There’s a lot to do in Belgium these days about so-called workable, meaningful and adaptable work. We should all work longer, yet potential employers fear less productivity and discriminate against candidates from 47 onwards. With a ‘normal’ trajectory, you should be about halfway your career then – another twenty years to go! At the same time long-term absence through sickness or burn-out has never been higher. And yet the ceo of a large employers’ federation managed to comment on the national radio that with burn-out, the problem isn’t work – but all the other activities that fill people’s free time. No outcry followed.
There is also little sense that this discussion (and the action, with yesterday a national manifestation against the government measures concerning work), should be about what the good life consists of. The Flemish suicide rates are about one and a half percent higher than the European average, for women Flanders sits uncomfortably in the top together with Lituania and Hungary. Apparently we have the wrong attitude towards finding help and our problem solving behaviour and communication aren’t good either. Just today the media were already happy that the number of Belgians who take antidepressiva stagnated from 2014 to 2015. This ‘happy’ news is rather sour when one considers that’s still one in ten, or a rise of 16,5% in 10 years’ time. And it suggests that we, as a society, have learnt to accept this sorry state of affairs.
Yet ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ is everywhere you look and compared to previous generations we have armies of ‘health workers’ in the broadest sense of the word at our disposal. Surely all the attention to positive psychology should offer us all we need to improve our psychological health? In The Happiness Industry William Davies forcefully questions that: emotions have simply become a new resource to be bought and sold. In a sense capitalism has further expanded. What the system used to regard with suspicion – feeling, friendship, moral responsability, creativity – have now all been co-opted for the purpose of maximising profits. It seems that there is nothing that cannot be instrumentalized. And all this is done via a psychological approach which, because of its individualistic focus, does not need to acknowledge a larger ideological framework. Attention is simply displaced.
Meaningful work, in the Belgian government’s terms: workable work, seems laudable in the view of so many unhappy workers. But the fact that its twin, adaptable work, is virtually always mentioned in the same breath, raises suspicion: are we talking about the well-being of people – or of the system? How come this discussion doesn’t include an analysis of underlying economic or social causes? Why do we hear so little about the societal sources of this state of affairs? When and how did it happen that the collective is reduced to the point that it’s not even mentioned in talk about trends which by definition cannot be individual? In a similar vein as the ceo cited earlier, some psychologists concluded after the economic crash of 2008 that the problem was not the bank system but the emotions of the bank workers. And since how you feel cannot be argued against, it’s conveniently insulated from all debate.
Happiness is not divorced from the material conditions in which we live. Intuitively we all know that it’s bound up with our activities, whether work or otherwise. It is not a mere subjective affair. Yet that’s the way it’s presented – and very succesfully it is too. We all seem to have incorporated the notion that our psychological state is 1) very important and 2) our very own individual responsability. We’re thrown back at ourselves to improve things. And lo and behold, there is a whole new ‘industry’ that is devoted to our well-being, that offers this training, that method, this diet or supplements, that course of action, that will raise our level of happiness. The offer is there, manifold. If you’re still not happy, evidently it’s your own fault.
I have very mixed feelings about this. Davies’ argument is compelling and I do believe the discussion about the good life should also be conducted at a collective level. Yet when one feels unhappy, surely it’s legitimate that one tries to do something about it. I too aim to improve my well-being in a variety of ways. And I do think it’s mostly up to me. That makes me so to speak a collaborator who maintains the Happiness Industry as Davies describes it. Is there another way?
Just last Saturday I was at a workshop where someone asked for a “simple trick when things do not go well”. In managerial terms this would be a ‘quick win’. How could you be against that? But this is of course a rather desperate question of someone who may not be able to carry all that individual responsability. And I saw many people in the room nodding as if to say: yes, I feel the same and I would like to know a way out too. There was, not surprisingly, no answer: if we no longer believe in the collective, there can also be no straightforward recipes that work for everyone.
Yet commercially the myth of the collective booms. Especially the immensely popular literature on self-help and well-being thrives on the assumption that one size may fit all. Read this book and the world will change for all of you. It’s telling that Gretchen Rubin apologises repeatedly in The Happiness Project that she tells her own story, in the hope that it may be inspiring for others. Although not really unhappy, she concentrated for twelve months on how to improve the quality of her life. Within a carefully chosen theme per month she defines a number of very concrete aims – and reports honestly on their realisation (or not). Inez van Oord, creator of the successful magazins Seasons and Happinez, combines in If Life Is a Circle (in Dutch) her individual story with a more generalistic approach. I personally think The Happiness Project works better: the individual account is indeed inspiring. It’s not a ‘simple trick’ that everyone should follow blindly, it’s an open invitation to explore possibilities on the basis of what they did for the author. General recommendations so often are, well, so very general that they cannot drag you into action. Rubin also doesn’t claim any quick wins, her story is one of careful thought, concentration and persistence.
I too have my own personal list of “tricks” for “when things don’t go well”. And among the most effective for me is being creative. Of course that begs the question: what is ‘being creative’? Recently I expressed my incomprehension about wanting to make your own jam – when there are so many delicious jams to be had, without much effort apart from choosing from the bewildering offer. The reply was swift: and why would anyone want to make one’s own clothes or jewelry? Point taken! It’s irrelevant what it is, as long as it works for you. And in the quest for your own set of tricks, it’s inspiring to learn how others found and or changed their expression of creativity.
In the already mentioned Why We Make Things Peter Korn relates how he started off as a self-made craftsman who really struggled to continue to learn ànd to find appreciation for his craftsmanship. Yet he ended up as an school administrator, creating the circumstances in which others can learn and create more at ease. To the repeated critique that he denounced his creative mission, he replies that he is still being creative, albeit in a different way. I love this story, especially because it shows how narrowmindedly we usually interpret creativity. And how broad its range can be.
The creative process is a mystery. And unless we’re talking about out-of-reach artistic genius, I sincerely believe anything can be a source of inspiration. The point is to be curious and explore, whether in terms of subject, materials, techniques – or all of them at once. It’s about focal attention to the point of reaching flow. It’s about activities that we want to do well for their own sakes. It’s about slow time or kairos in which we may see a glimpse of the good life.
For me, creativity is (among others) about fabrics and fibers. So let me show you some humble craft examples. They’re mostly imitations in the sense that I tried to reproduce an existing design or object into felt. They’re certainly not perfect. But I made them thoughtfully, with care and attention. And the necessary persistence tricked me into more well-being.
In the process of making these things I was happy. Because they were gifts and or home decoration, I hope the happiness contained in them spreads wider. And that might be a very humble contribution to making well-being a collective objective again.