The arts and wellbeing
The government’s concern with our wellbeing has prompted its call on the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to measure just that and it is currently in open consultation on the factors and indicators that together make ‘wellbeing’. Astonishingly, and against popular opinion, the ONS does not include arts and culture in its current indices and whilst it seems to have been in dialogue with every governmental department there is, it has apparently not picked up the phone to the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and its left out of its positioning document.
Instead, for the ONS at least, art and culture is seen as an optional leisure pursuit, not as the very thing that both binds us and is us and has an exponential wellbeing affect. In the consultation a concern with architecture and art seemingly comes under the broad headers of ‘where we live’ and ‘what we do’ (see p2 of the ONS consultation document); but as John Holden commented on Guardian Culture Professionals Network recently, this does not cut it – effectively arts and heritage have been omitted from the consultation.
Whilst there may not be an explicit deterministic relationship between architecture and health – opening a well designed door does not cure a cold – the link between where we are and how we feel is undeniable. How many times have you been in a badly aspected and ventilated room, sat at your unergonomic desk or walked down a badly lit street and had a sense of ‘ill-being’?
The notion of the link between how we feel and where we live was first seen in the Enlightenment when it was argued that a well designed built environment could have pervasively positive effects on public health. Today, as places like Maggie’s Centres attest (here, buildings are designed to make those staying in them feel like people rather than patients), good architecture is more than just a wellbeing placebo but a synergistic factor in health and its recognised that the architecture of your surroundings can give you a positive, if intangible, wellbeing benefit.
CABE (as was) also agrees. Its ‘Future Health’ report from 2009 is solely about how good architectural design makes for healthy places and links ‘health-promoting’ environments, from the urban masterplan and infrastructure design down, to the everyday life if communities and individuals and its sense of wellbeing.
Birmingham City University and RIBA held a conference last year that ‘explored the multi-dimensions of wellbeing’ and its conference papers are vast and varied in subject matter and as a whole make the link between the design of our built environment and our wellbeing clear.
ArtsProfessional has recently published an article on art and wellbeing and talks to artist Stuart Semple who states that his “immersion in art healed him more than drugs ever could”. But whilst the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) survey it quotes states that there are serious access to art therapy issues in the UK, its results as a form of therapy for a range of physical, psychological and emotional concerns has been noted across the arts and health sectors.
Anders, Thomson and Chatterjee (in BCU/RIBA conference papers, link above) show that in the museum sector at least we can measure the connection between art and wellbeing: “…that mixed qualitative and quantitative methodology, using psychological scales and grounded theory, works well with a cultural wellbeing intervention.”
The benefits of culture with regard wellbeing are also unarguable for Gerdes and Bieling (ibid): “Cultural landscapes provide a wide range of ecosystem services, which benefit human society as a whole and in particular contribute to the economic and social well-being of the local population… Besides delivering direct economic benefits, the ecosystems embedded in cultural landscapes provide intangible values like aesthetics, inspiration, or spiritual and heritage values – all of which play a crucial role for the identity, social networks and lifestyles of the local population.”
I still believe though that the social sciences need a better understanding of how different aspects of lifestyle interrelate within self and between self, others and place – and I believe that a trans sector collaborative approach to uncovering this between arts, psychology and the social science would unlock this.
But first things first. This is a pivotal time for arts and culture as the wellbeing agenda and its definition as determined by the ONS consultation will have far-reaching impact on the design of policy across all governmental departments and its classification of the multi-dimensions of wellbeing.
As Hilary Jennings in ArtsProfessional also calls for, what we need to do immediately as a sector is respond to the consultation with a strong voice for the special case for arts and culture and wellbeing; for the case that they have more import than ‘just’ being recreational and optional; and that they deserve indicator status of their own.
The consultation can be accessed here. Make sure you complete it sat ergonomically, in a naturally lit and well ventilated/heated room, which preferably has an outlook onto nature, with refreshments of your choice within easy reach.
There are too numerous examples of the link between good design of our built environment and wellbeing to mention here, but any Google or library search will uncover a wealth of journal and newspaper articles, books, seminars, lectures and case studies.
As a starter though have a look at ‘Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art’ by Christopher Day, cited as a ground breaking book for architects and a bible of design for wellbeing, and Alain de Botton’s ‘Architecture of Happiness’ as a primer for deeper psychological and philosophical reading on this subject. The RSA ‘Architecture, Art and Wellbeing’ talk is worth a listen, chaired by Charles Jencks, one of the Maggie’s Centres founders, as is the Battle of Ideas ‘Happy-clappy architecture: designing for wellbeing’ seminar.