The point of everyday aesthetic
activity is well-being.
cultural studies, everyday aesthetics, hedonic treadmill, subjective well-being (SWB)
Recent publications in everyday
aesthetics have generated discussion about the definition and description of
everyday aesthetic experience.
Long animated by off-beat observations
about familiar yet rarely analyzed activities, the field of everyday aesthetics
has recently moved in a more theoretical direction. Despite great progress in conceptualizing the
everyday, attempts at sharper definitions and richer ontologies of the everyday
aesthetic realm still leave the question of value unaddressed. Even if we develop a concept of everyday
aesthetics that squares with our intuitions about the core of everyday
aesthetic life, we are left with the question of its value.
It is conceivable that everyday
aesthetic practices have no significant impact on our lives in spite of their
pervasiveness. Perhaps everyday
aesthetic practices are too ephemeral or superficial to have an impact. From this perspective, they are common but
while, by contrast, works in the fine arts merit our attention because they
reflect skill and insight. They are also
followed by critics and audiences, demonstrating a richness and complexity that
can sustain those audiences. We observe
lively debates, academic study, publications, and events centered around fine
art. By contrast, most everyday aesthetic
activities do not inspire critical reflection or art historical study. Rarely do they reflect great skill or insight.
They are pursued in private and, when
there is a public conversation, it is largely consumerist. Everyday aesthetic practices only merit the
attention of critics, aestheticians, or laypeople when, as the line of argument
goes, the practices have been transfigured or, in other words, redefined by
being placed in a fine art context like a gallery or novel. There, everyday practices finally generate the
kinds of attention appropriate to public culture.
When so much evident aesthetic value
can be secured by a vigorous engagement with the fine arts, why should we, as
individuals as much as aestheticians, take anything more than a casual interest
in the aesthetics of everyday life? Why
would one try to improve or change it? What
does everyday aesthetic engagement offer that is substantially more valuable
than engagement in the fine arts? In
other words, what is the point of everyday aesthetic activity?
Before answering this question, I
would like to clarify the definition of everyday aesthetics at work here. Everyday aesthetics denotes “the aspects of
our lives marked by widely shared, daily routines or patterns to which we tend
to impart an aesthetic character.”
Everyday aesthetic activities are
ongoing, familiar practices with potential though not necessary aesthetic
features. One may choose to impart or
impute aesthetic quality to these practices but are not obliged to. For example, one has the opportunity to dress
with flair but may simply throw on the closest pair of old trousers.
There are five main areas for everyday
aesthetic practice: food, wardrobe,
dwelling, conviviality, and going out (running errands or commuting). Importantly, not all activities construed as
vernacular are everyday activities. Ongoing activities, like cleaning or
cooking, are part of the everyday, unlike feasts or interior decoration, which
occur seasonally, at most, or once every several years. Finally, everyday aesthetics emphasize
activities rather than objects. It is
the ongoing nature of the practice, not the genre of the object, say, folk or
mass-produced, that makes for the everyday.
The view presented here is that the
point of everyday aesthetics is subjective well-being (SWB). Now it is a truism that the promotion of
well-being counts among the purposes of art. Some readers may find it harsh or
bizarre to argue that, at least for non-artists, the fine arts are not
especially suited to promoting SWB. But
as we shall see, everyday
aesthetic activities promote SWB more effectively than the fine arts because of
their distinctive features. In what
follows, I will offer a brief account of SWB derived from the literature of
positive psychology. Then, I will
examine everyday aesthetics in the light of this characterization.
2. The concept of subjective well-being
will not run through the many debates that animate the field of positive
psychology. The view I outline here is
drawn from key researchers and will be sufficient for the purposes of situating
the value of everyday aesthetics.
arises when individuals 1) enjoy a
steady flow of positive feelings; 2) have few negative ones; 3) are satisfied
in their main pursuits, such as work and relationships; and 4) give their lives
overall positive evaluations. The high
incidence of positive emotion, low negative emotion, satisfaction in key
domains, and positive overall assessments are four distinct factors in
well-being. When individuals describe
themselves positively in these four areas, they tend also to describe
themselves as happy. Unhappy people are
less likely to reply affirmatively in these areas.
emotions help us see life as satisfying on the whole. In addition, having positive emotions today is
likely to generate positive emotions in the future, compounding in an upward
states of mind benefit other domains, like work and relationships. Positive feelings encourage creativity and
exploration and help us deal better with difficulty. When met with positive interpretations, even
events causing stress tend to increase subjective well-being. Negative states, on the other hand, like
anxiety and depression, tend to narrow attention, decrease effectiveness, and
exists in a dynamic equilibrium, that is, a range that may vary over time but does
not stay at the extremes for long. We
may rise to euphoria or sink to depression because of the outcomes of our
endeavors, but we typically adapt to changes in circumstances so that good and
bad emotions eventually run their course. We tend to return to our preexisting hedonic
range. Positive emotions from time to time are not
likely to increase SWB. To have an
impact, positive emotions must be ongoing, generating further positive emotions,
lifting us consistently to the higher end of our hedonic range. As we tend to adapt to the causes of positive
or negative affect, we must continually seek new sources of positive experience
to remain at the higher end of our hedonic range.
3. Influencing subjective well-being
term hedonic treadmill, which is
sometimes used pejoratively, stands for the varied processes by which
individuals seek to increase or maintain positive affect.  Hedonic regulation can involve, for instance,
selecting the situations we put ourselves in, modifying them, determining the
strength and nature of our attention, controlling responses, and determining
our attitudes. Part of what is sometimes
called “emotional intelligence” is the ability to regulate mood and spend more
time at the higher end of our hedonic range. However, it is not easy to improve levels of
well-being. Much of SWB depends on
temperament, that is, our hard-wired psychobiological dispositions. We are all predisposed to certain cognitive
patterns that either support or undermine a sense of well-being. Also, our circumstances, that is, our work,
relationships, living arrangements, and finances matter. When they can be improved, well-being is
likely to increase. However,
circumstances are not easily improved. Life-altering
improvements in circumstances, like a new home or job, may boost well-being in
the short term but the effect typically fades. Over the long-term, circumstances tend not to
change very often. Thus, circumstances
are not a good target for sustained improvements in well-being. What
is left is activity, what we do on an everyday basis.
are the best way to engage the hedonic treadmill because:
They are ongoing and accessible.
We can change them. By changing the time, effort, focus, or
environment for an activity, affective adaptation can be minimized. In this way, we can achieve the satisfaction
on a regular basis while avoiding the routinization that tends to push us back
down to the lower end of our hedonic range.
are self-concordant. Activities allow us
to pursue self-generated personal goals that are important to who we are and
that we can personally endorse as good and valuable. The activity has to fit the traits and
circumstances of the individual, squaring with larger goals, motivations,
interests, talents, and values. Individuals who engage in activities that do
not mesh with their circumstances or engage their traits are less likely to
improve SWB, even if they are successful. Activities with these features are more likely to generate
the upward spiral toward the higher part of our hedonic range.
living in distressed circumstances whose improvement is unlikely, such as imprisonment
or disability, individuals must rely heavily on activities in order to improve
SWB. And where improved circumstances
are to some extent possible, like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or
poverty, the distressed benefit from the positive emotions generated from
self-controlled and self-concordant activity. Although the activities themselves may not
solve problems, they reduce anxiety
and depression while increasing focus and efficacy. In turn, the improved mood achieved through
activity may help individuals face the larger challenges in their lives. In this way, self-concordant activities often
play a valuable compensatory role in our inevitably difficult lives. For individuals who do not have the
opportunity to pursue activities due, say, to overwork, improvement in
subjective well-being is unlikely.
4. Well-being and everyday aesthetics,
and the fine arts
this exposition, we are in a better position to see why SWB is crucial to
understanding the value of everyday aesthetics: Everyday aesthetic practices can promote
well-being because they are typically ongoing activities marked by self-control
and self-concordance. Now our everyday
lives are filled with attempts at hedonic regulation. Indeed, any everyday activity has a chance to
influence SWB merely by virtue of being an activity. Among the means of hedonic regulation,
everyday aesthetic activities just happen to be the ones suited for
aesthetically motivated people. Everyday
aesthetic practices, like food preparation or wardrobe choices, are
self-concordant and self-controlled. Individuals determine whether and in what way
they will pursue them. Everyday
aesthetic practices determine the degree and direction of the aesthetic
attention and, in this way, facilitate the hedonic regulation crucial for
aesthetic practices of our own design stand a much better chance of
influencing well-being than the occasional encounter of high or popular art, such
as attending museums or concerts from time to time. Fine art activities are intermittent for all
but the makers and some attendant professionals. In contrast, everyday aesthetic activities are
practiced by nearly all as a matter of everyday life. The ongoing yet flexible nature of everyday
aesthetic practice is conducive to hedonic regulation.
come full circle to the original objection to everyday aesthetics, namely that
it lacks value relative to the fine arts. When well-being is brought to the
foreground, everyday aesthetic practice turns out to be rich in possibilities while
the fine arts seem challenged as a framework for human flourishing, except
perhaps for the artists themselves. Although the fine arts present opportunities in
the public sphere for cognitively and morally complex experiences, everyday
aesthetics offers ongoing, self-controlled, and self-concordant activities that
shift to SWB as a value for our aesthetic lives has other implications. The emphasis on well-being may radically
change how we think about art. For
instance, when it comes to SWB, it is the quality of practice as an activity that matters rather than
the quality of the artistic product. At
times the absorption of the maker in an activity will figure more prominently
than the quality of the product he or she produces. From the perspective of SWB, there is no
necessary relation between the quality of the activity and the quality of the
product. Practices that challenge yet
still permit mastery are more likely to generate well-being than practices that
are too easy to engage us or are so difficult they lead only to frustration. However, these features pertain more to the
quality of the engagement, not the product.
also changes how we think of aesthetic competency. For SWB, we are aesthetically competent if we
know what activities and experiences lift us to the higher end of our hedonic
range and if we are capable of arranging our lives to secure this satisfaction.
We are aesthetically incompetent if we
continue to engage in activities that do not lift us higher in our hedonic
range, even if the product of that effort is viewed as an excellent work of art. From the standpoint of SWB, aesthetic value is
about more than the cogency of judgments of taste. What matters most is not that we get the
judgments “right” but that we engage in activities that push us to the higher
end of our hedonic range.
SWB theory tells us that, if one does
not pursue art as an ongoing, self-controlled, self-concordant activity, it
will not influence well-being. Excellence in art is not a factor. It is all fine and good that there are
dissonant musical compositions, novels of abjection, and sprawling gallery
installations of detritus. Such art
often offers engaging intellectual and moral challenges for audiences through the
negative emotions that it generates. The
art may be appealing on many levels, but what makes art support well-being is
the quality of our engagement with it. The
intermittent consumption of
intellectually challenging art probably will not influence well-being one way
or the other. But quite likely, as an autonomous
and self-concordant activity, the creation
of such work will deeply and positively influence the well-being of its makers.
Conclusion: the politics of everyday aesthetics
The theory of everyday aesthetics
stands at the intersection of philosophical aesthetics and cultural studies. Researchers in cultural studies tend to work
in a more political framework, and some readers may jump to the conclusion that
I am advocating a conception of art as therapy in place of an intellectually
and politically challenging public culture. A still harsher complaint is that by focusing
on happiness at the expense of social justice, I am somehow making everyday
aesthetics complicit in maintaining the status quo of an unjust society.
harsh as it sounds, this kind of sparring is routine in cultural studies. Whenever empirical research suggests that modest,
apolitical adjustments in our lives may improve them independently of broad
social changes, we can be assured of a certain leftist academic objection that
takes the empirical findings as an expression of complacency in the face of
social injustice. Ironically, in these
debates, decades of empirical, tested and retested research get labeled as
“ideological” while the untested assumptions of the academic left are affirmed
merely because of their political stripes.
its outset in the groundbreaking work of Horkheimer and Adorno, cultural
studies has been politically charged by its Marxist roots, its identification
with the left and, by the 1980s, identity politics. Analysis in cultural studies often aims to
show that cultural practices are inflected by hegemonic structures of class,
race, gender, and so forth. Individual agency, including aesthetic practices,
must be construed within the context of the hegemonic structure.
Now any critique of hegemonic structures
presupposes a conception of human flourishing, even if only an intuitive one, otherwise
the critique itself would not be possible. However, the psychology of human flourishing
baked into critique has gone unexamined. When first acknowledging mass culture,
Horkheimer and Adorno did not have an empirically based theory of human
flourishing and the standpoint for their critique was intuitive. This lack of scientific understanding of human
well-being persisted into the 1990s. Today, however, we are lucky to be working in
the wake of a huge wave of empirical research on human flourishing. Though not without differences at the margins,
the findings of this field are robust and hard to ignore. They should be a prime tool for academics
claiming to identify and promote cultural values. It is an unflattering comment on philosophical
aesthetics and cultural studies that so many exciting developments in empirical
psychology are simply ignored as if they had never happened.
the past thirty years, researchers on SWB have not discovered a significant
role for higher income or standard of living in SWB. This was not for a lack of trying. Early
studies of well-being tested unsuccessfully for objective conditions like
income and standard of living only to discover that, after basic needs are met,
greater income and higher standards of living do not significantly improve
well-being. Ultimately, the whole field of happiness
studies emerged as an attempt to make sense of this surprising finding. Research shifted from external to internal
factors or, in other words, how dispositions, inner resources, and coping
tendencies support well-being.
Aestheticians and cultural theorists
working today have the chance to make empirically-based claims about the real
sources of well-being through culture. If
it turns out that non-political factors can reliably improve the lives of members
of politically marginal groups, it would be a real disservice to those people for
academics of any political orientation to continue to pretend otherwise.
Kevin Melchionne paints
and writes aesthetics. More information about
his work can be found at www.kevinmelchionne.com and independent.academia.edu/KevinMelchionne.
Published May 5, 2014.
 Kevin Melchionne,
“The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics,” and Ossi Naukkarinen, “What is
'Everyday' in Everyday Aesthetics?” both appear in Contemporary Aesthetics,11 (2013), www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/journal.php. Thomas Leddy, “Defending Everyday Aesthetics
and the Concept of 'Pretty,'” Contemporary
Aesthetics, 10 (2012), and, Wood Roberdeau, “Affirming Difference: Everyday Aesthetic Experience after
Phenomenology” in Volume 9 of the same journal. The best comprehensive account remains Yuriko
Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford
University Press), 2008.
 Christopher Dowling, “The Aesthetics of Daily Life,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 50:3
“Definition of Everyday Aesthetics.”
 For instance, the
widely read synthetic account of Martin Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New
Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, (New York: Free Press, 2011). For additional overviews of the research, see
Ed Diener, Eunkook M. Suh, Richard E. Lucas, and Heidi L. Smith,
"Subjective Well Being: Three
Decades of Progress," Psychological
Bulletin, 125:2 (1999), 276-302; and Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci,
“On Happiness and Human Potentials: A
Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being,” Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (2001), 141-66.
 Barbara L.
Fredrickson and Thomas Joiner, "Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals
Toward Emotional Well-Being," Psychological
Science, 13:2 (March 2002), 172-75.
 There is an enormous
body of literature here. For instance,
Michael A. Cohn, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Stephanie L. Brown, Joseph A. Mikels,
and Anne M. Conway, “Happiness unpacked: positive emotions increase life satisfaction
by building resilience,” Emotion, 9:3
(June 2009), 361-8.
 Bruce Headey and A. Wearing,
“Personality, Life Events, and Subjective Wellbeing: Toward a Dynamic
Equilibrium Model?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57 (1989), 731–9.
 Fredrickson and
Joiner, "Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional
James J. Gross, “The
Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An
Integrative Review,” Review of General
Psychology, 2:5 (1998), 271-299.
 Diener et al., "Subjective Well
Being: Three Decades of Progress,"
p. 279; and Michael Argyle, “Causes and Correlates of Happiness,” In Daniel
Kahneman, Ed Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of
hedonic psychology (New
York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999),
 Kennon M. Sheldon
& Sonia Lyubomirsky, “Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change for
Actions, Not your Circumstances,” Journal
of Happiness Studies, 7 (2006), 55-86.
 Fredrickson and
Joiner, "Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals toward Emotional
Well-Being," and Christopher G. Davis, Susan
Nolen-Hoeksema and Judith Larson, “Making Sense of Loss and Benefiting from
the Experience: Two Construals of Meaning,”
Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 75:2 (Aug 1998), 561-574.
 Special thanks to
the anonymous peer reviewer for making this claim.
 Max Horkheimer and
Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of
Enlightenment (1949), John Cumming, trans., (New York: Continuum, 1972). For the early history of cultural studies, see
Patrick Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay,
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983)
and Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America,
(New York: Routledge, 1990).
 For the crucial
shift to the concept of hegemony in cultural studies in the 1970s and 80s, see
Tony Bennett, "Foreword," Popular
Culture and Social Relations eds. T. Bennett, C. Mercer, and J. Woolacott
(London: Open University Press, 1986),
p. xiv. In the context of French
post-structuralism, Michel de Certeau's influential distinction between
strategies and tactics in L'invention du
quotidien, vol 1. arts de faire (1980) (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), pp. 43-68.
 For instance, the
influential article by Paul T. Costa, Robert R. McCrae, and Alan B. Zonderman,
“Environmental and Dispositional Influences on Well-being: Longitudinal
Follow-up of an American National Sample,” British
Journal of Psychology, 78 (1987), 299-306.
 For defense of
subjective over objective measures of happiness, see Myers, D. G., &
Diener, E. “Who is happy?” Psychological Science, 6 (1995), 10-19.