The art of good health

(image © David Shrigley)

Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious […] Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane.
Grayson Perry

While a large proportion of my physical and mental health is sustained through time spent running, swimming, practicing yoga and going to the gym, there is another element of my general wellbeing that is nourished through the arts. Whether it is in the hours spent wandering around an art gallery or lost in a book, at a life drawing class or choir practice, the moments when I engage with the art world bring me a sense of total peace, joy, presence and fulfilment.

Over the past year I have found myself thinking more and more about the positive role that the arts can play in our mental and physical health. To this end, last summer I set up a life drawing course at work. With funding support from our staff Wellbeing Committee, the group was established with the primary goal of taking colleagues away from their desks and into a creative space where they could engage in the moment through a practice distinct in pace and style from their everyday job. In these classes the process of drawing – being creative and present, looking, seeing and recreating shapes and forms – served as a meditative and mindful process, with the success of the class being measured as much by the feelings and reflections of the participants, as by the results of charcoal on paper.

This class is, of course, only a tiny fraction of a much wider and ever-growing movement from within the the arts and cultural heritage sector to consider the role that the sector can play within the field of health and wellbeing.

the arts can reconstruct you
© David Shrigley

In 2014 an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was launched to discuss developments and policy in the field of arts and health. Two years later, the group published an almost 200 page report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing in which they assert that:

More and more people now appreciate that arts and culture can play a valuable part in helping tackle some of the most challenging social and health conditions. Active participation in the visual and performing arts, music and dance can help people facing a lonely old age, depression, or mental illness; it can maintain levels of independence and curiosity and […] it can bring great joy and so improve the quality of life for those engaged.

This paper offers a formal acknowledgement of a shift within the sector surrounding the question of who arts and heritage spaces are for and how they can serve audiences beyond the traditional academic and curatorial visitors. Within the gallery world there are signs that institutions are increasingly keen to schedule health and wellbeing initiatives into their programming. Manchester Art Gallery, for example, have a whole of section of their programme dedicated to wellness, with events to encourage visitors to engage with arts mindfully and wellbeing tours of their galleries.

These, and other initiatives hosted within both arts, care and clinical settings, are designed to be expressive, restorative, educational and therapeutic, working preventively, to enhance recovery, or to improve the quality of life for people with long-term or terminal conditions. Here the arts can play an important role in giving patients a greater sense of self; as Eva Okwonga notes in Creative Health:

Artistic self expression gives participants an identity beyond illness.

Programming around dementia is also increasing, as Nicci Gerrard highlighted in her Guardian article last year, pointing to projects including the Wellcome Foundation’s Dementia Research projectManchester Camerata’s Music in Mind, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Music for a While and the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain. As Gerrard observes:

Dementia is an area where the arts can radically enhance quality of life by finding a common language and by focusing on everyday, in-the-moment creativity.

This is a sentiment shared by Lord Howarth of Newport, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group, who stated that:

The arts have a vital role to play for people with dementia. Research demonstrates that visual arts, music, dance, digital creativity and other cultural activities can help to delay the onset of dementia and diminish its severity.

the arts can help you see
© David Shrigley

Meanwhile, organisations such as the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing and London Arts in Health Forum, have been brought to the fore in recent years, at their hearts the belief that:

By supplementing medicine and care, the arts can improve the health of people who experience mental or physical health problems. Engaging in the arts can promote prevention of disease and build wellbeing.

Working in the arts and cultural heritage sector myself, with a passion for art and an interest in health and wellness, this movement fills me with so much hope and excitement. The growing possibility that through the arts – be they visual, practical, musical, theatrical or literary – we can work together to promote health, happiness and wellbeing and that we can help people through times of distress, illness and trauma, has to be a positive thing.

I want to finish with this quote from Nicci Gerrard:

Art can be medicine, for body and soul.



The myth of hard work (and the secret of an extraordinary life)

I recently found myself in circumstances that required me to reflect on the way I work, my career goals and my outlook and approach to my professional life. I’ve always been a pretty self-aware and reflective person (sometimes to a fault), but this process really got me thinking not only about how I work now, but also how this will translate into my working life in the future.

It was with this degree of self reflection at the forefront of my mind that I listened to, and was totally inspired by, an interview with Stever Robbins on the Ben Greenfield Podcast last week.

Lecturer and life coach, Robbins is also an entrepreneur, business consultant, host of ‘The Get It Done Guy’ podcast, author of ‘The Get it Done Guy’s Nine Steps to Work Less and Do More’ and, most recently, writer on ‘Work Less and Do More: The Zombie Musical’.

The message he preaches is that ‘the journey is the reward‘; that ultimately, reaching your goals shouldn’t be the sole focus of your attentions but rather, you should embrace the experiences that come on the path towards that goal. Whether it’s training for a race, gaining skills and experiences at work, learning at college, practising an instrument, or whatever your objective may be, your focus shouldn’t just be centred on the final, fleeting moment of completion – crossing a finishing line, getting a promotion etc. While there is of course some pleasure in these things, so much more pleasure can be derived if you also place stock in all of the little steps surmounted, moments experienced, skills acquired, people met and memories made along the way.

In looking at his own life, Robbins asked himself, did you make the most of your one life and did you make it extraordinary (whatever it is that ‘extraordinary’ means to you)?

To answer this he sat down with a piece of paper, which he split into 3 columns, and in the first he wrote all of those things that impacted on him positively, that nurtured him and that he regarded as in some way extraordinary. In the second he wrote all of those things that he regarded to be neutral in his life, and in the third he wrote down those things that actively drained his life energy.

I would urge you to do the same, even if just as a mental tally. Go through your daily or weekly calendar and divide up your activities into these three columns and look at what percentage of your activities fall into each column.

Robbins asks us to question what the things are that we regard extraordinary? What compels you to enough to move to action? What are the things that give you real joy? And how can you make these things workable for you?

He suggests letting your emotions guide you towards what you want to do and then setting your brain on figuring out what it is about that thing that inspires you and how you can get into it in some way.

Robbins also talks about four myths that get in the way of leading an extraordinary life. These may seem like heresy to traditional motivational speakers, but they are really worth considering:

1. The myth of hard work

First is the myth of hard work. Robbins observes that often when you are struggling to achieve a goal the commonly given advice is to just ‘work harder’. However, the problem is that while we always tell ourselves and each other this, no one has ever really stopped to ask what this really means: what is hard work?

It seems that for the vast majority of people the definition of hard work is ‘something that I’m not very good at, don’t enjoy and that I work long hours at’. If this is how the majority of us conceive of hard work it would seem that the advice we are giving each other when we say ‘you just need to work harder’, is ‘maybe you need to do a few more hours of things you’re not very good and you really don’t enjoy, and then you’ll have the life you want.’

To Robbins this demonstrates a serious mis-calibration around what hard work means and what it can achieve.

Consider this: there are people who work for a lot of hours on things that they enjoy, with successful results, and don’t think about it as hard work. They may think about it as energising or challenging or maybe as a lot of effort, but not hard work.

Robbins tells us to consider also that there are an awful lot of people who are very rich, living the life they want through chance, circumstance or privilege, but who don’t work particularly hard by anyone’s definition of hard work.

And there are even more people who work really hard everyday and never achieve the life they want.

Thus while there is some relationship between hard work and the life you are living, and while there is definitely a correlation between laziness and not getting what you want – while hard work is no guarantee of success laziness is definitely a guarantee that you won’t end up with an extraordinary life – Robbins wants to stress that the hard work part is not the thing to obsess about.

This all made me think about my own job and really made me realise that while I put in a lot of effort – while I’m challenged in some regard everyday – my job is not ‘hard work’ by Robbins’ definition. Rather, it is something that I love and that enriches and nourishes me. My colleagues are interesting and supportive, my work is varied and each week I learn something new. My work environment is pleasant and my boss encourages me to try new things and take on new challenges. Yes there are days when I find myself pulling my hair out about one thing or other, or when it feels like I have a billion and one things to do, and I will certainly never be rich no matter how much effort I put in, but each week I feel that I’ve contributed something and taken something from my working week and I appreciate how lucky I am in that regard.

The conclusion I draw from this is that we don’t have to be slogging away for hours at something we hate to achieve our goals and people’s competitive tendency to brag about how hard they are working, or to spend hours upon end in the office is no indicator of how successful their lives actually are, or how productive their working time really is.

2. The myth of life goals

Myth number two relates to life goals and the fallacy that you are in a place to decide at the age of 16, 18 or 25 what you want to do with the rest of your life.

There are a number of reasons why these longer term goals aren’t great. While shorter term goals can be very motivating and can help you set direction, in terms of shaping the arc of your life, people are very bad at predicting what’s going to satisfy them, make them happy and what it is they are going to want ten or fifteen years in the future. It is hard to know how your priorities will change as you get older and what a 20-year-old thinks is a good ten year goal is unlikely to be a place where a 30-year-old wants to be.

Instead of committing yourself to a singular course, Robbins suggests that you should try to notice what draws you and get skilled and experienced in that area. Start to get known and meet people. Create open networks of people who you like and respect and who like and respect you. It’s not about networking in a traditional, targeted sense, but rather, building a web of contacts, a net of many different types of thread, as you never know which threads will eventually prove to be the ones you rely on.

3. The myth of life plans

While you can have a general sense of where you are going, Robbins suggests that rather than following a strict plan you should see life as a series of moving targets. Your role is to continually move between these targets, learning and immersing yourself in the things you are passionate about while staying open to all of the other targets that move through your life.

He cautions that just because you’ve made a ten year plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that plan will take you to where you want to/expect to be. Often our ideas about the way that the world and career paths work has no baring on reality and we often lack the experience to make adequate plans to get us to the places we want the be. The problem is that if your plan is fundamentally flawed it doesn’t matter how closely you follow it, if it’s not a real path to where you want to get to, you’ll not succeed in your goal.

Instead you need to think how can you put yourself into an environment that is rich with a variety of opportunities? How do you recognise an opportunity from an attractive diversion? And how do you ultimately ensure that you benefit from that opportunity?

4. The myth of deferred gratification

The final myth is that of deferred gratification. A lot of people choose their career path on the logic of getting rich now and doing what I really want to do later, but the risk here is that you become all deferred and no gratification.

Robbins notes that you need to learn to strike a good balance between what you are going to defer and what you are going to insist on now. And remember: if you always wait you never build a foundation on which to structure your future plan. The earlier you start the earlier you develop a base of skills, contacts and experiences, rather than coming in ten years later and competing against people ten years younger than you with ten years more experience.

I hope that this has all provided some food for thought; it certainly got me thinking about my approach to work, how positive so many elements of my life are and how lucky I am to be in an industry that cultivates collaboration and creativity over competitiveness and conflict.

Your happiness makes me happy

This Saturday, while reading an article by Oliver Burkeman in the ‘Guardian Weekend’, I encountered the principle of ‘mudita’. 

This concept is one of the four virtues of Buddhism and describes a form of happiness derived from someone else’s successes or victories, untainted by any self interest or envy. 

Be it joy at a colleague’s promotion without a hint of jealously, or happiness for a friend’s latest sporting triumph devoid of the desire to surpass it, ‘mudita’ is the purest and most altruistic form of happiness, and one which, in my mind, certainly seems worth trying to cultivate. 

To develop ‘mudita’ in its truest form it’s important to note that the process isn’t to be perceived as a chore or duty in order to qualify as a ‘good person’. Rather, it is a state of mind to be reached which makes the cultivator much happier than he or she would otherwise have been. 

As the Dalai Lama puts it: the capacity to take pleasure in the triumphs of many others gives you much better odds of being happy than in merely finding happiness in the successes of oneself. 

This model of altruistic happiness is grounded in the fact that happiness isn’t a zero-sum game. As Burkeman states, ‘there isn’t a fixed amount of happiness; you getting some doesn’t mean less for me.’

While a life of pure ‘mudita’ might be an unattainable ideal, an awareness of the concept might help to nudge us in the right direction.

So next time your neighbour’s warrior three is more balanced than yours, or your running teammate crosses the finish line ahead of you, or your climbing partner completes a route before you’ve even mastered the second move, just remember to be happy for them, (and when you beat them next time they might just be happy for you!). 


Tired and Wired

ImageNo matter what your opinion is on the #nomakeupselfie craze, there is no denying that it has raised the profile of, and donations to, cancer research, which is undeniably a good thing.

What also occurred to me when I was taking my picture is how detached I’ve become from the way my makeup-free face actually looks and what this is telling me about my general health and wellbeing. With my eyes widened by mascara and the dark circles beneath them hidden by concealer, I’ve lost all sight of how exhausted I am and what my lifestyle is doing to my skin and by extension to my body.

While I pride myself on being ‘healthy’, living in a city where everything is open long after we should all be in bed and where everyday is spent charging from meeting to meeting and firefighting emails, I realise that I have become programmed to think that being tired and wired is the norm. I feel guilty for not seeing my friends and family as often as I’d like to, I’m anxious in case I miss out on the latest exhibition/film/new bar/exercise craze, and I fear being perceived as not being able to keep up with the pace. So I drink coffee, and lots of it. The barista in my local Starbucks knows my name and order (well sort of), and I know I’m not the only one.

Last week, when I finally dropped with exhaustion, I suddenly realised how rarely I spend an evening at home and how heavily I rely on caffeine to get me through the day, and my barefaced selfie shows it!

So I’m having a bit of a lifestyle audit. I can’t promise I’ll kick the coffee habit, but I’m aiming to significantly up my sleep and hopefully, as a result, reduce  my coffee intake.

A survey of healthy living blogs and magazine articles also suggest the following steps to feeling less frazzled, and if I can adopt some of these then maybe I’ll be able to venture out without make-up…maybe.

  • Introduce ‘gentle’ exercises into your regime – walking and Yoga are perfect ways for stressed-out bodies to stretch, relax and rejuvenate. Yoga is particularly vaunted as a stress reliever and certain poses are great for getting your body into a sleepy state. Try the forward fold, legs up against the wall and reclining angle poses.
  • Eat light later on in the day – by midday, the body’s metabolism is reaching its peak, so breakfast and lunch should be the largest meals of the day. Evening meals should be lighter, and should be based around fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Focus on eating a colourful, plant-based diet – phytonutrients are the substances responsible for giving foods their smell, flavour and colour – and they’re also thought to protect the body from disease, acting as anti-inflammatory, detoxifying, hormone-balancing agents. Cleaning up your diet, and focusing on foods that support your liver and digestive functions particularly help to promote your skin to glow. Cut down on those things that might aggravate your digestion, caffeine, alcohol, fizzy drinks, sugar, wheat, dairy and processed foods.
  • Turn off the light – many of us are photosensitive, so the light from mobile phones, TVs, laptops etc. make our bodies think it is still daylight, thus inhibiting sleep.
  • Breath easy – take a ‘breathing break’ before bed to aid a relaxed deep sleep. Find a comfortable space, sit down and spend five minutes concentrating on breathing deeply in and out. It is a great way to settle the mind and relax the body.

I will leave you with this TED talk which offers the secrets to a long and healthy life: How to live to be 100+