My work around adaptive resilience in the last couple of years has showed me some people react negatively to the word. It is defiantly unsexy, un-’transformational’ for many cultural folk. Having a Northern miserablist somewhere within me, I don’t mind this, but some people do, finding it a bit negative or defensive – not creative somehow. (I am pondering swapping adaptive for creative in some contexts, as all my research is highlighting the role of creativity in that adaptive capacity which is central to my vision of resilience as a positive force, but that’s a longer and different bit of writing.)
I was reminded of this by Andy Burnham’s recent speech about mental health, and the ‘happiness’ agenda, and reactions to it. You can read a summary here . His argument is that the happiness agenda places too much emphasis on material wealth and is essentially ‘middle class’, and there ought to be greater emphasis on resilience – are people ‘coping’ or ‘getting by’, rather than being pressured to 'get happy'.
Whilst acknowledging the kernels of truth in Burhnam’s argument, it may well be a misunderstanding of happiness as a concept or agenda, and is definitely not what I mean by resilience. As The Happy Museum project note in their introduction to a project exploring how museums needs to adapt to support transition to a ‘high well-being sustainable society’, research shows that material goods play considerably less of a role in determining well-being than our spending patterns might suggest. Charles Seaford of the New Economic Foundation has argued there is a clear synergy between the research on happiness, well-being and the social justice agenda which Labour ought to occupy. (I was going to write ‘fairness’, but that word seems to have been put through the washer by so many people it looked feeble. Shame.)
Resilience is not simply a defensive, survivalist concept – though it can help with both defence and survival in a crisis. It is a way of thinking about the characteristics and resources that allow people (and organisations and sectors) feel and act more positively, whatever their context, however challenging it may get. This does seem to me to support happiness rather than run counter to it. Just as resilience will go up and down, and won’t protect you from every risk or change, so happiness won’t be constant, and having some of the characteristics, skills and resources of resilience to draw on may help. To suggest that the working class are more concerned with survival than happiness feels to me like a misunderstanding at a cultural level, mistaking the material signs for the deeper ones. Of course, we all need to ‘get by’, but that is very different for each person.
If anything I’d have thought the archetypal ‘middle class’ version of happiness preferred to talk about spiritual or cultural things rather than ‘vulgar’ goods – hence middle class outrage at poorer people ‘frittering’ their money on big tellies and nights out. I very much prefer my Labour politicians to be closer to ‘Nothing’s too good for the working class’, as Nye Bevan (or Wobbly leader Bill Harewood, or various others) said, than ‘Poor but Happy’ or ‘Poor but Resilient’, which Burnham comes perilously close to.
What’s this to do with art? Well, substitute ‘great art’ for ‘happiness’ and see how it fits. But also there is an implication in Burnham’s comments that culture, as a higher good, may not be so relevant. I’m sure that’s not what he meant, of course.