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Director blog July 2021: Wellbeing – The personal is political

Wellbeing has rightly risen up the agenda of things people are talking about – not just because of the pandemic but also because people expect more from employers, the workplace and the day-to-day social spaces we inhabit.  That’s a good thing.
 
What I wonder is whether we have a strong enough shared understanding about what wellbeing is?  Inevitably wellbeing means different things to different people but is there a robust enough overall vision?  A big tent that people can unite behind and get with the programme.  My sense is that we don’t have this – I don’t think wellbeing has broken through because if it had, we’d be living in a very different world.
 
Wellbeing is a warm comforting word, like ‘community’; it gets sprayed around as a non-specifically positive thing.  Fuzzy and vague.  But as we know goals and objectives that are not ‘smart’ (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed) or even ‘smarter’ (evaluated and reviewed) – well those loose goals have a habit of not getting done.
 
To be fair there are plenty of toolkits and how-to guides around:
 
 
 
 
So just like safe-guarding, equal opportunities, health and safety and similar must-have policies it is easy enough to get something written down, and more to the point, understood, used and reviewed.  In other words, it can be managerial, technocratic and in its better moments a framework for accountability.
 
What I feel is lacking from the wellbeing conversation society is having with itself these days is a deeper location of wellbeing as political thing.  Funny how that gets airbrushed out of the picture; how we don’t get around to talking about structures of power, control and oppression – move along, nothing to see here.
 
I’m all up for doing more exercise, going on long walks together, learning a new skill.  My point is that the answer to social problems is through both individual self-care AND wider institutional and political actions.  And all I get from the professionalised choreography about wellbeing is the former not the latter.  
 
At its worst wellbeing is just a mix of naive and magical thinking – if you are on the sharp end of poverty that is as much about politics and economics as opposed to learning how to breathe properly.  The solutions to the stresses that bear down on us can be framed in terms of things you can do as an individual and things that the state can do to or for you, for example via legislation. A tussle between the agency of the individual to sort their lives out versus the structure of the state (NHS / Council etc) to sort it via tax and as public servants.  
 
If you are in power, with all that money and patronage what message would you want to put out there?  I’d say it would be about putting all the responsibility on the shoulders of individuals and then try and make out like it was deeply meaningful and empowering.  An example of how ideas need to be questioned or else they end up carelessly repeated as assumed ‘common sense’: an ideological con trick.  
 
To be clear, I just think we need a mix of emphasis on what individuals can do, and what wider society needs to get done.  A balance, not one thing or the other.  
 
What I reckon we could do is use the opportunity that is presented by wellbeing to put a whole lot of things on the agenda.  To think critically, to open up conversations and propose new solutions and actions.  I think this is best of both worlds – the individual bit and the collective action joined as one.
 
The slogan that ‘the personal is political’ is associated with second wave feminism but I feel it is universal and multi-purpose.  We can use what we experience to prompt reflective conversations that critically examine how we are living and how we might want to live differently.  That in turn is a programme for political action.  If we get the opportunity to jump on the wellbeing bandwagon and chat freely why not give it some welly?  Be a shame not to.
 

Matthew Scott

TWCP Director