Wellbeing is now officially acknowledged as a vital part of human societies, with the Australian government’s federal treasurer Jim Chalmers implementing a “wellbeing budget” in October 2022 that would seek to “measure what matters” and enable proactive strategies to enhance society (Wright). This could not be more welcome as we live through climate catastrophes – floods, hurricanes, and heat-waves leading to unprecedented burning, and experiences of burnout – from surviving cost-of-living, health, and housing crises, and grappling with advances in AI technologies amid escalating global uncertainty. And yet, when wellbeing is invoked without being matched, for example, by the progressive taxation of billionaires and corporations whose concentration of wealth is accelerating these crises, ever greater numbers will languish instead of flourishing.
This languishing is, of course, unevenly experienced. It has already been endured on a larger scale by inhabitants of the so-called Global South than those of the North, and by emerging, rather than established, generations whose prospects of a liveable future continue to be eroded and, as economist Alison Pennington puts it, “f’d”.
How can Earth’s inhabitants be well while its lifeforms are continually degraded by extractivism? On- and offline violence, COVID-19, neofascism, and datafication present formidable challenges to wellbeing. As we move into hotter and faster worlds whose technologies amplify as much as they might mitigate historical injustices, the need to create, find, and secure wellbeing will only grow. We are therefore heartened by this issue’s case studies of wellbeing, which provide vital contributions to thinking with and beyond our present states of depletion.
With a clear understanding of what it isn’t, what is wellbeing? This issue of M/C Journal emerges from a symposium held in 2022 on Cultures of Wellbeing by the Cultural Sociology Thematic Group of The Australian Sociological Association. In response to multisystemic crises and the urgent need to re-imagine human futures, we called for papers that explore cultures of wellbeing. Beyond individual survival, we asked, what cultures, systems, and structures are needed to enable human flourishing at the crossroads of the climate emergency (with its attendant environmental and health crises), an infodemic, and growing inequality?
In designing an Eventbrite invitation for our symposium, we sought suitable pictures of wellbeing through Internet image-searches. These yielded generic, pastel, and corporatised results: wellness stock images and rainbow word clouds that poorly represented the nuances of our thinking. Our eventual choice, also this issue’s cover image, is a photograph of colourful fungi growing on Gadubanud (Katabanut) Country in the Otway rainforest of Victoria. Captured by artist CJ Conway, and reproduced with permission, this image features entangled, flourishing material life-forms that reinforce and rely on one another. In contrast to atomised, flattened neoliberal wellness paradigms, these myriad mushrooming existences cannot thrive in isolation, and depend on textured systems of nurturing.
Such systems are observed by First Nations’ issue contributors Kathleen Butler and Phoebe McIlwraith in their article “Garihma (to Care for): Examining Recent Media Coverage of Bulihm (Tea Tree) through a Cultural Lens”, in which the authors affirm their culture’s inextricable link to Country and “the guardianship of that relationship [as] a foundation for life and a key indicator of wellbeing”. Drawing on their exploration of Tea Tree oil in wellness cultures reproduced in print media and TikTok, Butler and McIlwraith highlight the role this phenomenon has played in the continued colonisation and exploitation of First Nations knowledges. As Tea Tree only grows on the lands of the Bundjalung people from North Coast New South Wales, and has been used for thousands of years as part of oral histories and spiritual governance, Butler and McIlwraith call for the structural reaffirmation and recontextualisation of First Nations ancestral medicines.
Our understanding of wellbeing, therefore, comprises connectedness, the material and the immaterial, and more-than-human mutually flourishing entanglements. As Deborah Lupton, Vaughan Wozniak-O'Connor, Megan Rose, and Ash Watson accordingly reflect in their article on “More-than-Human Wellbeing: Materialising the Relations, Affects, and Agencies of Health, Kinship, and Care”, wellbeing is “a process of mark-making, realised through the reciprocal impressions we leave on each other and the world around us”. Lupton et al. present us with ways of exploring wellbeing through nature, showing how dis/connections can facilitate and inhibit this. In providing insights into the More-than-Human Wellbeing exhibition, Lupton et al. explore health and wellbeing in a digitised and datafied world. Through a series of interactive works, they attune visitors to multisensory ways of knowing that emerge from their entanglements with the digital and more-than digital things that have the potential to open capacities for health, kinship, and care.
This interconnected, entangled, reciprocal, and more-than-human quality of wellbeing is of a piece with multisystemic theories of resilience (Ungar). As Vivian Gerrand, Kim Lam, Liam Magee, Pam Nilan, Hiruni Walimunige, and David Cao write in their feature article about object-oriented wellbeing, “What Got You through Lockdown?”, socio-ecological, strengths-based approaches to resilience and their role in wellbeing go beyond mere individual attributes. The authors view resilience and wellbeing as everyday social processes that are contingent on the resources people can access (Masten). Gerrand et al. take stock of such resources in their objects-based project that worked with material things that helped people endure confinement in Melbourne’s long lockdowns (2020-21). In their collection of objects from Victorian-based participants and curation of an art exhibition that arranges and interrogates these objects, Gerrand et al. sought to extend socio-ecological conceptions of resilience and the ways in which nonhuman materialities can contribute to everyday wellbeing during times of adversity.
Wellbeing not only pertains to withstanding hardship, but also flourishing in spite of these conditions. As Juliane Roemhild and Melinda Turner explore in their article, the practice of Shared Reading, a form of creative bibliotherapy, can nurture the wellbeing of individuals and communities in our uncertain times. Flourishing entails both feeling good about one’s life, as well as being able to function inside of its paradigms, something that is enabled by shared encounters with books. This is in contrast to a sense of “stagnation” and “quiet despair” (Keyes) that might arise in unwanted isolation from others or when one feels alone in one’s experiences. To flourish in this regard reflects Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonic well-being through the way one reaches their full potential in the ecology within which they are situated. This stands in contrast to hedonistic well-being that is centred on the happiness and pleasure of the individual.
Patricia Webb complicates this categorisation of wellbeing by combining both the needs of the individual and their ability to flourish in society through her article on the transformative potential of metaphors in creative writing. Through meeting one’s own potential, individuals can develop the skills to flourish. Webb explores how metaphors in creative writing expand our thinking and our practices and their effects in the world. Through the power of the metaphor we are able to better articulate our meanings and think outside the box. Webb explores how we think and act through the metaphor and relate to others through the conceptual system it offers.
The latter two articles, by Jay Daniel Thompson and Bridget Mac Eochagain, consider threats to wellbeing. These appear in online spaces, where women’s wellbeing is often threatened by harassment and trolling, and in the trauma of sexual assault. Following a case study of the online harassment of Australian Journalist Lisa Millar this year, Thompson traces the contours of sexual violence and harassment and its amplification and reproduction through news reportage. In doing so, the author points to Hall’s observation of re-presentation, by which signal-boosting violence can not only raise awareness but further amplify the violence experienced through ecologies of outrage. Thompson explores and offers critical guidance for how within this context online misogyny might be ethically reported on.
Bridget Mac Eochagain considers the role of theatre plays in exploring the parameters of wellbeing, through their ability to interrogate the political, legal, and social systems in which we live. Through a case study of Suzie Miller’s one-woman play Prima Facie, Mac Eochagain explores how the lived experiences and trauma of sexual assault survivors are often overlooked in structural efforts to reach “legal truths”. This compounds sexual violence. Theatrical engagements that make visible these often taken-for-granted structures, therefore, offer promising avenues for justice, empowering change, and wellbeing. For Mac Eochagain, Prima Facie presents audiences in the wake of the global pandemic and systemic unrest with a chance to begin healing through seeing themselves in the protagonists’ struggles.
Our contributors’ explorations define and deepen our understanding of wellbeing in adverse times. Dreaming of mushrooming (not death caps!), we encourage you to savour their insights and be well.
Keyes, Corey L.M. “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43.2 (June 2002): 207–22.
Masten, Ann S. “Ordinary Magic. Resilience Processes in Development.” American Psychologist 56.3 (2001): 227–238.
Pennington, Alison. Generation F’d? How Young Australians Can Reclaim Their Uncertain Futures. Hardie Grant, 2023.
Ungar, Michael, ed. Multisystemic Resilience: Adaptation and Transformation in Contexts of Change. Oxford UP, 2021.
Wright, Shane. “‘Not about Ashrams and Yoga Retreats’: Nation’s Wellbeing a Focus of October Budget.” The Age 19 Oct. 2022.