (online) https://colouringinculture.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/quality-in-participatory-arts-fit-for-whose-purpose-in-need-of-qualification/
Ratto, M. and Hockema, S. (2009) “Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden”, in Dekker, A & Wolfsberger A (eds.) Walled Garden, Virtueel Platform, The Netherlands
Voluntary Arts (2015) Response to the Warwick Commission Report #EveryoneCreative (online) http://www.voluntaryarts.org/2015/02/17/response-to-the-warwick-commission-report/