Jess Berentson-Shaw contemplates how we can make space in our lives for creativity to understand how fundamental it is to building wellbeing

In the middle of winter, when I look out through the rain and a cold Wellington southerly into my garden, I find it hard to believe that spring or summer is a real thing. My garden drip, drip, drips and the plants hunker down, brown, a little dreary. When the sun peeps out, the rain sparkles on the muehlenbeckia, its wiry tangle capturing each drop, and I am reminded that there are pockets of beauty in the natural world even in the bleakest times.

However, it is spring and coming into summer when I feel real joy in my garden. On a still spring morning, the flowers bob gently under the weight of the returning bees, the grasses wave gently, and I feel a small moment of deep calm.

The joy and the sense of calm I get from my garden has taken me a little by surprise – who knew that all that gardening my mother would do for hours on end when I was a child, the weeds we had to collect and take to the compost, was really about joy? But on reflection it makes a lot of sense.

Being able to be creative – in my case to work with the earth, the plant and insect ecosystems and create something beautiful and a little wild in my backyard – brings wellbeing, because creativity is a fundamental part of who we are as humans, one of our core motivations of life. And it is why we need to find ways to centre creativity using our public structures and systems – it brings wellbeing to our communities, and all the benefits that come with a thriving community.

Currently, however, creativity is seen as something we have to pursue as individuals, make space for, squeezing in between being productive or learning for the sake of earning and making money. At best we begrudgingly throw some budget at “the arts”, as a last resort.

How depressing a worldview this is that we have allowed to occupy our culture and our systems and structures. To leave one of the things that matters most, which brings us joy, calm and connection to each other and our world, to the stressed spaces in between.

We can have nice things

What we need is people with the means to make space in our lives for creativity to understand it is fundamental to building wellbeing. That our public structures (the things that shape and determine the quality of our life) can centre on enabling creativity, innovation, curiosity in our lives.

They can create physical structures – libraries, art spaces, education, play spaces, green spaces and organisational structures and services, plus policies, rules and procedures relating to the places we live, learn, work and play – that enable us all to create, innovate, stretch ourselves in ways that support our wellbeing. Not for the purpose of making money, but for the purpose of thriving, of living, of living lives that we have reason to value.

What would public structures that support wellbeing through creativity look like?

Jess Berentson-Shaw’s garden, from which she’s been surprised to derive so much wellbeing. Photo: Jess Berentson-Shaw 

Once we shift into a mindset in which creativity is central to our functioning as whole humans, the possibilities are endless.

My 12-year-old is doing a debate in her philosophy class at the moment on unconditional basic income. Unconditional incomes don’t simply work because they provide for people’s basic needs, they work for different groups, parents, and young people because they lift stress, widen our cognitive bandwidth and enable huge amounts of innovation and creativity for its own sake.

Look at the basic income that older people have (yes, super), and what it enables. Wellbeing for our older people shot up as soon as we introduced it.

Our mental health needs much more attention, and while greater access to downstream treatment is desperately needed, upstream prevention of anxiety, depression, of sensory overload, of chronic self-doubt, means creating opportunities where we are allowed to just be in the world, to connect with ourselves and our creative side, without having to constantly “produce”. 

To be in the garden with my children, to plant, to pick summer peas, to have time to talk to them and connect is the stuff that builds their sense of self and contentment, and mine too.

Four-day work weeks mean employers can support people to create; direct funding for more creativity in our lives, unique cultural practices and art also; and physical spaces for creativity – whether that be green spaces and collective gardens or spaces to play for young people. For books, for tools, for bikes, for time! For all the fun things! 

Our governments can and do foster our community wellbeing in many ways. We can encourage them to do more to support our creative endeavours and find and realise more moments of joy and calm for its own sake. People in government do after all have our collective best interests at heart. It’s all about what version of what really matters in life that they listen to.

And now I am back to my garden, to sit and contemplate and plan and create. To feel well.

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