Wednesday, 1 February 2012

...and always wear the happy face


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. 

4 comments:

  1. Hi Mark
    There is definitely something about "resilience" which implies bouncing back - a kind of cheerful stoicism which is distinctly unsexy. It would be good to convey something more along the lines of making skilful choices - maybe you need a strap line! Which led me to thinking about "choice fulness" which in turn led me to this:

    Choosing to abide within inner directedness, an energetic residence of convergence, coalescence, aggregation and timeless resources where all times and directions meet and establish unity of beingness

    Accessing each presentation as to it’s source, choosing illumination and implimenting the intent of organicity to it’s movement of right place, right form, right opening, and the presentation will flip, spiral, move out, expand into absorbtion, dissolve, and otherwise move into evolvement by means provided within the embodied choice of unification

    Which made me laugh out loud!
    All the best
    Sally

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  2. Thanks Sally. Cheerful stoicism distinctly unsexy? No accounting for taste I suppose! But take the point about the word.
    I think adaptive implies some choice, creative more, but I guess the question is what gives you the power to make those skilful choices - your characteristics/skills and your resources.

    I may rename our house an energetic residence of convergence. Or maybe my office.

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  3. Hello Mark

    Thinking on this...

    When i went out as an independent some years back i soon found that the patterns and detritus i had believed would demonstrate success and stability - as a father, musician and consultant - were wrong. However when i stopped worrying about the work i didn't yet have and focused on the work i did have new work came - when i stopped worrying about the songs i wasn't getting to write new songs came - when i stopped worrying about the time i wasn't spending with the kids - their and my creativity and expression flowed and our relationships transformed

    I guess my point is that adaptation can be viewed as creation for a stale situation. As people we have no right to seek stability in pension plans, jobs, institutional values etc - they are part of it but should not dictate how you spend your time - all too soon becoming your goals.

    Sounds risky - well yes perhaps it is - but isn't that the point - adaptation as life rather than as a response to difficulty. What i do know is that living this way for some 6 years now certain things have manifested in our house that seem to have brought us to brink of something extraordinary - and the path has been full of risk, energy and happiness.

    Dr Strangelove said "How i learned stop worrying and love the bomb" - For us the bomb has become all of those unexploded worries that stop you embracing the future, insisting on that supposed stability achieved in the past be your vision of or definition of the future. Not good i suggest...

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  4. Thanks James. I think 'adaptation as life rather than as a response to difficulty' puts it really well. That's adaptive resilience as productive and creative. It connects to why I put that a quote from REM as an epigraph to 'Making Adaptive resilience Real' - 'Change is what I believe in.' I

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