• Nicholas Harrison

‘Herd it all before?’

Could the group dynamic of heritage-oriented community projects benefit participants’ well-being?


Following publication of ‘The Art of Being’, within a heritage setting, I relished the opportunity to be asked to further investigate evidence of an existential psychology within an heritage setting. Given the current difficulties we are all exposed to, it is far from melodrama to believe that failure to react appropriately to government building policy, climate change, social-cultural movements, and the current pandemic, could well see the genesis of a much altered, under-resourced, and possibly far smaller sector.


Without question, heritage organisations create a better understanding of our past and contribute to the preservation and management of our nation’s history. They also add to the enormous economic benefit generated through the wider heritage sector. In 2015, the UK heritage sector contributed £20.2 million to GDP and maintained some 360,000 jobs. Outside of London, areas that contributed the most included the North East, Wales and Scotland, geographic locations whose local economies simply cannot afford to be hit any further. (Oxford Economics, 2015).


However, in addition to the financial gains and effect on the UK’s global brand recognition, there is another aspect to heritage activities whose voice is far quieter than its academically researched credibility warrants; The health benefits, especially of the youngest and most vulnerable and disadvantaged within our society. Archaeological activities, as a source of discovering meaning for an individual was discussed in my last article from Erich Fromm’s perspective, but what of an individual amongst individuals?


Victor Frankl suggested that one cannot find meaning through introspection alone, echoing John Donne’s thoughts about islands, (Donne, 1623). Stemming from Frankl’s phrase, ‘Will to meaning” is a belief that in order to find true meaning in life, for a time, we have to forget ourselves and throw ourselves unconditionally into something outside of ourselves. The self-absorbed who possibly find comfort in self-pity, who are fixated on clinically defining their individual purpose in life, won’t achieve anything helpful. When we transcend ourselves, when we depart from our comfort zones, throw ourselves out of quilter and engage in an activity, this is where we can find an authentic meaning to our interconnected and interdependent social being, (Frankl, 1984). In summary, one’s reason for being is ensued, not pursued.


“No man is an Island”... We’ve heard quite a bit about the ‘herd’ recently, its’s hard not to hear that word and immediately think of the current pandemic. The author hypothesises, a fully functioning society is a pack, not a herd. The history books are littered with the results of dystopian herd communities, without structure but a collective behaviour, a will of the mass, whose value is judged by their productivity. Packs tend to encompass strong leadership, an acknowledgment of individual strengths and weaknesses, an interconnected will to a common goal, a team, whose value is seen from within as well as without and whose actions are aligned to a vision and a mission.


The question to be looked at here is how belonging to a group, formed within a heritage setting, can benefit or disadvantage the health of its members. Within the context of Soldier On’s community heritage activities, such an idea remains merely an unresearched possibility within the mind of the author who has spent much time looking from the outside into the group dynamics. A group most definitely exists and there may well be groups within groups. In any event, heritage community activities deserve deeper enquiry into their efficacy as a platform for group therapy. Such a leap, from the suggestion of an idea to the presentation of challenged research could be catalysed through the use, as a theoretical framework, of Yalom’s eleven factors that influence change and enhance well-being within a group, (Yalom and Leszcz, 2005).


One factor identified by Yalom is the instillation of hope. The first possible creation of hope occurs at the time when the potential participant finds out about the intended heritage project and it rises if the organisation planning the event is good at positively communicating the plan and the opportunities. Throughout the project, the existence of hope appears episodically, from a project specific perspective, as one finds, or does not, something of interest. Hope is born out of the possibility of the unearthing of knowledge, or objects, being more numerous, of greater quality or uniqueness. Personal hope has also been reported by Soldier On! participants, the constituent parts being created through their interaction with other people, a sense of perspective of their own situations being formed and a hope born out of a belief that they themselves are in control and can indeed be agents for changing their life situations for the better.


Within a group setting, especially such as one formed on an archaeology or other heritage-based activity where people spend a lot of time together, in some cases even living together and thus given more time to interact, there often appears a sense of universality. By sharing our experiences and feelings there is often a moment when we feel that we are not on our own, that what we are experiencing, or maybe enduring exists with others. This diminishment of social-isolation adds to our sense of belonging, of no longer feeling alienated from mainstream society, that we share similar situations. ‘I am not alone’ is a powerful aid to our well-being. One thing that has been noticed time and again on our projects is the contribution that universality makes to social cohesion. Those who have been labelled as belonging to a minority group by reasons such as their country of origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual-orientation, disability, level of education or socio-economic status, perceived or real, find they have far more in common with one another than they first thought.


Continuing this theme of shared experiences, Yalom identified imparting information as having a profoundly positive affect on one’s development. Within a heritage setting, not only are people learning new technical skills and developing their intrinsic personality assets, they also share, not only their lived experiences, but also their coping mechanisms and high points, and they elaborate on the incremental positive steps they themselves have managed to take. Through seeing what has worked for others, and what has not, participants can acquire many tools and techniques that enable them to move forward. A field-based approach, and the person-centred environment we aim to create at Soldier On! can create a useful setting for knowledge to be imparted in a non-academic and non-patronising way that some people do rail against within a clinical setting.

Altruism, an attributer of Positive Psychology, (Seligman, 2002), allows inward looking individuals, whose lives revolve entirely around their own negativity, to attend to the needs of others increasing both the value that others have for them and in turn their own self-esteem. Helping others also allows for the visibility and practice of an individual’s strengths, both of a skills-based and trait nature. Participants on an heritage project have so many opportunities to help each other, from simply offering a glass of water on a hot day to buddying up to help someone who is struggling with a mathematical challenge. Heritage projects differ from many vehicles used to support vulnerable people in that the possibility exists for people from all ages and physical abilities to work together. They are truly inclusive, and as a result of such a cocktail of capabilities and the natural emotional highs and lows experienced, participants can experience episodes of being both care-giver and cared-for.


For many people, the root of their poor mental health extends as a far as childhood, and to gain better understanding of this situation demands insight into both the conscious and subconscious mind. In a psychodynamic approach, Transference can exist between professional and patient. A client may manipulate the relationship with their counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist, according to a belief that such a person has adopted the role occupied by their father for example. Within a group setting, a sort of Transference can occur where the group facilitator takes on the role of the parent, often filling a vacuum. Through more stable, mutually rewarding and productive relationships, within a group setting, a participant often acquires an ability to challenge dysfunctional behaviours and better manage their familial relationships through the corrective recapitulation of the primary family group.

Some heritage communities include people who have come to find their way back into mainstream society. They may be coping with bereavement, job-loss, have suffered from anxiety, depression or substance abuse or rehabilitating post injury or illness as just some of many examples or personal trauma that can affect any one of us at any time. Individuals may have experienced a detachment from what may be called the ‘real world’. They may well have experienced lengthy periods in isolation or focused exclusively on their recovery. By taking part in a group activity within a heritage setting they encounter an opportunity for the development of socialization techniques. They are no longer alone or interacting with one or two others. They have to reacquaint themselves with the attitudes, standards, values and behaviour of wider society, and by reconnecting with socially acceptable behaviours, within a safe and trusted group, the project becomes a springboard to facilitating a safe return to a wider reaching community that awaits the homeward bound participant, separate to the limited context of any therapeutic encounter.

One hindrance to progress in life are the deep-rooted behaviour patterns adopted by clients to allow for their ability to cope within a specific situation. Within a group environment, both the facilitator and those who the client finds themselves naturally looking to for guidance and reassurance, (remember it is not always the facilitator who provides this), demonstrate how behaviours, within a new and perhaps unsure situation, can ensure reward and an increase in individual worth and esteem. Clients can, in relative safety, test out new ways of reacting and explore their boundaries by copying the behaviour of those they see as worthy of taking on the role of leader. Imitative behaviour allows clients to experience almost a role-play scenario, expressing themselves in new ways, aligning their emotions and cognitions to alternative actions again within a supportive and relatively safe environment, before applying a new way of being when they return home.

Working alongside this behavioural aspect is Interpersonal Learning, where participants’ acquired trust in one another and the safe nature of the setting allows them to develop interpersonal skills having received honest feedback about their own behaviours. This occurs through either direct praise or bonds forming between people, and is a two-way street, individual clients becoming as increasingly sensitive to another’s feelings as they find those same people respecting their own.

Group cohesiveness creates the platform from which many of the other factors germinate. As the team unites through shared extant experiences as well as similar memories and latent potentialities, participants feel emboldened to self-disclosure of an honest and often newly acquired nature. Feelings of belonging, value and worth become powerful aids to attaining the status of a fully-functioning person. A feeling of togetherness, of being part of something, carries risk to the individual who is acutely aware that this project has a last day, which we will address later. A trusted group that demonstrates a desire to secure the happiness of all members can provide an outflow of catharsis. If a cathartic experience is intended then it is absolutely vital that the group is overseen by a competent and qualified therapist. (The same applies for all clinical interventions). However, if we accept that human nature demands we are social beings, then any outpouring of emotions or thoughts can only be expected at some stage whether the group is facilitated or is without any leader, for in addition to natural leaders emerging, the group’s togetherness will at some stage force a state of catharsis.

Community projects vary from a few days to a couple weeks and often many members of the initial group come together time and again. During these periods of togetherness, the final factor identified by Yalom that we see are of an existential nature. Participants act, think, learn and develop and these activities play out amongst a backdrop of an historical context. As they explore layer upon layer of mankind’s previous existence within a group setting, a participant’s thoughts turn to the meaning within their own lives, to what it is that provides them with energy, motivation and will to live. Perhaps it is the omnipresent contact with the past which allied to the potential for Yalom’s therapeutic Existential Factors evolves into an awareness of our own mortality and an acceptance of the realities of life. Rather than continue to be shackled through fear or an inability to accept ourselves for who we are, with the group’s support, participants absorb an appreciation that we don’t need to fight and expunge ourselves of every perceived weakness, failure or bad experience. We are who we are.

It has been by design that the author has deliberately avoided a facile attempt at charity aggrandisement. Whilst he believes that all Yalom’s factors exist within Soldier On’s heritage-based projects, so do they also within many other organisation’s social and technical fieldwork activities. It is expected that readers of this article, with experience of community work will relate to what has been written, from their own positive experiences. We do, in line with our charitable objectives, ‘use’ heritage, having understood the phenomenal benefits that can be reaped by participants, under correct supervision, who wish to take part in one project that acts as a catalyst for change.


Our fully integrated personal development offering safeguards against a revolving door situation where we see the same faces time and again. This we do not want, for then we run the risk of becoming a crutch and an obstacle in the path to self-sufficient, independent, productive and rewarding futures. We don’t intentionally practice Yalom’s style of therapy for we are not offering therapy, they are just factors that naturally occur within a safe, inclusive, team-oriented and meaningful environment such that history-based projects can offer.

It is absolutely vital that, in order to ensure the safety of participants, any community project that wishes to deliver any form of clinical intervention must employ a suitably qualified person to deliver such an offering.

Given the earlier identified existential dilemma for the sector as a whole, perhaps the very real health benefits, seen through the prism of thought of both Erich Fromm and Irvin Yalom, only two of many possible examples, should be more widely appreciated. When coupled to the financial, educational and promotional benefits the UK enjoys as a result of having such a rich, and yet to be discovered history, we pose the question that were someone to take these mere conjectured musings of an observer and challenge them through rigorous research, could we not add another reason to protect this sector? To realise the force for good that exists for everyone, and most especially for the vulnerable, the marginalised, the lonely, the victims of abuse and trauma and the disabled, must surely pave the way for a continued look into the health benefits of history-focused activities interventions?


References:

Harrison, R.N., 2019. ‘The Art of Being’, Within a heritage setting. https://www.heritagedaily.com/2020/01/125570/125570

https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/recent-releases/the-impact-of-heritage-tourism-for-the-uk-economy

Donne, J., 1623. Meditation XVII. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,.

Frankl, V. 1984. Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York Simon & Schuster.

Yalom, I. and Leszcz, M., 2015. The Theory And Practice Of Group Psychotherapy. 5th ed. New York: Basic Books.

Seligman, Martin E. P. 2002. Authentic happiness: using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfilment. New York: Free Press

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