Wellbeing ESRC Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Manchester Metropolitan University
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Seminar 1

Wellbeing; The Interaction Between Person and Environment


Speaker's notes

John Pickering Ecopsychology and Wellbeing.
Professor Isaac Prilleltensky Personal, Relational, and Collective Well-being: An Integrative Approach


Economic and Social Research Council Seminar Series
Wellbeing: Social and Individual Determinants

Seminar 1: Wellbeing; the interaction between person and environment


This was the first of a series of seminars, organized with support from the Economic and Social Research Council to explore aspects of wellbeing.  The seminar series aims to promote research in the processes and circumstances which facilitate wellbeing in individuals, groups and communities, and to complement the dominant focus on illness, disease and death which is typical of much social scientific research on ‘health’. The seminars have been designed to bring together an invited audience of academics and others who have a theoretical or substantive contribution to make. We propose to arrange publication of the papers and discussion from the seminars. The following notes summarize the highlights from the discussion. Prof. Sarah Curtis, Dept of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London.

Graham Hart opened the discussion and explained the origin of this seminar series, inspired by the strong interest evoked in the academic community by the ESRC consultation over potential for work on wellbeing.  Wellbeing is now among the thematic priorities for ESRC and there seemed to be a good deal of valuable research and knowledge which could be brought together through a seminar series.  Graham outlined some key dimensions of wellbeing, which emerged in the course of the consultation:
·       aspects of intimate and wider social relations;
·       flourishing communities;
·       landscapes of wellbeing;
·       historical and biographical continuity vs. discontinuity;
·       promotion and realisation of healthy outcomes.

Graham drew attention to the website for the seminar series:

John Pickering presented a perspective (see paper) from Ecopsychology, with an emphasis on ‘restoring the earth, healing the mind’.  His discussion pointed to the importance of political balance and social justice at the local and global scale as prerequisites for wellbeing.  It was suggested that the relationship to the natural world, as opposed to inter-human relationships, received relatively little attention in psychological discourses about wellbeing.  However, the ecological crisis, associated with pressures to conform, comply and consume, can be seen as a psychological crisis.  Anxieties can arise concerning the potential implications of artificial intelligence (a form of artificial life).  Also impacting on psychological wellbeing is concern over violence in society arising from unmet needs. (As this seminar was taking place the participants were not yet aware of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington which took place that day.  The huge trauma and distress from these events brought these issues into sharp perspective.) John drew attention to the work of David Harvey (The Condition of Postmodernity), which, like that of other geographers, has emphasised the impact of space – time compression.  Considered together with ideas of the exponential growth of the weightless economy, this introduces fluidity of meaning into our understanding of the world.  Human responses include those of the ‘constructivist’, ‘the player’, or the ‘nihilist’.  Wellbeing is being affected by reduction in diversity and richness in the world, combined with increased social disparity and polarisation and a growing sense of technophobia.  People are seeking to belong to a community that has a ‘place for them’.  John finished his talk by pointing out that those concerned to develop research on wellbeing should pay attention to questions such as: Who needs it?  What is it for?  What will we do with the findings?  There seems to be an important mission for teaching and learning, as well as a research agenda, to equip society to deal with some of the issues he had raised in his presentation.

Stefan Priebe responded to John’s presentation.  He pointed out that concern over uncertain futures is not new, but that there is a shift in psychology towards a new interest in post-modern themes and interpretations of future trends.  Health or wellbeing may be seen as a value to be promoted collectively or as something self-defined and akin to a commodity.  Stefan drew attention to a new class of illnesses in mental health which might be markers for the absence of some of the aspects of wellbeing that John Pickering had referred to.  These include  multiple chemical sensitivity and Gulf war syndrome.  It is difficult to establish hard clinical evidence for these but patients are unimpressed by the lack of clinical recognition.  A common response is for patients to organize in movements against the medical scientific view.  It is interesting that these types of syndrome are most prevalent in countries with the most rigorous environmental controls, opportunities for compensation for damage to health and funds to pay for health care. There is a prevailing concern that some one must be ‘to blame’ for environmental crises because these arise from human causes. 

In the ensuing general discussion, Vicky Cattell  ( Dept of Psychiatry, Queen Mary U of L) commented on the significance for wellbeing of poverty, class and the power of capital.  Philip Evans suggested that perhaps John Pickering had overemphasised a static and universal view, when wellbeing might have multiple definitions and be a fluid concept.  Jane Henry commented that academic views on wellbeing may be missing the agenda presented by John which emphasised social and political action.  Will Gesler drew attention to David Harvey’s ideas about militant particularism, which highlight this action oriented perspective.  Antony Morgan argued for a framework of research on wellbeing that could be applied in action at the level of policy or intervention.  John Pickering suggested that we may be at a stage of carrying out research to depict, rather than explain, wellbeing.

Will Gesler made a presentation on therapeutic landscapes which emphasised the idea that place matters to wellbeing.  It matters in a negative sense (ideas of unhealthy places, sick places – e.g. sick building syndrome, relative deprivation and associated health inequality).  It also matters in a more positive sense (ideas of healing places and therapeutic landscapes).  In his work on therapeutic landscapes Will has identified dimensions such as:
·       ‘nature as healer’ linked to cultural ecology and biophilia;
·       positive dimensions of the built environment – links to environmental psychology;
·       meaning of places – experience, feelings, social support and sense of community;
·       social contest – broad political, economic, social cultural environments.

Will’s research includes studies of what are often represented as ‘healing places’ eg. Epidauros, Bath, Lourdes.  Another perspective on what may be ‘therapeutic’ about healing places comes from consideration of places such as hospitals.

Morag Bell responded to this presentation, pointing to the significance of other sorts of places which are represented as improving well-being in ways that go beyond being therapeutic in the sense of ‘healing the sick’.  These include: health farms, national forests, the green spaces programme.  However, these raise questions about how and by whom they are evaluated as beneficial to wellbeing.  Thus we need to consider the issue of the power to represent what is ‘therapeutic’ (whether this is interpreted in terms of individual wellbeing, global interdependence and sustainability or appropriate natural practices).  The forms, sites and agents of knowledge concerning wellbeing become crucial to the debate.  Institutional knowledge in the arts and sciences needs to be understood in the light of power, resistance and cultural exchange.  Wellbeing also needs to be considered in terms of rights and responsibilities, and in terms of policy. There are important issues of exclusion and marginalised behaviour as they relate to social construction of landscapes of wellbeing.

In the general discussion Wayne Ruga (Architect wruga@post.harvard.edu) commented on the importance of human experiential aspects of our understanding of ‘place’ and Ade Kearns commented on the multiple meanings of places (eg dwelling places, places visited; places you affect or that affect you; places of attachment and their relationship to identity.  Will Gesler added that familiarity of places was a related aspect.  Vicky Cattell emphasised the significance of places as locales for positive social relations and enjoyment.  Graham commented on the significance of ‘liminal’ spaces and notions of ones ‘own place’ for privacy and self-expression. Jane Henry commented on what is seen as the capacity of natural landscapes to relieve anxiety.  This discussion emphasised the importance of the interaction between people and places which is fundamental to thinking in human geography.

The next part of the seminar considered individual and collective contributions to wellbeing.  The presentations focused on some empirical research findings from studies of communities at work and in residential areas.  Stephen Stansfeld made a presentation on ‘the relationship between social support and individual wellbeing’.  He offered some definitions of social support and introduced research from the Whitehall II study as a source of evidence which demonstrates the importance of social support, at work and in social networks, for health or wellbeing.  He commented that there may be reciprocal relationships between aspects of personality and experience of social support and that early patterns of attachment may influence capacity for/ need for social support.  Thus individuals will vary in terms of the significance of social support and a life course perspective is likely to be important.  Stephen discussed the relevance of different models of social support:
·       social constructionist perspectives of Dewey and of Cohen, Underwood and Gottlieb;
·       social cognitive model proposed by Lakey et al, and Cohen et al;
·       social interactionist perspective (making sense of the world).

David Halpern made a presentation on ‘Personal and Collective Determinants of subjective wellbeing: Should Subjective wellbeing be an Objective of Policy?’  He drew attention to research on mental health and the built environment which demonstrates the significance of environmental stress, social networks, factors of process and control and the symbolic nature of the built environment.  He reminded us of work by Willmott in Dagenham, showing that cul-de-sac streets seemed more conducive to social networking, and research by Newman on student residences, showing that ability to control and regulate space is important for wellbeing.  David highlighted the links between social capital and wellbeing and raised the question of whether quality of social networks is an important aspect of social capital.  There may be practical issues in terms of government policy: should government be more interested in development of measures of life satisfaction as indicators of performance or outcome of social interventions?  Should enhancement of social support and social dimensions of wellbeing be targets for government policy?  David cited evidence that individual life satisfaction is heavily dependent on the quality of social relationships.  He mentioned OECD research on social capital which has identified the importance of ‘bonding ties’ (links to one’s own group) and ‘bridging ties’ (links to ‘others’, seen to be outside one’s social group).  He suggested that social capital could be interpreted in terms of a ‘vitamin’ model, (as proposed by Warr, 1987).

DigbyTantam responded to these presentations.  He commented on two different dimensions of ‘loneliness’: emotional loneliness (associated with sense of self-worth and personal relationships) and social loneliness (lack of social participation).  Being happy is not the same thing as 'not being distressed' and this has implications for policy which might try to enable people to pursue happiness.  He pointed, for example, to data on high suicide levels in some countries which have achieved, to a relatively large degree, what are considered the ‘prerequisites’ for happiness. 

The following discussion raised questions about whether wealth generation should be evaluated in terms of its capacity to produce happiness as well as economic benefits.  We may need to distinguish between ideas of pleasure and comfort.  Inequalities in wellbeing are a crucial policy issue.  We may need to consider how to enable individuals to build capacity for wellbeing, though a purely individualistic perspective may not tap the significance of the collective for wellbeing and the constraints placed on individual agency by social structures.  Individual vs. collective definitions of wellbeing may reflect different social attitudes or ideologies and different government strategies.  The constructs of social capital that have been proposed in research may help us to understand it better and approach the promotion of social capital more effectively.  These include: ideas of trust, social networks, civic engagement and improved empowerment of communities.  Wellbeing was seen to be insufficiently prioritized in policy.  Partly because of this, and also because of the complexity of the concept and the problems of measurement we lack good tools to assess wellbeing in ways that will inform policy.  Research might aim to build an evidence base about wellbeing and what affects it, to inform policy in this area.

In the final part of the seminar, John Haworth and Jane Henry made presentations on ‘wellbeing and positive psychology’.   John highlighted work by Warr (1987) on some of the key dimensions of wellbeing from a western perspective.  These included affective wellbeing, competence, autonomy, aspiration and integrated functioning.  Affective wellbeing was a key concept and this could combine ideas of pleasure, contentment, and enthusiasm.  John discussed a range of environmental factors (sometimes termed psychological ‘vitamins’) proposed by Warr (1987) which are thought to be important for wellbeing: 
·       opportunity for control;
·       opportunity to exercise skills;
·       externally generated goals;
·       variety;
·       environmental clarity;
·       availability of money;
·       physical security;
·       interpersonal contact;
·       social support.

These interact with personal attributes such as personality traits and sense of locus of control. 

Factors diagram

John noted research suggesting that the significance of certain factors for wellbeing is variable between different groups in society.  For example, there is evidence that control operates differently for women than for men. There is also evidence for complex links between wellbeing enjoyment and locus of control.  ‘Flow’, a situation where major challenges are met with corresponding skills, may also be conducive to wellbeing.   Jahoda’s model suggest that aspects of life which relate to categories of experience; time structure in daily life; sense of collective effort, social identify and status, social contact and regular activity, may not all be enjoyable but may contribute to wellbeing. John also invoked Merleau Ponty’s (1962) embodiment theory of consciousness as a useful model of cognition as embodied action. ( references to theory, research and  some methods for measuring environmental influences and wellbeing:  Haworth, J.T. 1997, Work, Leisure and Wellbeing. London: Routledge ; Bryce.J. & Haworth.J.T. In press. Psychological wellbeing in a sample of male and female office workers. Journal of Applied Social Psychology)

Jane Henry discussed the role of psychology in improving wellbeing.  She questioned whether the orientation of professional approaches to improving wellbeing, embodied in some strategies for positive psychology, was consonant with what had been identified by informants in her research as effective ways of achieving lasting personal change.  This may have implications for practice and for any interventions designed to help people take individual action to enhance their own wellbeing. Jane’s research showed that informants reported that effective strategies included quietening the mind; physical involvment and social support.  Self reflection was conspicuously absent from informants accounts, though it often figures as an important element of psychology.  Jane argued that strategies in psychology, derived from clinical practice, have tended to emphasise coping with deficiency and failure.  In contrast, her work on what lay people see as important for wellbeing emphasises social embeddedness and active involvement in the world. ( Henry, J. 2000, Effective change strategies. Consciousness and Experiential Psychology 5, p6-13.)

In the following discussion, some participants queried whether psychological practice was always focused in the ways that Jane suggested.  However, her analysis very helpfully highlighted some interesting issues about what kind of evidence we can use to judge what are effective ways to promote wellbeing.

The final part of the discussion was led by Antony Morgan, who encouraged participants to consider how research on wellbeing might be made relevant to policy.  He endorsed earlier comments about the need to consider questions about research in this area such as: Who needs it?  What is it for?  What will we do with the findings? The need to try to include a variety of different perspectives and voices was acknowledged as important to a useful body of research on wellbeing.   We agreed to take forward the activity started in the seminar by compiling notes on the discussion for wider dissemination, particularly through the website.  and participants were invited to submit further comments. This will be the first stage in compiling material for a publication which will bring together the ideas and information generated in the seminar series.  All participants were encouraged to consider other contributions they might like to make to such a publication.

Ecopsychology and Wellbeing

John Pickering, Psychology, Warwick University

ESRC Seminar Series on Wellbeing: Social and Individual Determinants
Seminar 1: Wellbeing; the interaction between person and environment

11th September 2001, Queen Mary, University of London.

Human kind Cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot (1942). Burnt Norton.

Wellbeing is the feeling that “all’s right with the world”.  Here I suggest that wellbeing is diminished as media technology brings us increasingly powerful messages that all is not right.   What is wrong is our violent and destructive relationship with the global environment.  Even though this may not be as easy to study with the methods of the social sciences as they now stand, it is fundamental to wellbeing.  It needs to be studied properly within an appropriate theoretical framework and with appropriate styles of enquiry.  I shall propose that Ecopsychology  provides both.

Ecopsychology (e.g. Roszak et al., 1995 ; http://isis.csuhayward.edu/ALSS/ECO/Final/index.htm#intro ) is roughly at the centre of a cluster of related disciplines, such as Ecological Psychology (e.g. Winter, 1996), Deep Ecology (e.g. Tobias, 1988 ; Deval & Session, 1985) and Environmental Psychology (e.g.  Cassidy, 1997).  The  following remarks about Ecopsychology give some idea what it is like.  They were made by Lester Brown, founder and until 2000 the director, of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington (http://www.worldwatch.org/), probably the world’s most authoritative voice on planetary wellbeing.  “Ecopsychologists believe there is an emotional bond between human beings and the environment out of which we evolve.  ….   Ecopsychology seeks to redefine sanity within an environmental context.  …   Ecopsychologists are drawing upon the ecological sciences to reexamine the human psyche as an integral part of the web of nature. ”  (Brown, 1995)

Now in recent times this web has had another thrown over it.  The global network of digital communication reminds us that the world is one place.  It was an ironic co-incidence that the first in this series of seminars should have been held on September 11th. 2001.  Unknown to those taking part in it, events elsewhere were providing a dark backdrop to their discussions of Wellbeing.   Witnessed around the world, in real time, the attacks in America were a trauma for some and a triumph for others, signifying both the interconnectivity of and the deep divisions in the world community.

In Manhattan & Washington, Occidental hubris encountered Oriental Erynnes in a Greek tragedy but without catharsis.  The response to the attacks has increased hatred of America and its allies, which prompted the attacks in the first place.  There is greater danger now than before and the ‘War Against Terrorism’ will make the world a more violent place for decades.   As America prepares, in the words of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for “   A much wider effort.  It will likely be sustained for years, not weeks or months.”, we are moving closer to the permanent global warfare depicted in Orwell’s 1984.   It is not so much between states as between the rich and the poor.  This divide has always been with us, but now it has reached pathological proportions with the grotesque disparities that have emerged within the world community.  Since these disparities are patently unjust, they have to be maintained by force.  They will therefore be resisted by force.  The consequent violence, amplified by ancient cultural enmities, is literally brought home to us via globalised communications.

Globalisation and the growth of the internet have dominated cultural change over the past few decades.  Indeed, they can be seen as different aspects of the same process: “I see globalisation as a fundamental shift in our institutions ...  an underlying shift in the way we live.  The main driver of globalisation isn’t economic globalisation as such, it is information and communication.”  (Giddens, 1999; http://www.polity.co.uk/giddens/pdfs/Globalisation.pdf ).  The new weightless economic order is a result of the digital mobility of information and value.  Global communication networks have shrunk the world.  The information they carry  circulates and blends to create the recombinant culture of postmodernity (Harvey, 1990).

Giddens puts a positive spin on all this, seeing it as the means to wealth creation and even to fairer distribution.   Digital  mobility means that those in the poor world now have a greater chance to benefit by participating in postmodern capitalism.  By contrast the anti-capitalist movement sees globalisation as leading to more disparity, not less. In their eyes it reflects the unsustainable exploitation of people and environments by transnational corporations (Klein, 2000). 

Whether it is for good or ill, and of course it will be for both, globalisation is unstoppable.  It will intensify and thereby diminish cultural diversity and autonomy.   Expectations based on Western lifestyles, spread via the internet, are the hypermobile shocktroops of postmodern capitalism.  Images of unsustainable wealth sear into vulnerable minds.  They create desires wherever they go and the fulfillment of those desires becomes central to wellbeing.

The force of the internet is not only economic but semiotic.   It signifies the interconnectivity of our economic and political lives.  Moreover, it actively creates what it signifies through its power to transform. The turbulent, spaceless interconnectivity of the internet is an unmistakable, albeit preconscious, reminder of the braided lives of all those who live on our world.  The medium is the message and the message, appropriately, is that we have been living in McLuhan's global village for decades.

This has meant that the world’s violence is known to us in a new and intimate way.   The connection between violence and rich  lifestyles is becoming clearer daily.  Images, more immediate and vivid than even a decade ago, remind people in the wealthy world that their secure and abundant lifestyles do not come for free. The cost is violence done to people, to cultures and to the environment.   This was clearly recognised by Walter Benjamin, writing amid the dark geopolitics of the 1930’s that produced the second world war and his suicide.  He saw that when society cannot contain the power of technology, the result is violence and the celebration of violence.  The Disneyfication of the warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia demonstrate that he was all too prescient.  There is more trouble ahead and even if geographically speaking it is ‘elsewhere’ it’s also going to be closer to home. 

Now, we cannot disown this violence, since we know much more than Benjamin did about what produces it.  The violent damage being inflicted on our biologies and cultures is patent.  Even though it may be elsewhere in real space, that space has been shrunk by globalisation.   As people resist and protest, there is more violence.  It is not only Manhattan & Washington but also Seattle and Genoa that show that ‘elsewhere’ is closer than it used to be. Violence from which we benefit or which is connected with the way we live belongs to us.  Since it is done in our names, we are involved.  We feel responsible.

But this violence is out of control.  Even those in power are powerless, given the decline of the nation state as a global political player (Hutton, 1996). Transnational corporations exert enormous geopolitical influence and yet are beyond political restraint.  People have disengaged with the political processes, disenchanted as spin and misrepresentation are amplified by media technology.  Distortion, intentional and not, makes it impossible to trust the ever-present media barrage.   Real geopolitical events are obscured and misrepresented by what Baudrillard has termed the ‘hyperreal’.  This is:  “ the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal..." :  (Baudrillard, 1983, page 166).   We feel powerless.

Now if people do feel responsible and yet powerless it surely diminishes their wellbeing.  The effects may not be close to the surface of our conscious lives, but they are important nonetheless.  Of course, they are overlaid by a host of distractions.  Distant tragedies may evoke sympathy, but unless they directly affect our lives, they are soon forgotten.  What's happening elsewhere may be distressing, but it is elsewhere, even though elsewhere is closer than it used to be.  Things closer to home will still be more significant if they are sources of stress and anxiety.  Even in the rich world, someone living in poor conditions has got enough to worry about.  Without work or security we are not likely to feel much concern about events in Afghanistan or even in New York.   Only when our basic needs are met is there the space to feel concern for others; when they are not, our concerns are for ourselves.

Here the psychology of needs and motivation provides a framework.   Maslow, a founding figure in humanistic psychology, represented human needs  as a hierarchy or pyramid.  At the bottom are basic needs to do with the preservation of life that we share with other animals.  All living beings need air, water, food, shelter and safety.  Next up are social and emotional needs  some of which we share with other social animals.  These are our needs to belong to social networks.  At the top come the uniquely human need for self-actualisation: to understand ourselves and our place in the world and to strive for the maximum of consciousness.  Higher needs are conditional on lower ones having been met.   If you can’t breathe, you won't notice being hungry,  if you’re hungry you forget you’re lonely, and so on.   Once needs at lower levels are met, needs at higher levels may receive attention, if our social environment encourages us to do so.

Now, over the past few centuries those in industrialised societies have found it increasingly easy to meet their basic needs.  Of course, this doesn’t mean they have always been met.  The sufferings depicted in ‘Hard Times’ and ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ were real enough.  But they were depictions of poverty amidst wealth. The monstrous disparities of Victorian England are now globalised, although as yet there is no Dickens or Tressell to protest about them.   However, within the industrialised nations themselves, wealth and security have been increasing.  Since the mid twentieth century people in the rich world have enjoyed what Franklin Roosevelt called the “more abundant life”.

If wellbeing primarily depended on needs being met and if people in wealthy societies are becoming more able to meet them, then wellbeing should be increasing.   Surveys show that economic indicators like GDP and unemployment levels do indeed predict reported wellbeing, at least in the developed countries (di Tella et al., 2001).   At the same time other surveys of the same populations also reveal a steadily increasing incidence of mental and psycho-somatic illnesses coupled with consumption of anti-depressants (e.g. Skaer et al., 2000).  Our basic needs may be met, but all is not well. 

But then, it never was.  Suffering is the universal condition, as the Buddha realised.  Western philosophers from Schopenhauer to Sartre have also detected discontent at the core of human experience.   It would be well to bear this in mind as we inquire into wellbeing.  We should not try to eliminate that which cannot be eliminated, especially as it can be a source of growth (Young-Eisendrath, 1996; Gilbert, 1989).

Nonetheless, there does seem to be something amiss, over and above the normal trials of life.  The last century or so has been called “the age of anxiety”, something that McLuhan explained as  “  …  the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools, with yesterday’s concepts.”  (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967).   In one sense, however, “today’s job” is what it has always been: to seek wellbeing and to feel whole.  But this is made more difficult when identity is increasingly open to indefinite redefinition.   Our job today, as one celebrant of the postmodern condition puts it,  is “to eclect” what to be (Jencks, 1996).  Our tools, however, are those of yesterday, the notions of personal autonomy, identity and responsibility  bequeathed us by Locke, Kant and Mill.

The postmodern turn has provided new tools however.  It has prompted a re-appraisal of our assumptions of stable personal identity and individual autonomy.  Instead of taking them as absolute, we can also regard them as relative to the social system in which they are constructed and maintained.  The psychology of postmodern selfhood now " ... focuses on the way in which we construct our experience, especially our sense of self, from messages in our quickly changing culture." Winter (1996).   Our culture is indeed changing quickly and we are immersed in a sea of options, digitally enhanced and mobilised.   Images, slogans and intellectual fashions make recommendations, both explicit and not, about how to look, speak and think   - in short, about what to be.

This choice of identity is exciting while at the same time contributing to the "stress of modern life”.   Clearly "stress", like “wellbeing” is a complex condition with a range of  components .  One of these, at the somewhat neglected global end of the range may be a growing preconscious, awareness of the troubled relationship between the self and the world.  Selfhood is constructed using what the culture around it provides.   What we take our selves to be is in turn taken from what our cultural context defines a self to be.  In the wealthy world selfhood is closely bound to what a rich and abundant culture can offer.   These lifestyles in turn cannot be separated from the relationships with the rest of the world that make those lifestyles possible.

Globalised communications are showing us that the lifestyles of the rich are unsustainable and are the cause of violence.  Yet even as the environmental costs are becoming clearer, images of such lifestyles are creating expectations and desires around the world.   Those enjoying the lifestyles are unconcerned for the most part.  At the 'Earth Summit' held in Rio in 1992, the developing nations drew the attention of the then US president George Bush snr. to the over-consumption by the US and other rich countries.   He dismissed their concerns with the remark:  "The American Way of Life is not up for negotiation".  

Now, George Bush jnr. has launched the "War Against Terrorism".  Like any complex geopolitical campaign it has many interleaved objectives.  One of these is for the US and its allies to increase military control over the energy resources of the middle east and the Caspian basin.  Rich lifestyles need cheap energy and energy is cheap so long as extraction costs can be kept low and the environmental costs are not met, or are met by others.   Consuming the global commons at an unsustainable rate and degrading the environments of those who do not benefit is unjust.  It is also unsafe.  As people in the poor world realise the direction of geopolitics, they realise that it will be increasingly difficult for them to meet their needs in the future.  They will do whatever they can to protect themselves, including the use of violence. 

Present indications are that this geopolitical situation will worsen over the next century or so.   Unmet needs create violence and if the needs in question threaten our existence in the short term then the violence is correspondingly immediate.  If we are being choked, we will fight for air, if we are being ignored, we will fight for attention.  But equally, if the needs are longer term ones or are anticipations of being prevented from meeting our future needs, then although the response may be more planned and strategic,  it will be nonetheless violent for all that.  

The base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is universal.   Our needs to be nourished and to feel safe are not  imposed by culture, although there may be cultural conventions about how they are expressed.  As we move further up the hierarchy there is a shift in the balance between universal and culturally imposed needs and universal needs may be transformed by cultural influences into acquired ones.  When these include a digitally mobilised flood of preconscious imperatives about what to wear, about what shape to be and about what it is fashionable to say and think, the middle and upper levels of Maslow's hierarchy becomes bloated with acquired needs.   While children in the poor world look to their parents for food, those in the rich world nag theirs for the ‘right’ clothes.   Their intrinsic need for social identity has been converted by advertising into the need to possess.  A brand of trainers, functionally identical to a host of others, can be made so desirable that children are mugged for their sake.

Advertising hijacks natural needs and converts them into desires that are hard to recognise and impossible to meet. The meanings attached to products often tap into Maslow’s hierarchy at the social level.   Clothes can come to mean group membership and hence to satisfy a need to belong.   Guided by digitally mobilised sales figures, advertising campaigns constantly re-tune the meanings of products.   If needs can be made to remain unmet, demand will remain high.  Even when we have enough, it must be made to seem unsatisfactory.  A sales executive put it this way in the 1950’s:  “It’s our job to make women unhappy with what they have”.  Advertising in 1950 was a cottage industry  compared with the corporate enterprise it is today.  Its impact on wellbeing, not only in the rich countries but also globally, should not be underestimated.

In a recent anthology on ecopsychology,  it was put like this:   “Corporate advertising is likely the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race, yet its stunning impact remains curiously ignored by mainstream Western psychology. We suggest that large scale advertising is one of the main factors that creates and maintains a particular form of narcissism ideally suited to consumerism.    As such, it creates artificial needs within people that directly conflict with their capacity to form a satisfying and sustainable relationship with the natural world.”   (Kanner & Gomes,  1995)

Wellbeing depends on a healthy balance between met and unmet needs.  Advertising creates artificial needs which are designed to be permanently un-meetable.   They act as an irritant, undermining our sense of balance between what we have, what we need and what we want.   Unmet needs are those of which we are generally most conscious, but, being conscious they are subject to scrutiny and, with luck, proper management.  Basic needs like thirst provide the information required to satisfy them.  If you’re thirsty or hungry, you know what you lack.  Artificially imposed needs, by contrast, are preconscious and hence harder to recognise.  They are harder to meet because we don’t know what we want – only that we want it very badly.   When they are specifically designed and constantly modified to stimulate consumption, they are virtually impossible to satisfy.   

Gandhi remarked that: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for some people’s greed”.   Someone who experiences the world from this view point will feel fundamentally secure.   Corporate greed, got secondhand via the advertising industry makes people feel insecure.  The world cannot seem ever to provide enough.  The natural needs of the world’s peoples can be met, and met sustainably, given the technological resources we now possess (Seabrook, 1985; http://www4.nationalacademies.org/intracad/tokyo2000.nsf/all/home ).   Artificial needs created and imposed by media campaigns, by contrast, are designed specifically not to be met.  The technology for imposing them, like other forms of violence, is running out of control and producing more violence in the process.  Someone who feels incomplete without this or that commodity will struggle to obtain it.  There’s nothing wrong with the commodity, nor in fact with the struggle to feel complete.  The problem arises when one is attached to the other.  A child who kills another for their trainers or a nation that subverts the government of another for their own economic ends are two symptoms of a single disorder.

We are likely to become more aware of this as global networks bring the evidence to us.  Inevitably, this evidence  will be distorted and sensationalised in hyper-reality.  But despite the smoke and mirrors, it is unmistakable that there is an ecological crisis, and a deep one.  The perspective on this from ecopsychology is that we need to seek an appropriately deep solution. 

The ecological crisis is a psychological crisis of which globalised violence is a symptom.  It concerns the pathological consumption required to meet pathological needs.  The condition is not one that globalisation has created, it was noted by Eric Fromm as early as 1940 in his The Fear of Freedom.  He realised that as contemporary culture loosened traditional constraints in the name of freedom, the result was a type of emotional vacuity ideal for consumerism to fill.  The condition was even more noticeable some thirty years later when he wrote To Have or to Be? 

Now it is not so much noticeable as starkly definitive of contemporary lifestyles.   What some ecopsychologists have called the “All-consuming Self” is a narcissistic condition in which selfhood, having been detached by advertising from more natural support, becomes too strongly defined by possession.   The boundary between the self and the world becomes indefinitely expandable and hence disappears, a deeply pathological condition (Hillman, 1995).  To be a self is now to possess this or that thing which is not self.   If this need to possess is pathologically inflated, the self/world boundary becomes a moving frontier of greed.  The answer to the question: “How much is enough?” is now another question: “What’s ‘enough?’’  A media-induced trance of unlimited consumption is a global danger.  Cultures in which it has taken hold will violently wrest what they want from the environment and from other cultures. This can be concealed within hyper-reality to some extent, but preconsciously the news leaks out.   Combined with preconscious needs for self-actualisation that cannot be met, it makes for a powerful degradation of wellbeing.

Self-actualisation, lying at the top of  Maslow's hierarchy, is our most important need and it is crucial to wellbeing.   When the integrity of the self  is threatened, wellbeing is impaired.  The technologies of desire that have appeared within the industrial and post industrial cultures have fundamentally diminished the integrity of the self.  Weber described the world as transformed by the industrial revolution as ‘disenchanted’ (Weber, 1958).  One of the drivers of colonialism and the Westward expansion in America was an effort to re-enchant the world by the appropriation of exotic lands (Berman, 1981).  To those already living there, the invaders were seen as maddened by the need to consume.   The Hopi Indians, as their way of life was being destroyed, recognised the malaise of the white people.  It was ‘koyaanisqatsi’, a term from their own vocabulary of mental illness, meaning, ‘a life out of balance’ http://www.koyaanisqatsi.org/index.ph

Wellbeing depends on a life in balance.  If our way of life is being driven deeply out of balance by artificial and unsustainable needs, this has to be addressed if we are to carry out research that is appropriate and useful.  Most social sciences, reflecting the ethos of modernity, model their research on the natural sciences.   They mainly deal with things that can be counted and with the more immediate, rational, determinants of wellbeing.  The contribution of ecopsychology might be to complement this with research that reflects the ethos of postmodernity.  It advances a research programme in which there is a more even balance between quantitative and qualitative methods, in which preconscious psychological determinants are treated seriously and in which researchers are no longer neutral external observers but participants.

The ESRC, in making wellbeing one of its thematic priorities, needs  to inquire into the deeper qualitative issues raised by the way we live as well as carrying out quantitative studies. Studying social relations can be done on many levels and the wider world community should not be ignored.  Healthy outcomes may be sought at both the individual and the collective levels.   But the latter is primary: it is harder to promote healthy individuals in sick societies than it is to help sick individuals in healthy ones.   The teaching and learning of ecopsychology makes sense since we all inhabit the same environment.   Ecopsychology seeks to make people aware of the deep reciprocity between the way we live and the impact that has on other cultures and the biosphere.   In making sense of the world we cannot ignore our impact on it. 

If our research simply takes growth and abundant consumption for granted, and then bolts on them modernist notions of selfhood, it will not address anything radically new. Of course, research carried out to guide policy is not meant to address anything radically new. Quite the reverse.  Its role is to stabilise and consolidate the power of those who fund it.  Hence, it is normative and consensual.  It is about finding out what will keep people happy so they will continue to support political institutions.  Investigating the effect of the built environment on wellbeing could be an illustrative case.  Most people in the UK live in cities.   Helping to make the urban environment good to live in seems worthwhile, as indeed it is, in a limited sense.   But if the life support for the world community is threatened by urbanised lifestyles, it is parochial and short sighted.  Quantitative studies of urban wellbeing do not address the problem deeply enough.

For ecopsychologists, the object of our research needs to be the geopolitical pathology that threatens global wellbeing.  Such research integrates with and complements conventional research very well (Bragg, 1997). It is not a luxury to be enjoyed by those with leisure and freedom from more immediate needs.  If we are to promote wellbeing in the longer term and on a global scale, we must recognise the interdependence of self and environment.  Then harm to the environment would then be experienced as harm to the self.  This is far more effective in helping those in a rich world to change their consumptive lifestyles.  Moralising and alarmism, what Roszak calls “guilt trips and scare tactics” certainly don’t work (Roszak, 1995).  


Wellbeing depends on  feeling in balance with our environment.  This relationship is obscured by massive propaganda that converts natural needs into the need to consume.  Nonetheless, consciously or unconsciously, we know that violence is being done in our name, we fear things are going to get worse and we feel we are powerless.

Ecopsychology is an attempt to recognise and remedy all this.  As a psychological analysis of human wellbeing, it suggests that research has to extend beyond the human sphere.  If we confine our research to quantitative analyses of urban lifestyles in the wealthy world, we may not even be re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, but merely asking their occupants how comfortable they are.


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Personal, Relational, and Collective Well-being: An Integrative Approach

Professor Isaac Prilleltensky
Director, Wellness Promotion Unit, Department of Psychology
Victoria University, Melbourne, MC POBox 14428, Victoria 8001, Australia
Email: Isaac.Prilleltensky@vu.edu.au
To learn more about Professor Prilleltensky’s work, visit

Colleagues and I have argued elsewhere that well-being at the personal level is intricately connected to the interpersonal and societal domains (Prilleltensky, Nelson, & Peirson, 2001a, b). We want to distant ourselves from definitions of life satisfaction based primarily on intra-psychic components like beliefs and perceptions. These definitions tend to be psycho-centric because they concentrate on the cognitive and emotional sources and consequences of powerlessness and well-being, to the exclusion of the social, material, and political roots and effects of lack of control and poor quality of life. There is a vast material reality Aout there@ that impinges on how we feel and how we behave towards each other. While beliefs and perceptions are important, they cannot be treated in isolation from the cultural, political, and economic environment (Eckersley, in press; 2000). We require Awell-enough@ social and political conditions, free of economic exploitation and human rights abuses, to experience quality of life. All the same, we expect interpersonal exchanges based on respect and mutual support to add to our quality of life. Eckersley (2000) has shown that subjective experiences of well-being are heavily dictated by cultural trends such as individualism and consumerism; whereas Narayan and colleagues have claimed that the psychological experience of poverty is directly related to political structures of corruption and oppression (Narayan, Chambers, Kaul, Shah, & Petesch, 2000; Narayan, Patel, Schafft, Rademacher, & Kocht-Schulte, 2000).

Much like our definition of well-being, Sen (1999b) frames human development in terms of both capabilities and entitlements. Without the latter the former cannot thrive. Both in our definition and in Sen=s conceptualization there is a dialectical relationship between personal capacities and environmental factors. But our approaches to well-being share another dimension. In both cases capacities and resources are at once intrinsically meritorious and extrinsically beneficial. This means that a sense of mastery and control is both an end in itself as well as a means of achieving wellness or reducing poverty. Access to preventive health care and educational opportunities are not only means to human development but also ends on their own right. Wellness at the collective level is not measured only by the health and educational outcomes of a group of individuals, but also by the presence of enabling institutions and societal infrastructures. Hence, we define wellness in broad terms that encompass social progress and human development.

Our definition of wellness entails personal, relational, and collective wellness to capture precisely the various aspects of a decent and meaningful life; not just the personal perceptions of individuals, but also the qualities of interpersonal relationships and of the political, cultural and economic structures. Wellness, then, can be defined as a positive state of affairs achieved by the simultaneous and synergistic satisfaction of personal, relational, and collective needs. These needs are met by coherent values, adequate psychological and material resources, and by effective social policies and programs. Personal needs such as control and self-efficacy have to be reflected in social values like self-determination; whereas relational needs such as sense of community should be met by values and policies fostering social cohesion. In turn, collective needs for fair and equitable distribution of resources and for environmental protection must be upheld in values that foster justice and sustainability (Prilleltensky, 2001; Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997, 2000; Prilleltensky, Nelson, & Peirson, 2001a, b). The values required to foster wellness are mutually reinforcing and fully interdependent.

Sen (1999a, b) articulates the complementarity of diverse social structures in fostering what we call wellness and what he calls human development. Sen invokes the interaction of five types of freedoms in the pursuit of human development: (a) political freedoms, (b) economic facilities, (c) social opportunities, (d) transparency guarantee, and (e) protective security.
Each of these distinct types of rights and opportunities helps to advance the general capability of a person. They may also serve to complement each other....Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means. In addition to acknowledging, foundationally, the evaluative importance of freedom, we also have to understand the remarkable empirical connection that links freedoms of different kinds with one another. Political freedoms (in the form of free speeches and elections) help to promote economic security. Social opportunities (in the form of education and health facilities) facilitate economic participation. Economic facilities (in the form of opportunities for participation in trade and production) can help to generate personal abundance as well as public resources for social facilities. Freedoms of different kinds can strengthen one another. (Sen, 1999b, pp. 10-11)

Our theory of wellness frames human development in terms of the mutually reinforcing properties of personal, relational, and societal qualities. Personal needs such as health, self-determination, and opportunities for growth, are intimately tied to the satisfaction of collective needs such as adequate health care, access to safe drinking water, fair and equitable allocation of burdens and resources and economic equality. Citizens require public resources to pursue private aspirations. There cannot be caring without justice, and justice without caring.

Personal and collective needs represent two faces of wellness. The third aspect, the relational domain, is crucial because individual and group agendas are often in conflict. Indeed, like power, conflict is immanent in relationships. Two sets of needs are primordial in pursuing healthy relationships among individuals and groups: respect for diversity and collaboration and democratic participation. Respect for diversity ensures that people=s unique identities are affirmed by others, while democratic participation enables community members to have a say in decisions affecting their lives (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2000). Our three domains of wellness parallel the main freedoms and capabilities required for human development (Sen, 1999a, b). As Sen noted, the main freedoms include Athe development of individual capabilities as well as enhancement of social facilities@ (p. 7). We see below how the three dimensions of wellness correspond to poor people=s descriptions of their lives and to Sen=s prescriptions for overcoming suffering and economic disadvantage.

Suffering is the opposite of wellness. It is characterized by unmet needs at the personal, relational, and collective domains. Suffering comes about by deprivation of autonomy, human rights, access to food and water, shelter, and protection from disease and economic crises. At the relational level, suffering occurs when human interactions are marred by disrespect, shame, exclusion, humiliation, erasure of identity and repression of diversity. Collectively, suffering is occasioned primarily by structures of political and economic oppression and exploitation. (Aristide, 2000; Feuerstein, 1997; Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, 1998; Lustig, 2001; Narayan, Chambers, et al., 2000; Narayan, Patel, et al., 2000; Parayil, 2000; Sen, 1999a, b).

Poor people envision a good life based on positive conditions at collective, relational, and personal levels. At the societal level they seek to experience (a) social justice, security and peace; to benefit from (b) material well being and assets; and to live in places with accessible and responsive (c) community services and organizations. In the South in particular poor people talked at length about the wish to have reliable government agencies. They want to have a police force that would protect them, health professionals that would treat them with respect, and safety nets that would support them in times of crises. Almost uniformly they wish an education for their children. With regards to material well-being, it is worth noting that poor people expect only enough to live. In the South, there were no parallels between wealth and well-being. Material well-being was equated with sufficient nutrition and shelter for a decent life (Aristide, 2000; Feuerstein, 1997; Narayan, Chambers, et al., 1999; 2000; Narayan, Patel, et al., 2000).

These societal resources enable people to participate in society and to develop their potential. The relational domain of wellness, according to poor people, should encompass (a) respect and tolerance for diversity, (b) democratic participation, (c) sense of community, solidarity and (d) social support. At the personal level, poor people expressed a desire for (a) freedom of choice and action, (b) health and physical well-being, and (c) capacity for action.

These wishes concur with the wellness model proposed by Prilleltensky and colleagues (Prilleltensky, Nelson, & Peirson, 2001a, b).

In spite of great adversity, many poor people not only wish for but enact many of these qualities; primarily those related to solidarity and support. Maintaining social traditions, hospitality, reciprocity, rituals, and festivals are central to poor people=s defining themselves as humans, despite dehumanizing economic and environmental realities@ (Narayan, Patel, et al., 2000, p. 217). A poor woman in Ukraine noted that without these simple humane signs of solidarity, our lives would be unbearable (Narayan, Patel, et al., 2000, p. 217).
In certain contexts some elements would, and should, take precedence. Diverse contexts require unique configurations of wellness-promoting factors and values. At some point in time collective factors may predominate, while in others relational variables would come to the fore. Sen (2001) observed that

The same values and cultural norms can be extremely successful at one phase of development, but less so at another. What we have to look at is not the general excellence of one set of values over all others, but the specific fit of particular values with the nature of the problems that are faced in a given -- but parametrically variable -- situation. The contingent nature of the contribution that values make is important to seize@ (p. 10).

The aim is always to reach a sufficient degree of satisfaction of each dimension of wellness, and to ascertain which dimension requires preference in the present context. Once each domain is sufficiently satisfied and the most pressing one targeted for action, they can all contribute to the whole of wellness for individuals and communities alike. In the absence of any one domain wellness cannot be achieved. And in the absence of power or resources to procure the attainment of collective, relational, or personal needs, wellness remains an illusion. Poor people must have increased access to economic, political, and psychological power to experience wellness.

The presence or absence of wellness-promoting factors at the collective, relational, and personal levels can have, respectively, positive or negative synergistic effects. When collective factors such as social justice and access to valued resources combine with a sense of community and personal empowerment, chances are that psychological and political wellness will ensue. When, on the other hand, injustice and exploitation blend with lack of resources, social fragmentation, illiteracy, and ill-health, suffering is the outcome. Poor people experience the negative synergy of suffering-inducing factors such as these. But whereas poor people may be deprived of material resources, they are not deprived of agency. Even in the light of forbidding forces, they have organized in community groups, coalitions, clinics, and food cooperatives to repel poverty-induced hunger, illness and powerlessness. Inspiring settings combine solidarity with strategy, psychological support with political wisdom, and personal with collective empowerment.

Bonding and bridging among and with those who struggle in poverty strengthens the resolve to tackle political and economic exploitation collectively. When amelioration at the local level is paralleled by transformation at the global level, there is hope that poverty may be alleviated, not only here and now, but also tomorrow and wherever there is injustice.

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