Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 7 Evidencing Culture for Policy

Being an artist and well-being

For those of you who didn’t watch Disney-Pixar’s Soul at Christmas in 2020 (and again for those of you who didn’t watch it, I’ll try to not spoil it), the film places a lot of emphasis on the meaning of music for the main character, Joe Gardner. He sees music—specifically jazz—as his purpose in life. The cruel twist is that, just as Joe gets his big break, and is on the cusp of being able to make music—in a real band—not just as an elementary school teacher, this big break is jeopardised. Ironically, it is the sheer joy at his big break that leads to this twist of fate. The unfairness of Joe not getting to fulfil his potential keeps us rooting for him through a meandering journey of self-discovery. Much of the journey is watching him strive to get back to where he was, so that he is able to enjoy that big break.

The over-riding feeling for most of the movie is that, for Joe, ‘making it’ in music is what will make his life worthwhile. The movie goes some way to explain the moment of getting lost in music, something that positive psychologists have described as ‘flow’,((Flow is an important concept for thinking about how subjective well-being is conceptualised as experience. Positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in particular has spent much of his career looking into how people get lost in flow, and he studied artistic practitioners to understand ‘flow’ (1997). His 1975 study of the nature of enjoyment was largely based on expert cultural practitioners, such as dancers and musicians. Years later, interested in ‘flow’ in everyday life, Csikszentmihalyi returned to the study of creative professionals, and with colleague Nakamura, theorised ‘vital engagement as a relationship to the world’ that is characterised both by experiences of fow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance) (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2002; Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter 2003).)) but which the movie describes as ‘in the zone’. You watch Joe reflect on what he thinks amounts to his meaningless existence, like the existential philosophers before him. There is also a moment where you watch Joe, sitting on a New York sidewalk, feel the sun on his face and wonder at a helicopter seed spiralling from a tree. This—‘being in the moment’—differs from flow. In flow, you are lost in your thoughts, in an activity, whereas being in the moment is about being present in your body, and is what mindfulness practice is based on. This Disney movie better describes some of the complex theoretical imaginings of well-being than thousands of years of philosophers we’ve come across before in this book—possibly this is of no surprise?

The drive to be able to do something creative as a job—and in the way you want—is not just the stuff of Disney films. In fact, being an artist of sorts has long been seen as desirable and holds much symbolic value.((You may remember we talked about symbolic value back in Chap. 2, where something’s value is more than its material or financial value, and involves something’s status.)) Idealised representations of creative and cultural jobs include creativity and expression, autonomy and passion—or doing something you love. The realities are often far harsher: with independence comes precarity of employment; there are inequalities in opportunities to ‘do what you love’. Often people end up working for money doing something associated to their creative practice—like our main character Joe being a music teacher, while awaiting his big break. Also, the rarity of opportunity to do what you love, and to be expressive and creative, often means you are expected to put up with being treated badly, or indeed to work for free, which is not an option for all.((See Brook et al. (2020) for compelling evidence and arguments on this matter, with nods to the more on the extensive literature on the many issues of creative labour.))

In short, the idea of being an artist is an ideal and the reality of creative occupations is quite different. While quality work is seen as important for well-being1, the actual quality of creative work and the anxieties that accompany the lifestyle necessary of such occupations make it an interesting case for well-being research. The idea of creative work or being an artist is filled with contradictions that deserve attention, and yet the well-being of ‘creatives’ and artists is less frequently looked at than you may imagine (as the publications we are about to look at tell us).

  1. What Works Wellbeing 2017 []