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A New Visibility? Wellbeing Culture, Religion and Spirituality

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A New Visibility? Wellbeing Culture, Religion and Spirituality
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  A New Visibility? Wellbeing Culture, Religion andSpirituality Dr Dominic Corrywright, Oxford Brookes UniversityAbstract:This paper is offered in two key sections. Firstly a theoretical evaluation ofwellbeing culture and secondly an examination of practices aimed atdeveloping well-being. The current ubiquity and uses of the term ‘wellbeing’provide a glimpse into a variety of deeper cultural movements that include ‘thesubjective turn’, consumer culture based on personal interest, models forhealth, the growth in complementary and alternative therapies, a growingtherapeutic educational ethos, increased interest in emotional and spiritualintelligences or literacies, and, perhaps, a new visibility for religion.This paper will examine the notion of wellbeing and some of its current uses.It will evaluate some of the contested notions that wellbeing culturerepresents, (in polemic form) as secular narcissism or spiritual practice,before focussing especially on practices of transformation and healing incontemporary alternative spiritualities. The core argument of the paper is thatthe new visibility or re-emergence of religion requires an extended theoreticalframework to include implicit practices of therapy and healing and conceptssuch as wellbeing, and that practices of healing among alternativespiritualities provide evidence for the re-emergence of religiosity. The paperwill provide a range of examples that disclose the growing number of healingpractices which link religiosity and models of wellbeing and health in a re-enchanted modern world.  Dominic Corrywright. Draft 2009 1 Section 1: The Spread of Wellbeing Culture   Eric Sharpe suggested that the meaning of words in the study of religionsgoes through three phases: First they are concepts working as a shorthandfor a collection of linked ideas; secondly they become used as mottoeswhereby everyone knows what they generally pertain to but the links arerather more loose; finally they become clichés, frequently used but withminimal useful content (cf Stuart Rose’s journal article: “Is the Term‘Spirituality’ a Word that Everyone Uses, But Nobody Knows What AnyoneMeans by it?, 2001). Some might suggest the term ‘wellbeing’ began in thethird phase. However, there are certainly cogent and coherent uses of theterm that one reads and passes over without a reflection, while there are otheruses of the word that cause one to pause, and consider quite how omnivorousthis word wellbeing has become. To illustrate we might consider two recentadverts for academic posts in the UK: • First is the post ‘Head of Disability and Wellbeing Office’ at the LondonSchool of Economics and Political Science. A well paid post in theTeaching and Learning section of the Academic and ProfessionalDevelopment Division. This is an unproblematic use of wellbeing thatwe would expect to be related to widening participation, equality anddiversity and with postholder having competences in equalitieslegislation ( Times Higher Education Supplement  , March 2009:No1,886) • Second is a post for ‘Curriculum Resource Manager: Further EducationCare, Wellbeing & Public Services’ at Stockport College with a brief of:meeting learner needs and student experience; curriculum delivery andtimetabling; first line management of human resources (jobs.ac.ukMarch, 2009). This is a use of the term wellbeing that begs questionsas to the limits of its meaning. One might concur with the ‘Humpty-Dumpty Principle’ from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking- Glass  : “when I  use a word” Humpty-Dumpty said, in rather a scornfultone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less”(cited in Sharpe, 1983:35)  Dominic Corrywright. Draft 2009 2 Next we could consider the number and range of uses and correlates ofwellbeing in academic literature. We quickly discover multiple pairedconjunctions – human wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, psychologicalwellbeing, mental wellbeing, material wellbeing, elderly wellbeing, spiritualwellbeing, subjective wellbeing, objective wellbeing, social wellbeing, physicalwellbeing, health and wellbeing. Indeed it is this last that points towardperhaps the highest incidence of uses of the term in the literature– as acognate for health and wellness (see Heelas, 2008:240, footnote 1) Onespecific aspect of health and wellbeing, the field of complementary therapiesand alternative spiritualities, is considered below. Indeed it is interesting tonote and provide at this point in the discussion the general and inclusivedefinition for health provided by the World Health Organisation in a curiouslymodern way from its first statement in 1946 for it is a definition thatencompasses rather well contemporary orthodox allopathic approaches,traditional medical systems, and complementary and alternative perspectives.Health is, according to WHO:A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and notmerely the absence of disease or infirmity.The question-begging term here is of course ‘well-being’ – a concept that is asdifficult to pin down for academics in the health professions, as, of course, isthe term wellness (see Schuster et al   2004:349-357.)A slightly deeper investigation into uses of the term wellbeing reveals animpressive literature and detailed examination of the concept. Moreover, theconcept is a tag for wider themes relating to happiness, life satisfaction,quality of life, standard of living, measures and indices of economic stabilityand development that affect government policy and concepts that relate to thevery notion of what it is to be human. Thus it becomes a referent forcontiguous notions of welfare, well-living and well-becoming and throughthese to matters of meaning and purpose in human life. The pursuit ofwellbeing then becomes a purpose of social action and an objective of social justice. Indeed, according to Valerie Tiberius, for ‘welfarists in moralphilosophy the promotion of well-being is the ultimate of all moral action:  Dominic Corrywright. Draft 2009 3 wellbeing is the fundamental notion in moral theory’ (Tiberius, 2006:499).Thus Joseph Raz states in terms of a moral imperative:When we care about people, and when we ought to care about people,what we do, or ought to, care about is their well-being. (2004: 287)A number of significant projects investigating wellbeing concepts andreviewing the literature have been undertaken since the beginning of thiscentury. In the US and across Europe government organisations haveengaged with wellbeing to inform policy (Tiberius, 2006:501). In the UK theGovernment published its sustainable development strategy, Securing the Future  in 2005 which committed thatBy the end of 2006 the Government will sponsor cross-disciplinarywork to bring together existing research and international experienceand to explore how policies might change with an explicit wellbeingfocus (2005:23)From this determination DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food andRural Affairs) sponsored the Sustainable Development Research Network(SDRN) to provide a policy briefing, ‘Wellbeing: Concepts and Challenges’(2005:SDRN briefing three). This paper provides a basic four-part definition ofthe term (which is commensurate with the definitions uncovered in the briefliterature review for this paper):1. Objective wellbeing – that can be measured by various social indicesand data on for example, GDP, housing, income and education. It isrecognised that such baseline data is useful but cannot provideinformation on the ‘experiential aspects of wellbeing’ (2005:2)2. Subjective wellbeing – that can be measured by social surveysmeasuring satisfaction and happiness. Though it is recognised that‘there is disagreement about how the emotional aspects of wellbeingrelate to the overall definition and measurement of subjectivewellbeing’ (2)3. Hedonic wellbeing - that is primarily related to pleasure, self-satisfaction and happiness  Dominic Corrywright. Draft 2009 4 4. Eudaimonic wellbeing – that recognises not all pleasure fosterswellbeing and that it is ‘the realisation of human potential (a‘developmental’ component), rather than simply life-satisfaction, that iscentral to wellbeing’ (2)Also among these integrative projects Des Gasper’s “Human Well-Being:Concepts and Conceptualizations” (2004), for the Institute of Social Studies inthe Hague, is outstanding for recognising the complex uses of the concept,specifically in economics and philosophy. Gasper challenges measurementsof material or objective well-being. Like others, including Sabina Alkire whosurveyed thirty-nine lists of (in Gasper’s words) ‘largely similar ... proposedfundamental, irreducible, aspects of well-being (2004:17). Ruth Ann Kieferalso conducted an integrative review of the literature on wellbeing analysingeight-six articles. She derives a concept of wellbeing ‘viewed across sixdimensions, which include social, emotional, intellectual, physical,occupational and spiritual’ aspects (2008:245).Gasper notes that the standardised GNP per capita model for measuringobjective wellbeing has been challenged because wellbeing as materialwealth and income is not directly correlated to wellbeing as happiness or lifesatisfaction. Simply, the richer you are in wealth and possessions does notequate with increased happiness. Furthermore, Gasper recognises the crucialsignificance of time in conceptions of wellbeing,Between measures which are applied at all times and places(‘universalist’), and measures chosen per time and place (‘relativist’)(2004:13)Though he may have gone further and emphasised also the temporal elementof wellbeing as well-becoming in measurements of individual and subjectivewellbeing.Perhaps foremost among scholars who have investigated and interpretedwellbeing is the 1998 Economics Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen (for examples,1985; 1993). Sen criticises definitions of wellbeing and human developmentthat focus on ideas of material wealth (opulence, income, commodity), anddesire fulfilment as measures or criteria for their achievement. His own
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