Why Professor James Pawelski thinks the arts could be Adelaide’s wellness secret weapon

It’s one thing to be proud of a city that values culture – but does Adelaide truly engage with its arts sectors?

Adelaide’s love for the arts begat the Festival State. It’s a heart-warming sentiment, an identity badge that carries an air of sophistication, but do we understand the full value of a rich cultural life? Is it an asset currently being undersold, and can it make this city grow and prosper?

American psychology and wellbeing expert Professor James Pawelski believes that strong engagement with arts and culture plugs directly into the wellbeing of a city and its population, and he likes what he sees in Adelaide. The director of education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has spent the past month here, engaged by Adelaide City Council to conduct meetings, present public forums and report on how to build a stronger platform for both the arts sector and the city to flourish. It’s a fundamental plank in the council’s new Designed For Life program, a branding exercise that aims to project the cohesiveness of work, life and community in Adelaide.

“Arts and culture are measureable quantities and therefore have measurable monetary value,” says Pawelski. “It’s an asset that contributes to community wellness, which is not just something that needs to be considered as a remedy for people who are sick – but something that must be considered for all to ensure wellbeing.”

Pawelski has spent 20 years addressing mental health through positive psychology, and linking wellbeing to arts and culture. He notes that many nations understand the broad social benefits of this approach, with more than 40 countries supplementing their economic indicators with wellbeing indicators. Seven now specifically identify wellbeing as a goal of their governmental function.

He believes the city of Adelaide is well placed to be at the forefront of such a movement, and could shine as an inspiration to others. He’ll be making recommendations for the City of Adelaide and a range of cultural enterprises on how wellbeing benefits can be amplified, as a means of promoting the city’s appeal.

Professor James Pawelski speaking in Adelaide

This positioning statement from the council – reinstating that Adelaide, as a place of culture, is a great place to do business, visit as a tourist, and to live and prosper – comes as other State-run mechanisms that have explored and promoted similar big-picture aspects have ceased operation, including the Thinkers in Residence program, Brand SA, and reduced visibility and impact of SA Tourism initiatives. It’s therefore a decisive act for Adelaide City Council to introduce its Designed For Life program and to engage Pawelski in a consulting role. Some may even view such moves as provocative, but the Lord Mayor, Sandy Verschoor, won’t be drawn into political criticism.

“Council acts to ensure Adelaide flourishes as a city – and for that message to be strong in the minds of students, businesses, workers and residents,” says Verschoor. “This program (Designed for Life) is not being done with any intention to challenge government. The state is currently focused on job creation. We see fostering wellness as essential and we are taking action. I see the two sides being very complementary, and we welcome anyone else to become involved.”

Sarah Feijen, Adelaide City Council’s senior coordinator of Arts and Culture, says the council program’s aim is to muster a wider pool of understanding and support for the value of whole-of-community wellbeing. “Council doesn’t see its role as doing this in isolation,” she says. “However, the city sees a need to act and create its own [momentum] on these matters.”

Identified as a strength within Adelaide City Council’s strategic plan, engagement with arts and culture can still afford to be amplified. The Lord Mayor says the desire to “infuse culture into everything we do” supports the continuing push to increase the numbers of city residents, and offer them an enriched community. It sounds like phase two of the “vibrancy” push to promote the liveability of Adelaide that was trumpeted enthusiastically by a previous council and State Government, but Pawelski baulks at using this term. Instead he prefers to shape a more meaningful definition of community wellness, backed by scientific research, and to follow through with activity.

“If we look at what vibrancy is offering, it’s connected to business, public enterprise and community, and all aspects have to be successful for a city to prosper,” he says. “It’s more than the foundation of a complete society, it’s the glue that holds it together.”

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City of Adelaide Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor

Pawelski sees that Adelaide has many of the essential building blocks in place to make a community wellness focus possible, but believes many of these stakeholders and enterprises need to be locked together to make them more effective. “The commitment to wellness has to have a more powerful reach across the whole community, and to better engage the business community.” He also points to strengthening existing connections to such robust existing entities as the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre at South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, which has partnered with Adelaide City Council on such projects as trials to develop an app to help stimulate increased meaning and purpose in daily life.

“The pursuit of wellness is not only about perception. The science of wellbeing can be measured and interpreted,” says Pawelski.

He points to an important report by Flinders University academics – Laboratory Adelaide: Meaningfully Reporting the Value of Culture, by Dr Julian Merrick, Dr Tully Barnett and Professor Robert Phiddian – which outlines new reporting processes on the fiscal value of the arts, providing a blueprint for governments to understand culture’s value through a different economic prism.

He wants such understanding to stretch across disciplines, such as trying to encourage more humanist ideals into the medical and science sectors. “Humanities have become too distanced from essential life questions,” he says. “All sectors of society need to have a greater humanistic empathy. This mindset can’t just live inside the arts, but must flourish through all aspects of the broader community.”

Pawelski’s way forward revolves around five areas – immersion, expression, acquisition, socialisation and reflection – which he outlined in a series of meetings that connected eight arts and culture disciplines from across Adelaide. “Some people didn’t quite know why they were at these meetings, but they were enthusiastic about the prospect of making new collaborations. I could see the lights come on in many of their minds,” says Pawelski. “It’s a new paradigm, and will require new ways of thinking.”

He says outcomes will depend on using robust measurements for the effectiveness of arts engagement, not only for arts practitioners, but also the Adelaide audience. “Arts and culture are part of our birthright, and must be a part of our daily activity and what we do. Changing this depends on education and guides, having informants to lead the way, so that people engage more completely with arts and culture, and absorb their benefits. It will bring results when it becomes an ongoing part of people’s lives. Don’t make arts and culture merely ornamental things in our lives. They are essential parts of a lifelong journey.”

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