Our first internal seminar in Athens 2015 was dedicated to the different dimensions of wellbeing. The original idea was to avoid ready-made interdisciplinary presentations and try and have us bring, instead, certain themes of shared interest into the open afresh. This aim was broached through the help of two short films, Richard (2013, by Matt Hopkins) and Everything is Incredible (2012, by Tyler Bastian), both of which may be found in Vimeo and which provided a platform for a common discussion.
Above all, we sought to gain some insights into how we define wellbeing, which other concepts or phenomena it is commonly seen as related to, and what we might then think of the prospects of attaining wellbeing. The people involved in the discussion provided different characterizations of wellbeing, linking the term, say, with attaining balance (which needs to be done over and over again), with ultimate freedom, with the ability to dream and the ability to control your own body, and with finding something valuable to do, creating meaning for one’s life. These “definitions”, to be sure, were provided in the context of the two films, which were quite different.
The first film, Richard, shows a relatively well-off piano tuner from London who’s decided to give away virtually all of his belongings, choosing to live outdoors while practicing his profession. While Richard certainly epitomizes a Western example of ultimate freedom, his behavior also makes us wonder whether such a lifestyle could be adopted without certain material preconditions. (A few of us quipped that he, at least, seems to have a fancy bike!) Some discussants among the group questioned his motives—or at least the permanence of the chosen lifestyle. In any event, one can raise the question as to whether Richard’s life without much material propoerty represents a genuine way of life or whether he’s fallen prey, in a sense, to the contemporary trend of converting lifestyles (such as downshifting) into swiftly exchangeable brands virtually anyone can live by.
In the second film, Everything is Incredible, we see an oldish, disabled man from Honduras sitting in a wheelchair spending his days constructing a hand-made helicopter made of spare parts of versatile gadgets and devices, even pieces of trash. While the helicopter will probably never fly, we witness the man finding genuine meaningfulness in his life through this utopian activity. Compared to Richard, the helicopter man comes from a country stricken with poverty, and yet we the Westerns can recognize various interculturally shared elements in his striving for meaningfulness. Indeed, as one of the discussants noted, building the helicopter is an activity that structures the man’s life in the sense of Aleksei Leontiev’s Activity theory.
A couple of important observations ensue from the film Everything is Incredible. Admittedly utopian and even somewhat outlandish, the disabled man’s passion in building the helicopter moves us, and we are touched by the ways in which he touches the helicopter parts using his body and his senses. This is a passion in which the man surrenders himself to something larger than himself, and thereby gains meaning for his life. What is perhaps most interesting to note, finally, is that to be such an exemplar for other human beings one need not attain any special social standing or accomplish anything particularly excellent as such. A severely disabled person from Honduras—indeed, through the medium of the film—can serve as an example for anybody of how we can and should strive after high hopes, even if they be, in some ultimate sense, unattainable.