Tuesday, 25 January 2011

...towards a m a n i f e s t o

Some thoughts on happiness...

Hedonic well-being?
Let Sunshine Win the Day
or Cynicism: it’s healthy and it makes me happy

The North West m a n i f e s t o events came about as a response to societal changes and as a way of artists and health allies expressing their frustrations and articulating shared passion. As a piece of work, it’s less about strategising and more about connecting and moving forward, and very much in the tradition of artist’s manifestos: its about shouting from the roof-tops.

Last week’s event in Liverpool was planned to give voice to practitioners across Merseyside to come together and exchange ideas and vision to inform the manifesto and celebrate some of the unfolding activity across the area. So, as part of a series of events, exploring shared aspirations for the field, this was a bit of a hybrid event, and with over fifty people in the room was vocal, buoyant and inspiring.

I introduced the session by framing our practice in relation to wider national and regional activity and placing the arts at the heart of society, both in reflection and reaction.

Artistic Director of FACT, Mike Stubbs went on to give a Liverpool context, painting a picture of a thriving and engaged cultural sector and challenging us to think about how we evidence our impact.

Punctuated with artist’s interventions, the session drew some significant thoughts and insight from participants that can be found on the dedicated m a n i f e s t o /merseyside blog pages (only available to that sessions participants, but all the m a n i f e s t o sessions will be drawn together leading up to June 2011).

The only off-note, was in Nic Marks’ rounding-up of the morning. Marks, of the new economics foundation (nef), mistakenly forgot he was at an arts event and not a happiness forum, missing, as he did the cynicism, experience and discontent in the room, (and perhaps wider society).

Whilst many of the people in the session had eloquently described how the arts are, by their very nature political, and I’d opened the session by expressing frustration at societal acceptance of blame for government mismanagement and the crimes of the bankers, Marks focused on what he saw as ‘cheap shots’ at the happiness agenda.1

Now I may be mistaken, but at all the m a n i f e s t o events, I’m mindful of ensuring a couple of things; keeping what I say as consistent as possible, for parity’s sake across the region, and focusing on the long (and rather obvious) history of the arts being more than little baubles and trinkets to pacify people, but as exciting, provocative, subversive and again, political.

By suggesting that cynical politicians may just be hijacking the happiness agenda and arguing our work wasn’t just about making people happy, I apparently blinded Marks to why he was there: to look at the arts in relation to well-being.

And the Five Ways to Well-being by nef are pretty much accepted as good, common-sense ways of looking at day-to-day actions to promote well-being. By connecting with people: being active: taking notice of things beyond our day to day: keeping learning and giving. So no argument there, in fact this ‘latest scientific evidence’ is blindingly obvious.

That’s why we asked Marks to round things off; we thought that all these actions might in fact, contribute towards more fully engaged members of society who connect with others and actively debate and question the status quo: take more than a passing interest in the sound-bites of the popular press and see the potential of shared voices and practice as being part of something bigger: contributing to wider civic society.

Surely then, the result of being a fully engaged citizen might just lead to a more cynical and less superficially ‘happy’ society. Describing my comment about our work not just being about making people happy, as being a ‘cheap-shot’ typical of the media, and for a ‘quick laugh’ Marks risked skewing the whole flavour of the session and devaluing the contributions made.2

I doubt that anyone taking part in the session would question the impact of the arts on well-being, that’s why we’re all involved, we weren’t there to explore the damage we can inflict on each other with our practice.

The point is, that the arts offer so much more than hedonic gratification, and through participation give voice to frustration, anger and cynicism; in other words, art is more than the blind pursuit of happiness (whatever that is) that we’re all told we must aspire to.

Like flat-screen TVs, 4x4 cars or celebrity spray-on tan, it seems happiness is being peddled on the consumerist must-have shopping list. Well, with 2.5 million people unemployed and counting, it looks like the only quick-fire state route to happiness will be through prescription drugs, no doubt on offer through our local National Health Franchise.

Whilst we’re on our way to understanding well-being, (and I’d suggest that the arts and cultural engagement play a big part in that journey), I find it increasingly difficult to imagine how subjective happiness can be identified let alone measured.

And yet as far back as the 2006 Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron has muted the idea of a happiness index, commenting, ‘Let optimism beat pessimism, let sunshine win the day..." Five years later, the NHS, Education and Cultural sectors are undergoing fundamental changes and the banking crisis has thrown the global economy into turmoil. Under the instruction of Cameron, a happiness index is being prepared as I type.

Clive Parkinson
Blue Monday: January 24th 2011

1. In his summing up, Marks said that Cameron and the Government don’t talk about happiness, whereas in reality, there is a wealth of coalition rhetoric on the subject.
2. Rounding off the event and from the lectern, Nic Marks looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, ‘Isn’t happiness the most important thing for our children?’ (Like Ricky Gervais, but without the irony). I wanted to scream, ‘Of course it is, you twerp!’ but I applauded politely thinking, ‘I’d like my children to have a healthy degree of cynicism too; oh and food and shelter, oh and education and love...’


  1. …what you say about happiness has already made resonance with me. I think I prefer thinking about content/discontent to happiness/unhappiness. This helps me be a bit more objective. Happiness is such a fleeting emotion; who can really be happy these days - even the rich kids in Cabinet - given what we're doing in and to the world? If the manifesto is to move on, it's likely there will be some (useful) discord en route...pragmatic entombment of political idealism, and consequently minimal constructive criticism/protest, was so very New Labour.

  2. I'm not really engaged with this debate though it reminds me of a line from a popular Manchester folk song - 'i was happy in the haze of a drunken hour but heaven knows i'm miserable now' - presumably because he sobered up perhaps which I guess begs the question about forms of escapism when faced with a rather gloomy societal self image - often this is chemical but also obviously includes art and culture. I would tend to agree with the cynical approach, this has a deep history in our culture and probably leads to a more 'real' sense of happiness - more pragmatic, stoical and philosophical. I like Javis Cocker's response to crticism of miserable subject matter in his songs - he felt this was really symptomatic of a very NEGATIVE attitude and that he felt by facing and embracing all things unpleasant and uncomfortable through his music was in fact really POSITIVE and a really good marker of what it is to be truly human.

    Best regards, from a lover of really sad films.

  3. Thanks to both of you for these comments...I know Jarvis makes me happy...Clive

  4. Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord I've been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

    To me this world is a wonderful place
    And I'm the luckiest human in the whole human race
    I've got no silver and I've got no gold
    But I've got happiness in my soul

    Happiness to me is an ocean tide
    Or a sunset fading on a mountain side
    A big old heaven full of stars up above
    When I'm in the arms of the one I love

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord that I've been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

    Happiness is a field of grain
    Turning its face to the falling rain
    I can see it in the sunshine, I breathe it in the air
    Happiness happiness everywhere

    A wise old man told me one time
    When you go to measuring my success
    Don't count my money count my happiness

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord I've been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord I've been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

  5. Dear Doddy, thank you for your uplifting contribution...Clive

  6. Just read the blog...thoroughly enjoyed it...like a gust of fresh air. One thought: it seems to me that part of the problem is the conflation "happiness" and "well-being". Can't one be angry, frustrated, skeptical, dissatisfied and still be "well"? I think a main problem is that as a society, we are focused on the unrealistic idea that one can be happy all the time, when really we should be learning to live more comfortably and aware in our full humanity-- in all of its guises. It’s the same in the States: try getting this across to a country of people to whom the Declaration of Independence grants "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right!

  7. A good point about institutionalising "the pursuit of happiness". Basically, the US has enshrined "happiness" as a goal, as an outcome, rather than a process, and thus it dovetails nicely with the need for capitalism to make people dissatisfied and inadequate so they consume more. Of course the art commodity has played into this too, and in the 20th century became the exemplar par excellence of Karl Marx's fetish consumption, but it's not just art practice that can allow us to escape the nets. It's art theory too: I think reading John Berger for the first time can give you an incomparable feeling of well-being because there's nothing more uplifting than enlightenment, than experiencing the scales falling from your eyes. Once informed, we can go out and ACT. And for more on that subject, The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination can be useful...
    Or maybe just read Guy Debord.
    In any event, informing others IS civil disobedience, because the powers and vested interests don't want us to be informed (witness their response to Wikileaks)... so therein lies the experience of happiness for the cynics/realists.

  8. When it comes to the rule of recognition is not less, because you most want is like what you have. Often, people go overboard in one way or another, and to find the center. But the recognition is nice to have if you are not constantly miserable and ungrateful.

  9. its not whats going on outside - but how we deal with it - as ausmanx abouve says - its about enlightenment and in my own personal view - lucidity

    that comes through many triggers and situations

    ...and its relative

  10. It sounds like Nic Marks is a happiness terrorist…'not satisfied with having entered into the welfare state and consumerism, happiness has become a system in which everyone intimidates everyone else…’ Pascal Bruckner