Wednesday, 29 April 2015

A Hub of Success

I've been thinking, dreaming, contemplating and moving towards action, in this case writing. The evolution of this project already represents success for me. It's almost ready. A group of people have come together (thank you Lisa and Michael) and developed something novel, each contributing unique insights and skills. Through a series of exchanges and interactions, many virtual, a programme of work has emerged. The discussions, (re) connections and interactions have reminded me of the importance of relational factors in achieving success. So, what are my plans for the project and who will I bring in to collaborate with?

My focus will be on creativity as a route to successful recovery from mental health problems. This addresses the Wellcome challenge of understanding the brain and how integrating humanities, arts and science approaches can contribute to this.

I will draw on my research focussing on engagement in creative activities and mental illness. Specifically my work on dementia that addresses another Wellcome challenge, that of investigating development, aging and chronic disease. This work is building evidence on how to provide and encourage supporting skills and resources in older people.

Success as an Outsider
I plan to engage with my colleagues and creators in the outsider art field to explore how creative endeavor can lead to success within the art world and the costs and benefits associated with this. Some, even those with severe and chronic mental health problems, have achieved considerable success as recognised artists. The current popularity of the ‘outsider’ art field is testimony to this. ‘Outsider’ art, a term coined by Roger Cardinal in 1972, defines artists as those outsider or peripheral to mainstream art training and infrastructure. It is now a contested term as it serves to reinforce differences between individuals within and outside the art world, and, implicitly, those with and without mental health issues or other challenges to social and cultural inclusion. Despite this, in 2013 there were at least 5 major exhibitions of outsider art in Europe alone which demonstrate success in the art world. The movement has its own dedicated art magazine: Raw Vision. There are now 2 commercial outsider art fairs in NYC and Paris each year where art made by untrained artists, many of whom have mental health or learning difficulties, exchange hands for substantial sums of money.

Whilst exhibitions, press coverage, and fairs increase the profile of artists and their work, it could be suggested that those benefiting are the art dealers rather than the artists themselves. Some artists indicate that commercial exposure can be exploitative and even damaging to mental health. I would like to explore relationships in this context, which would link to Zoe’s work stream. I will work with John Maizels, the editor of Raw Vision magazine. Coverage of artists and events in this publication represent an important marker of artistic success and wider recognition.

Outputs: John has agreed to work with us to develop an article or series of articles in his publication focussing on notions of success within the outsider art field. This will enable findings from our residency to reach an international audience in the specialist art field, a marker of artistic achievement (success).

Both the work on creativity and aging (dementia) and outsider art lead to many opportunities for public engagement. I plan multi art form activities working with Errol Francis. Errol is an artist, curator and researcher. He has recently established the research and creative consultancy –PSY- based at London College of Communication (I am a member of this group). Errol has a string track record of curating and directing festivals with mental health themes. Most recently the acclaimed ACE-funded Anxiety Festival 2014 and 'Acting Out' (2015) (I am a curatorial consultant on ‘acting out’).

Outputs: An art exhibition and/or festival, across multi art forms and featuring new commissions on the themes emerging from the residency.

Success and Performance
I plan to explore creative expression through a phenomenological framework, informed by positive psychology. In particular I plan to look at artistic activity as a form of ‘flow’ state and one which results in enhanced wellbeing but also production of valuable aesthetic artifacts. Also, artistic activity may be viewed as a component of posttraumatic growth (PTG), that is a way that one’s life is enhanced as a result of traumatic experiences such as mental illness and events preceding it. I would also aim to explore how artwork made by those with mental illness may be used to successfully connect them to significant others and to the wider community. Here I plan a collaboration with the filmmaker David Bickerstaff. David has enjoyed considerable success with films on artistic, mental health and environmental themes. He has collaborated with the Wellcome Trust on numerous occasions e.g. Madness and Modernity and is working with them currently on a future exhibition that focuses on mindfulness.

Outputs: a short film on themes emerging from the residency and a peer-revised publication in Arts and Health.

I would like to broaden this work stream to include performance within sport and other arenas such as theatre working with Jules Evans and Hannah Gravestock.

Jules Evans is an author, philosopher and is policy director at the centre for the study of emotions at QMUL. He is also a broadcaster e.g. he recently presented a piece on flourishing on BBC Radio 3. He has been a BBC 'new generation thinker'. He is co-organiser of the London Philosophy Club and has been working with businesses, elite sportspeople e.g. Saracens football club and in prisons teaching flourishing and 'the good life'. His book Philosophy for life and other dangerous situations has been published in 19 countries. It has been #1 in’s philosophy chart, a Guardian Books bestseller, and a Times book of the year. His next text (due 2016) focusses upon ecstatic experiences.

Output: Jules will develop a seminar series on flourishing and success in a variety of public, clinical and community settings.

Hannah Gravestock is a former elite ice skater. She provides performance coaching in theatrical and sporting arenas. She has established innovative training modalities e.g. drawing, to enhance success in the theatre and in sporting venues. She has worked with people with dementia in residential care settings.

Output: Development of performance and drawing based interactive training programmes.

My Collaborators (and what I want to do with them)

Here are those who have agreed collaborate if the project is successful:

The Rt Hon Lord David Owen and the Daedalus Trust

Lord Owen is a prominent British politician. He has agreed to be a collaborator both individually and as Chairman and Founder of the Daedalus Trust.

He is a doctor by training and has a long-standing interest in the interrelationship between politics and medicine. Among many other things, he is the proponent of the hypothesis according to which people who exercise power often develop a distinctive psychiatric condition, what he calls the Hubris Syndrome, a personality disorder that leads to impulsive and irrational decision-making. When powerful people make bad decisions, many suffer and the wellbeing of many is at risk.

The Daedalus Trust is a registered charity funded by Lord Owen with the aim to raise awareness of the existence and the threats generated by Hubris Syndrome in public and business life.

The website of Lord Owen:

The website of the Daedalus Trust:

Professor Sir Michael Marmot and the Institute of Health Equity

Sir Marmot is Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL. He is most famous for his work on the social determinants of health and for what is known as the Marmot Review. He has agreed to be a collaborator both individually and as Director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity.

Among many other things, he is the proponent of the hypothesis, known as the Status Syndrome, that differences in socioeconomic and occupational status are responsible for differences in health (because lower status is more likely to give rise to chronic stress). 

The UCL Institute of Health Equity is supported by the UCL Department of Health and by the British Medical Association. Its aim is to study the social determinants of health in order to increase health equity both at a national and at a global level.

The webpage of Sir Marmot:

The website of the Institute of Health Equity at UCL:

Success and Inequalities: Impact on Freedom, Health, and Happiness

Success is often conceived in terms of hierarchies: there are those who are at the top, and get big rewards from being at the top, and those who are the bottom, and get little or nothing. It is also often conceived in terms of domination: those further up the hierarchy directly or indirectly have power/impact over or at least constrain the actions and lives of those who are below them. My plan for the project would be to develop a philosophical reflection on hierarchies and domination and on how the widespread striving for power, domination, wealth and fame can negatively affect the thriving of individuals and communities, including their physical and mental health. This reflection will have two starting points: the existing empirical literature and the classic ideas developed on this issues by some past philosophers.

Social epidemiologists have accumulated evidence on the harm on individuals and societies generated by inequalities in wealth and in socio-economic and occupational status. Inequality has negative effects on the life expectancy, the physical health and the mental health of individuals. Social epidemiologist Michael Marmot and other social epidemiologists have uncovered evidence strongly indicating that the lower one’s socio-economic and occupational status, the worse one’s health (as measured for example in terms of life expectancy and risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease). One important causal pathway according to Marmot has to do with the level of control that people have other their lives: the lower one’s SES status is, the lower one’s level of control, and thereby the higher one’s levels of chronic stress, with all the negative implications for health that this means. Psychological studies have confirmed that lower social class is linked to a reduced sense of personal control.

These data and hypotheses are philosophically interesting. For example, philosopher Philip Pettit has developed a notion of domination according to which one is free from domination to the extent that one is able to interact with others without reason for fear or reference. One could argue that the lower one SES status is, the more one’s interactions with other human beings are characterised by fear and deference.

Successful Ways of Relating

Two types of relating have been on my mind with regard to success...

Last week I was presenting some work on trust and suicidality at the British Sociological Association conference and it led me to thinking about Lisa's ideas on the politics of interdisciplinarity. I feel most comfortable working in the hinterlands between psychology, sociology and philosophy, but as a trained psychologist, I still experience myself as somewhat of a fraud outside of the psychology discipline. My 'outsider' status could be a fertile place of creativity, but the actuality of inhabiting material spaces across disciplines leaves me uncertain. I feel most 'at home' at those events that set themselves up explicitly as interdisciplinary.

But isn't there a problem here? If interdisciplinary-ism becomes a space in its own right, hasn't its project essentially failed? How can interdisciplinary work genuinely mesh and tether the disciplines together, in a way that opens out one field for those in another, if we silo ourselves off in special, private spaces? Working out how to work in a genuinely interdiciplinary way while maintaining connections to our various disciplines seems important. Perhaps because several of us see ourselves as having 'several hats' or 'past lives' where we do/did something different, we will be able to find news ways to straddle disciplines and negotiate the politics involved in these processes.

Credit: Wellcome Library London
Secondly, Michael and I have just been awarded a grant from the Independent Social Research Foundation for a small project on Relatedness and Relationships in Mental Health. The project will bring together psychologists, philosophers (including Lisa), sociologists, a social policy researcher and a psychiatrist to think conceptually about the roles of relating in experiencing and recovering from mental health difficulties.

This work which will run from July 2015-July 2016 will be an excellent platform for the work I am planning for this project around relational success in adversity - especially in mental health and addictions contexts. I hope to be able to develop some of the ideas we will explore here, particularly, around the relational factors that contribute to successful recovery, and the recovery factors that facilitate successful relationships, particularly in a context that privileges individualism and independence.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Agential Success

Credit John Wildgoose, Wellcome Images
My idea for the project focuses on agential success. We need to better understand the notion of agential success which is often upheld as a worthy goal without being fully understood or critically examined in the philosophical, psychological, or mental health literature. The notion of agential success is usually explained in terms of an agent’s capacity to pursue and sometimes achieve her goals. My research goal is to identify the psychological factors contributing to agential success and explore the costs and benefits of those factors for human agency broadly conceived. In particular, I am interested in the relationship between success and rationality, and in the relationship between success and wellbeing.

Rationality and success

As I am starting to explore via Project PERFECT and I hopefully will explore as part of a new fellowship supported by the Templeton Foundation, positive illusions and unrealistic optimism (i.e., the tendency to have a higher opinion of oneself than is warranted by the evidence and to predict one’s own future in a rosier way than statistical evidence would recommend) seem to support successful agency. This would mean that some forms of irrationality (false beliefs and inaccurate predictions) are good for agents. But it is not clear whether optimism is beneficial and conductive to success across contexts and populations. In what way does optimism promote engagement with the social and physical environment surrounding the agent? Moreover, it is not clear that the best way to understand the literature is in terms of a trade-off between rationality and success. Cannot optimistic beliefs enhance rationality as well as success in some context, and compromise both in other contexts?

Success and wellbeing

The identification between agential success and mental health has a long history. Some of the criteria for mental health (such as good functioning) seem to be other ways to capture agential success. But it is not obvious that agents with compromised mental health are less successful as agents or that agential success intended as goal satisfaction contributes to psychological wellbeing. We can all think of cases where mental distress and creativity go together, and similarly of cases where highly successful agents present symptoms of mental distress, often related to their prioritising their goals over other aspects of their lives.

Responding to negative feedback

Once the notion of success and its relationships with other values are critically examined, the recent empirical literature on agential success can be taken to suggest that the key feature is the capacity to respond positively to negative feedback and other challenges (psychologists talk about ‘hardiness’ and ‘preparedness’ in that context, in the popular culture we talk about ‘bouncing back’, and in the mental health literature the word ‘resilience’ is used to denote some of these phenomena). Are successful people in different domains hardy and prepared for set-backs? How do they overcome disillusionment and maintain motivation in the face of failure?

In the proposed project, I see my role as analysing some features of agential success that can help us understand in what contexts and to what extent success is something that agents should aim to achieve. This requires the study of case studies: success in elite sport (which will be explored in collaboration with Silvia Camporesi), success in the arts and fashion (Victoria Tischler’s focus), success in relationships (Zoe Boden’s focus), success and mental health (Michael Larkin’s focus), success and political or social power (Matteo Mameli’s focus), and at a more methodological level, success in interdisciplinary research (which concerns all of us!). Such cases will illustrate the complexities of measuring or assessing success: elite sportspeople, successful managers, and even top academics often give up long term health prospects or happiness in their relational and family lives to achieve career objectives in their field; self-harm, psychotic symptoms, or eating disorders involve actions and experiences that are at the same time bad and good for the agent. They may bring relief and some sense of achievement or accomplishment, maybe in the short-term, but they also cause pain or suffering, and are responsible for broken relationships or ill-health down the line. And many more examples sping to mind where assumptions about success are challenged.

My own research goal is to try and understand the significance of the single case studies for the general context of any agent’s success. The framework I would like to propose rests on the notion of success criteria for engaged agency. The proposal I would like to test is that the successful agent is the agent who engages with the physical and social environment in a way that allows her to give meaning and direction to her life. This is possibly one sense of success that is central to mental health. We often identify long-term wellbeing and mental health with the agent’s capacity to effectively pursue and ultimately achieve at least some of her goals, forgetting that the agent needs to be engaged to do so: she needs the capacity to interact successfully with her physical and social environment, to feel motivated and supported, and to develop creative responses to inevitable failures and set-backs.

My dream collaborators

Charlotte Gwinner – theatre director who would assist us in producing a play on success for families, to be performed on weekends at the Wellcome Trust.

Matthew Syed – successful sportsperson and now author and media who would feature in a podcast on the residency and deliver a public lecture on what elite sports can teach us about success in more general terms.

Anne Khazam – producer for the radio programme BBC Forum (World Service) who provisionally agreed to work on one or  two episodes of the Forum with core members and collaborators on success, to be aired worldwide and available as a podcast on the BBC website. She has confirmed that her editor is keen to pursue the project.

Amy Hardy – research clinical psychologist interested in the role of imagery in mental health who will deliver a series of lectures on positive and negative aspects of imagery and its role in ‘success’ (including a critical perspective of the recovery framework in mental health).

Some outputs and activities

  • Preparation of two research articles on agential success
  • Organization of a series of interviews, lectures and debates with experts from different backgrounds (podcasted)
  • Book: Bortolotti and Larkin, Health and Happiness, Routledge (contracted)
  • Contribution to set up an open access journal: Journal of Human Experience
  • Co-editing a collection on success with papers from Core Members and their collaborators
  • One or two episodes of BBC Forum (World Service) for each year of residency: (1) on individual vs. society and (2) on success in sport and performance art.
  • Play for families on success to be performed at weekends at the Wellcome Collection.
  • Two informal exhibitions in the Hub or Reading Room contributing to the two themes, success and rationality, and success and mental health.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Success Map 2

Glad you like the idea. Thanks for the helpful comments.

Here's a slightly messier version. It's tricky to get the balance right between the need to come up with something which makes sense 'at a glance' and the aesthetic effect that we want (whic,h I agree, needs to mirror some of the sprawl and complexity of a real Tube map, because that is one of the nice entailments of the metaphor when transferred to our plans). I don't think it's quite there yet, but it's getting better. I'll try breaking up the neatness of the green perimeter I think, in the next version.

I'm afraid I can't do broken/dotted lines at the perimeter: I've made the diagram in Prezi, and the template doesn't give me that option. But the advantage of using Prezi is that further down the line we can embed content into the circular frames (the stations) and zoom in to these. So we can use the map to present the proposal, if we get the map to a state where we are happy with it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Success Map 1

First draft, what do you think?


It's been a very interesting couple of weeks.

I've been writing and speaking to potential collaborators about getting involved in our planned project, and that has been a very positive experience. It has been really good to be able to make plans with long-standing collaborators, but the scope of a new project means that I've also been able to open up conversations with new collaborators, too, which is very exciting. One of the nicest discoveries has been the opening up of the grey area between 'new' and 'old' though. The Hub proposal is a license to pick up conversations with some of those people that one always means to work with, but for one or reason or another, never quite sets up the opportunity. The importance of picking up these loose ends and good intentions while they are meaningful has sadly been underlined for me this month, with the untimely death of a greatly admired and very successful colleague. I had shared a great many of these 'let's catch up and make a plan' conversations with this colleague, and I liked him very much: the intentions were genuine. There's a big hole in the clinical psychology community at Birmingham, and there are a lot of people (including me) trying to make sense of its sudden and unanticipated appearance.

A happier dimension of the process has been the permission to 'cross over' into non-academic territory. With Victoria thinking about visual arts, and Zoë reflecting on dance and performance, I've been thinking about successful co-production and collaboration, so I'm really pleased that Geoff Farina and Chris Brokaw (two very experienced and articulate musicians) have agreed to join us for an event and performance exploring these phenomena:

As a sometime musician myself, it will be quite liberating to work in zone where it is possible to draw on connections from my 'other life.'

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Transformation and Success

me on the couch
I am writing this at a time that I am emerging from a period of intense personal and professional challenge. The themes of striving and thriving therefore resonate with me on many levels. Having explored the concept of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) during my doctoral research I now have gained experiential as well as empirical knowledge of the concept. Indeed, at a time of striving to overcome difficulties I find myself in a position where I have a greater sense of gratitude for my family and friends, I have gained new insights, knowledge and compassion, and I have developed different and, I'd argue, enhanced future priorities. It wasn't an easy process however I do feel transformed. I hope that the Hub residency is part of that future and that we are 'the dream team'!

On re-reading the blog posts to date I am filled with anticipation and a sense of the possibilities that Zoë articulated. Like all of you I am in awe of the Wellcome space and the opportunities it presents. What a space in which to develop, debate, and transform. See me above on 'Freud's' couch in the new Reading Room, striving in a straightjacket, my daughter laced me into it, she thought it hilarious...

I'd like to explicitly link planned work to positive psychology, where PTG is a core concept as is the idea of 'flow' both of which relate to thriving. I've explored the flow state in athletes a creative way previously. When I read Michael's description of the Hub event in March it struck me that the experience shared elements of flow:
an unusual rhythm, alternating between periods of quiet reflection (or stunned silence - gloss as you prefer!) where we all tried to process the overwhelming surge of ideas and possibilities, and other periods of intense discussion where we worked together to give these ideas some shape

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Interdisciplinary Work and its Politics

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
In the last few days I have been thinking about several aspects of success, inspired by the other posts on the blog and by new readings. Today I'll write about one aspect, inspired by previous posts by Michael and Matteo: what success means when applied to interdisciplinary work. Here I'm not interested in whether interdisciplinary work is successful in terms of fulfilling research objectives and making progress with a complex issue. Rather, I'm interesting in whether reflection on interdisciplinary work can succeed at changing the politics of research and the sense of what is acceptable and desirable at the stage in which research is presented and disseminated.

My research has always been at the intersection of philosophy and psychology. I think some issues cannot be investigated successfully within one discipline, because one way of thinking about them needs to be constrained by the theories and empirical findings that another discipline generates. Recently I have become less apologetic about my methodological commitments, and I have started submitting thoroughly interdisciplinary work to those journals that are known as "core philosophy journals", that is, they have an excellent intra-disciplinary reputation (they are good for the REF), but do not have a history of publishing inter-disciplinary work. This was in part an experiment. The result has been fascinating.

In the two recent cases I have in mind, feedback has been overall of excellent quality, and my work has been by and large favourably reviewed. No objections have been raised to the research methodology, but I have received comments such as:

  • "One cannot write a paper on x without mentioning work by philosophers A and B on x" (notice that there is no requirement that the work to be referred to is also discussed in depth or integrated into the proposed account);
  • "Too much of the paper is spent describing the psychological evidence, surely the author can summarise the results without going into so many details" (notice that there is no suggestion that the references to the psychological evidence are irrelevant). 

I find it interesting that there is no substantial objection to the methodology, but there are reservations to the way the argument is presented. The attempt is to make one's work more respectable (more publishable?) but limiting the extent to which it appears (as opposed to is) interdisciplinary. One of the issues that I would love to discuss as part of the residency in the Hub is the politics of interdisciplinarity and its implications for success: When our methods change does our style also need to change to reflect that? How can interdisciplinary work succeed at pioneering new ways to present argumentation, communicate results, engage different audiences?

I think that within a collaborative and interdisciplinary project like ours we would be able to uniquely address such questions because it would require people from different disciplines to talk, think, and write together, but also make things happen. How does an interdisciplinary team jointly interviews an expert, commissions a play, elicits ideas from the public, moderates a debate, invites artists and performers to work together? How would the interdisciplinary (and individual) differences that would characterise any core team play out in such contexts? For the team members, each public engagement event will be like throwing a party where one person may take the lead in the organisation, but the space to be filled and brought to life is essentially shared, and the rules of engagement need to be negotiated.

My guess (hope?) is that the natural reaction of defensiveness I encountered in my "experiment" with submitting work to core journals will give way, and creative solutions will be explored to doing and presenting research. I envisage creating space for research that challenges common assumptions about success, and moulding new modes of presentation to fit the research questions and methodology, rather than imposing a mode of presentation that satisfies previously codified criteria of acceptability.