Do not forget the value of the arts when measuring our wellbeing

Neil Plimmer in 2010, beside one of his favourite sculptures in Wellington - Invisible City, by Anton Parsons.
Arts and Wellbeing, image supplied
Neil Plimmer explores how the arts can help people recover from illness, enhance mental health, and aid the rehabilitation of prisoners.


We are to enter an age of wellbeing, or at least wellbeing policy. Our political leaders are talking it up, and our next budget is to hinge on this approach. The notion is worthy – to judge our success as a society not solely on GDP and economic growth.

The commentary to date focuses on the importance of measuring wellbeing. The most recent Policy Quarterly from Victoria University, summarising a recent international wellbeing conference, says "the issue of measurement remains at the heart of any wellbeing framework". The Department of Statistics' work on wellbeing indicators seems similarly focused on measuring. This is, of course, desirable but does not seem, in terms of public policy process, to be the essential first cab off the rank.

Shared activities and experiences across the arts promote cohesive communities and enrich human experience.

The primary issue is to agree on the main components of wellbeing. Treasury work on a "Living Framework", which is apparently to be a core document, has four dimensions:  human, social, financial/physical and natural capital. The highly regarded OECD's Better Life Index has 11: housing, income, social connections, education and skills, among others. Maybe we need to agree on a top six or so, that we will focus on, aligned with international work so that comparisons with other countries can be made.

The second leg is surely then to devise policies that address these components – policies to strengthen their contribution to wellbeing, or reduce their negative elements.

Then measuring comes in to play, and it will desirably have two key features. One is to measure progress on the agreed components – a measure of outcomes, one might say. The other is to measure the performance of the policies, which could be said to measure the success of the inputs.

Maybe all this is being done, but it is not very evident in the published and website material.

However, what really needs some focus, in respect of the components or the inputs into these, is addressing the omission in all the talk on the subject about the importance of the arts to wellbeing. This is well-identified in other international studies, such as a British cross-party parliamentary report of 2017, Creative Health, identifying in some detail how the arts and wellbeing relate.

In a broad sense, shared activities and experiences across the arts promote cohesive communities and enrich human experience. If wellbeing is going to define New Zealand, so by many accounts do the arts. People engage with each other more when exposed to artistic activity.

Physical art pieces and art activities improve our urban environment, stimulate imaginations and foster jobs, skills and creativity. They mitigate some of the downsides and distractions of urban life.

There is more specific evidence that various arts can facilitate health, by aiding recovery from illness and particularly by enhancing mental healthcare. Music has been shown to help stave off or slow dementia. The Arts Foundation's recent newsletter notes a project in Quebec in which doctors prescribe free museum trips to patients. "There is more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health," it says.

If New Zealand is to flourish, so must its arts.

Arts have helped prisoners rehabilitate. The arts have relevance for older people, helping them to live longer, to live better, less lonely and more independent lives.  

And so we may hope that government investment in wellbeing will include recognition of the multiple roles the arts can play in this. If New Zealand is to flourish, so must its arts.

Neil Plimmer is a board member of the Arts Foundation and a former president of the New Zealand Book Council. His opinion piece was first published in the Dominion Post on 29 November; you can find it here.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

13 Dec 2018

The Big Idea Editor

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