What follows is a guest post by Dieter Declercq (University of Kent).
The ongoing pandemic poses many challenges to our mental health and wellbeing. Can aesthetics help us out?
Aesthetics and the pandemic
Arts and media have clearly been an important resource to cope with social distancing and other disruptions during the pandemic. Back in March 2020, when self-isolation became the norm across most of Europe, video on-demand services like YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime even had to reduce streaming quality to ensure that broadband networks were able to handle increased usage. Obviously, people were looking for things to do. But why turn to watching series and films in particular?
Audiences are generally quite good at turning to entertainment media when they need to boost their mood, so the Mood Management Theory argues. Thus, watching series and films during the pandemic isn’t just about finding something to do, but about doing something that makes us feel better. And it makes us feel better because our favorite arts and media provide us with meaningful aesthetic experiences.
A similar point was recently made by a Belgian sports journalist, who said that watching professional cycling is Belgium’s number one antidepressant. (Like all other Belgians, I am of course completely obsessed with cycling.) Philosophers interested in aesthetics of the everyday have long pointed out the rich aesthetic character of professional spectator sports. Among other things, cycling offers us suspense, emotional engagement and the beauty of toned bodies in motion.
Moreover, live broadcasts of Spring classics like the Italian race Strade Bianche let us marvel at the natural splendor of the Tuscan landscape, with its rolling hills and historic white gravel roads. And that’s not to mention the fantastic architectural heritage around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Siena, with its stunning Piazza del Campo. When the race was on in March this year, the UK was in lockdown and I wasn’t able to leave my house except when absolutely necessary—and yet I couldn’t have felt more excited.
Why do aesthetic experiences fill us with joy and help us cope in dire times? Most philosophers agree that we value aesthetic experiences for their own sake. We watch our favorite series on Netflix because we’re engrossed in its suspenseful plot or superb acting—not because we’re hoping to get anything else out of it. Conversely, if we’re only interested in visiting art galleries to win favor among our artistic friends, it’s clear that we are not spending time with paintings in MoMA or Musée d’Orsay for purely aesthetic reasons.
Whereas nearly all philosophers of art believe that aesthetic experiences are self-justifying, there is some more disagreement whether they are always pleasurable. Still, no one would disagree that intrinsic pleasure is often the reason why we value different kinds of aesthetic experience. A specific category of aesthetic experience that involves pleasure for its own sake is what we commonly call “entertainment.” And it is exactly the aesthetic pleasures of entertainment which most audiences are after when they tune into Netflix, Amazon Prime, or YouTube.
Entertainment as coping resource
The category “entertainment” is rather slippery and not so easily defined. Still, I imagine that very few would label their aesthetic engagement with Ai Weiwei’s Straight as “entertaining”—which is not to say that the work lacks in aesthetic value. Weiwei’s installation repurposes 150 mangled steel rods from poorly built schools that were destroyed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the words of a curator at Royal Academy of Arts in London, “it is a very sombre and sobering work when you see it, it has this kind of power and silence about it… it bears a real sense of loss of life.”
I certainly think that engaging with emotionally challenging art like Ai Weiwei’s Straight can contribute to wellbeing in the sense of a well-lived, reflective life. But it doesn’t seem like the kind of aesthetic activity we’d recommend to people who are already experiencing mental health challenges. Put differently, if our emotional and other resources are already depleted because of the pandemic, we’re likely to gravitate toward aesthetic activities that are more straightforwardly enjoyable and diverting—in a word, “entertaining.” That’s certainly the basic idea behind the Mood Management Theory—and philosophers have had remarkably similar ideas.
In a famous passage from A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume reflects on a feeling of “philosophical melancholy and delirium.” This dark feeling follows from, well, basically doing too much philosophy, so that everything becomes uncertain. We hear Hume wondering, “Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return?” He describes a situation where—so “confounded with all these questions”—he imagines himself in “the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness.”
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution to dispel these depressive feelings:
I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
The key concept here is “amusement”, in the sense of entertainment. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested that if Hume lived today, we might tell him to play a game of Candy Crush to “swipe the stress away”. The advice of the British National Health Service (NHS) to take care of our mental wellbeing during the pandemic isn’t entirely dissimilar. The NHS outlines key strategies including to “not stay glued to the news,” “carry on doing things you enjoy,” and “take time to relax”—alongside the advice that “[i]t’s important to keep your mind active whilst staying at home.”
Entertainment media can play a valuable role here. Scholars working in communication studies have proposed that entertainment media are diverting because they are designed to stimulate a flow state (which we can reasonably assume is what Hume felt when playing backgammon). Flow, as famously defined by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is an inherently rewarding experience and a state of focused attention where we are completely engrossed in an activity—in other words, “in the zone.” We achieve flow when there’s a perfect balance between our skill and the difficulty of an activity. If I play tennis against an equally strong opponent, I can really get fully engrossed in the game. Against a stronger opponent, I may experience anxiety, whereas I’m likely to feel bored playing against an absolute beginner.
Similarly, entertainment media offer aesthetic challenges which perfectly match our skills. Prestige dramas like Game of Thrones introduce complex plotlines that keep us hooked (without confusing us), and they build on our previous knowledge by becoming increasingly complex as the series progresses. Perhaps even more obviously, video games generally become more demanding as we progress through the levels to match our improved skills. Therefore, game designers typically aim to introduce challenges that keep players engaged in a flow channel.
We can turn to these aesthetic pleasures of entertainment media like games and series to lift our mood even in the darkest times. The psychologist Susan Folkman has highlighted how positive emotions can contribute to coping “under the most dire circumstances” and explicitly refers to aesthetic activities like “enjoying a good movie, or watching a beautiful sunrise”. Positive moments can offer some solace and help us get through tough times—like a global pandemic. Clearly, aesthetic activities are a tremendously rich source to find such positive moments—and their absence in clinical contexts can negatively impact recovery. Desmond O’Neill and Hilary Moss, who work in medicine and medical humanities, have referred to such absence as “aesthetic deprivation”.
Natural beauty offers us great aesthetic pleasure, but so do entertainment media. The artistic merit of entertainment media is nonetheless often questioned. Entertainment is thought to be insufficiently difficult or challenging. Be that as it may, when times are tough and our intellectual and emotional resources are all but depleted, there’s clear coping value to aesthetic activities which are more straightforwardly and immediately gratifying.
This idea has long been associated with the uses and gratification theory in communication studies. But some of the language in this field is unhelpful. The coping function of entertainment is often associated with escapism from reality, but that label has negative connotations associated with problematic behavior like alcohol dependence or drug addiction. The focus on escaping the negative also insufficiently appreciates that the aesthetic character of entertainment media offers us something genuinely positive and worthwhile to engage with.
Entertainment media can offer us distance from our worries because—as aesthetic artefacts designed to stimulate flow—they are so engrossing. In media psychology, this coping potential is associated with hedonic wellbeing, which understands wellbeing primarily as the presence of positive affect and pleasure, and the absence of negative affect and pain. We could call this “warm bath wellbeing”, which makes clear how it helps us relax.
But the hedonic wellbeing offered by entertainment media is significantly richer than taking a warm bath. Enjoying warm baths bring us back to the Kantian notion of the agreeable, which differs from the aesthetic. I may prefer warm baths (they are “agreeable” to me), but I’m also totally fine if you think they’re overrated and instead like to jump under an ice-cold shower every day. However, if you think my favorite series or video game isn’t all that great, then we really do have a problem. In other words, aesthetic experiences differ from mere agreeable feelings because they command a “universality”—the sense that others ought to agree with us.
The hedonic wellbeing associated with entertainment media goes beyond just having a pleasurable sensation. It instills us with the feeling that we have encountered something valuable and worthwhile (e.g., about the way the plot is developed or how the color scheme is designed). This experience of inherent value is particularly important in a world that may well feel absurd during the ongoing pandemic. It offers us a way to reconnect and immediately instills value in a world that may otherwise appear empty.
This reconnection is vital to our mental health, as existential disconnection goes hand in hand with depression. I imagine that’s why Nietzsche said, “We have art not to die of the truth.” Aesthetic experiences help us cope with the “horrors” of the world, which we cannot ignore or deny. Entertainment media are a powerful tool to reconnect us to an otherwise alien universe because they offer a direct and uncomplicated route to valuable aesthetic experiences.
Aesthetic coping beyond entertainment
Entertainment media are an important resource for hedonic wellbeing. Yet, psychologists are generally in agreement that hedonic wellbeing is only one component of wellbeing and that a holistic sense of psychological wellbeing also involves so-called eudaimonic wellbeing. Achieving eudaimonia—a concept rooted in Aristotelian philosophy—goes beyond experiencing positive feelings. It is associated with personal growth and achieving one’s full potential. Here, aesthetic activities and experiences, including entertainment media, also have a role to play.
Aristotle famously argued that humans are social animals and that, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, “we just won’t accept a life that’s not lived in a community—with others—as a life that’s worth living.” Unfortunately, the social distancing measures we’ve been living with during the pandemic have prevented normal socialization. We can’t go to restaurants, concerts, or sports stadiums – which, it bears emphasizing, are all spaces where we gather with others around aesthetic activities. Social connection is essential to our immediate mental health (negative impacts of social isolation on health in general are well known). But it is also essential to our eudaimonia: we need spaces and activities where we can connect with others to lead rich, fulfilling, and meaningful human lives.
Fortunately, aesthetic activities offer us a means to stay connected in a socially distanced world. A good example is the PlayApartTogether campaign, which is a partnership between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the video game industry. Video games offer us the aesthetic pleasure associated with hedonic wellbeing, but they can also contribute to eudaimonic wellbeing. Many games are intentionally designed to be played together without physically being together. Indeed, during the pandemic, many have identified games as a great way to socially connect around a shared aesthetic activity.
Entertainment media offer us further resources for eudaimonic wellbeing—especially narratives. We constantly borrow from stories to make sense of the world around us. In the last year, hero narratives have played an important role in our lives. However, these narratives are often problematic, both in the context of health care workers and our own personal growth stories. If we saddle others or ourselves with unattainable goals, there is a risk of burnout or becoming consumed by guilt about perceived failures. So getting our expectations straight is key to avoid the mental suffering of neurotic perfectionism. Realizing our full potential also means understanding our limitations and accepting what’s not possible. This is particularly crucial in a situation like the ongoing pandemic, where it’s simply not possible to do many of the things we otherwise could.
Here, stories can help us out. But instead of hero narratives, we can turn to stories that poke ironic fun at misplaced conceptions of heroism. Irony (much like entertainment) often has a bad reputation, but it can be a great way to reframe unsound expectations. For example, we can distance ourselves from the perceived obligation to act as the hero in the story of the pandemic by taking a cue from the ironic storytelling in Don Quixote. The very thought of such misplaced heroism should conjure an image of ourselves in less-than-shining armor charging toward a windmill. This ironic narrative thinking may not resolve our powerlessness but certainly puts it into perspective.
Staying connected with others and the world is vital for our mental health and wellbeing—especially at times when such connection is disrupted, like the ongoing pandemic. Aesthetic activities and experiences are great ways to reconnect us to the world in difficult times. Entertainment media are especially powerful resources for such vital reconnection—and they should be celebrated for their valuable contributions to our happiness and health.
Dr Dieter Declercq is Lecturer in Film and Media Studies and Associate Director of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent. His research is situated on the intersection of aesthetics, media studies and health humanities. He has recently published a monograph on Satire, Comedy, and Mental Health (Emerald 2021) and his has work has been published in journals including the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. He was the lead organizer of the 2020 British Society of Aesthetics Conference: Arts, Aesthetics and the Medical and Health Humanities, and is currently working on Conversations about Arts, Humanities, and Health, a follow up project to stimulate further interaction between research in humanities and medicine. He’s also PI on a British Academy/Leverhulme-funded project around stand-up comedy workshops for eating disorder recovery.