Global Well-Being: A 5th Dimension of Value
Author: Dr. John H. Falk
Those of you who have been following my work over the past couple of years know that I have been focused on defining and measuring the value of museums. I have argued that most of a museum’s value lies within the experiences it creates. Historically, the value of a museum lay primarily in its tangible assets, things like collections and buildings. However, as has been happening across all companies and organizations, tangible assets have come to represent an ever-decreasing percentage of actual value. For example, roughly 40 years ago, tangible assets such as buildings, machinery and inventory represented two-thirds of the market value of the average for-profit company. Ten years later, those same assets represented just a third of company market value (Kaplan & Norton 2001), and today, that percentage has been reduced by half again (Berman 2019). In today’s information-focused world, the value of all organizations and companies for-profit and non-profit resides largely in their intangible assets; the knowledge possessed and how that knowledge is used to create and support experiences for the public (Koller, Goedhart & Wessels, 2020). Museums are no exception.
Enhanced Well-Being Creates Value
I have learned (Falk, 2021; 2022) that museums, through the user experiences they create, clearly generate lasting value as evidenced by the durability of museum memories. The key to that durability is that museum experiences are perceived as “meaningful,” i.e., they support the public’s well-being. Not in a “pop psychology” type of way, which is often reduced to the idea of feeling happy,1 but rather the deep, biologically-based definition of well-being that comes with feelings of enhanced survival. The perception of well-being is an evolutionary ancient mechanism for enhancing fitness (Falk, 2018) and it turns out that museums have long been successful when it comes to supporting the publics feelings of enhanced, survival-related well-being across all four of the primary dimensions of human well-being – physical, social, intellectual and personal well-being. Across all of these dimensions, museums continue to create significant public value. Value that can be directly measured, and even monetized using this well-being construct (for more details see Falk, 2021; 2022, also earlier blogs [here hotlinks].
The Fifth Dimension
Recently, though, I came to appreciate that there is a fifth, very recently evolved dimension of human well-being, one that I had not previously considered. Like many evolutionary-focused social scientists, I was particularly focused on the critical events in human history that pre-dated the rise of civilizations – that 99.9% of human hunter-gatherer evolutionary history that began around 7 million years ago when human-like creatures first branched off from our chimpanzee-like relatives somewhere in Eastern Africa and persisted until very recently amongst the tens of thousands of small, kinship-based clans, living thinly dispersed across virtually every habitable patch of land on earth (Buss, 2019). Throughout all this time, human evolution never stopped, it just became increasingly and ever-acceleratingly culturally-focused as humans continually adapted to first an agricultural, then industrial and now an information-adapted lifestyle. During this entire time frame, virtually all of cultural evolution has focused on refining and elaborating how humans can enhance their survival through the initial four basic human dimensions of well-being, but only very recently have we become aware that our survival depends upon not just our immediate environment, and just our closest circle of friends and relatives, but equally upon settings and denizens living well beyond our immediate boundaries and daily awareness. For the very first time in biological history, a species became aware, and recently because of global pandemics, climate change and international conflicts painfully aware, that its own survival also depended on the well-being of all other living and non-living parts of the planet. In fact, this highly abstract form of survival-related concern, a well-being-related need I’m calling global well-being, is so unusual and recently evolved, that it is only within the past 50 years or so that a majority of earth’s humans have come to be consciously aware of this form of well-being and has begun to act in ways that acknowledge that their survival is just as dependent on these global issues as are they dependent on the four older and more obvious forms of well-being.2
Global well-being occurs when a person perceives that they are supporting and directly contributing to the just and equitable treatment of all humanity and/or feels like they are supporting and directly contributing to the health, security, and increasingly, sustainability of the planet (cf., JYU, 2021). As I define this fifth dimension of well-being, just like with the previous four dimensions of well-being – physical, social, intellectual, and personal – feelings of global well-being are perceived at the individual level and despite being “other-focused,” are still operationally “self-focused.” For example, the fact that someone on the other side of the planet is doing some good for the environment is perceived as a good thing, but it is rarely registered by the individual as a feeling of global well-being, at least not in the sense that I am using the term. For someone to feel a sense of global well-being, that person must perceive that they are personally involved, they feel like they have somehow directly affected the health and well-being of others on the planet. Perceptions of global well-being can be as modest as the feelings of doing something for others that regularly recycling or contributing to an environmental organization engenders, or it can be as extensive as the feelings one has when one donates a year of one’s life to almost daily working on a particular social or environmental issue.
In the case of museums, feelings of enhanced global well-being can be created through specific museum experiences; experiences that result in the user perceiving that as a consequence of their museum experience they have somehow contributed in some small way to the betterment of humankind or the planet. Perhaps through an exhibition experience, they gained a greater sense of understanding about and commitment to engaging in actions that will make a difference towards ameliorating climate change. Or perhaps they gained new insights and empathy towards a historically discriminated-against minority and now feel like they will be able to take actions that will materially enhance the quality of their society’s social fabric. Or it just may be the development of a greater awareness of the efforts the museum is engaged in that are benefiting the globe, and thus feeling like, through their admission ticket, they are directly contributing towards improving the lives of refugees or helping to save the lives of endangered wildlife. In all these cases, the key is that the individual feels somehow directly engaged; that they feel a sense of agency towards helping to influence these global issues and by so doing, perceive that they have enhanced their own survival-related well-being. Though some might say that such small-scale, individual actions are inadequate to the challenges the world faces, I like many others (cf., JYU, 2021; Wallace-Wells, 2022), believe that ultimately, it is only through such individual choices and actions that any meaningful change will ever happen.
Worldwide, museums are increasingly trying to support this kind of well-being. However, since the typical museum experience is often very brief, the contribution any particular museum makes to these kinds of large, intractable social or environmental issues are likely to be seen as extremely limited. In fact, most past efforts designed to measure how museum experiences related to large-scale global issues impact actual events on the ground have provided, at best, mixed evidence of success (e.g., Cameron, 2012; Jones, Hussain & Spiewa, 2020; Smith, Broad & Weiler, 2008; Spitzer, 2014). Consequently, many museums, despite strongly believing in the importance of acting in ways that support planetary well-being, sometimes struggle in justifying these actions to boards, funders and the public.
However, as my current well-being-focused approach to defining and measuring museum value demonstrates, the quality of the experiences a museum delivers influences value, but the real advantage museums have over many other institutions is quantity – the sheer volume of people museums serve can result in significant outcomes. As I have shown, the benefits of a museum experience tend to be modest, but they last longer than expected. When each of these outsized but individually modest impacts are multiplied by the hundreds of thousands and millions of visitors that have these experiences, the collective impact is actually enormous.
In theory, then, this is exactly how museums can have an influence on the public’s global well-being. It can be next to impossible to see the impact of any one individual’s actions on any of the many large, challenging problems facing the world. However, as suggested above, it is the collective impact from many, many small impacts that is critical. I believe it should now be possible to directly measure and monetize the value created through supporting enhanced feelings of global well-being; just as it now is possible to capture the value of such historically intangible, and difficult-to-measure values as physical, social, intellectual, and personal well-being.
Being able to conceptualize and begin to define the contours of this new dimension of well-being is very important, and frankly exciting. To be accomplished, though, it is important to be able to validly and reliably measure this fifth dimension. My ability to validly and reliably measure the first four dimensions of well-being were significantly aided by the availability of decades of museum audience research related to why people went to museums and self-reports of the long-term memories/benefits the public perceived they gained from these experiences. In the vast majority of these audience studies, researchers tended to focus on how people perceived the social, intellectual and/or personal outcomes of their museum experiences. Although not as frequently emphasized, some research also focused on the physical dimensions of museum experiences. Though it does exist, the literature on how museums have supported the public’s perceptions of cultural and environmental dimensions of global well-being is considerably thinner. However, I suspect there may be more out there than I am aware of.
With that thought in mind, I would like to encourage anyone to share with me any existing research studies (published or not) or even anecdotes that directly relate to the dimension of global well-being. You can send these to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would love to be able to mine these works, much as I did with the other four dimensions, for outcomes and potential measures that I could utilize in my efforts to describe and measure this form of well-being. Then, as I did with the earlier four dimensions, I will conduct one or more rounds of pilot testing on this new dimension, so that I can ultimately build and share with the field an instrument that fully encompasses all five dimensions of well-being-related value created by museums.
To be honest, although this fifth dimension of well-being is becoming increasingly important to many people, this need is not going to replace the need for physical, social, intellectual, and personal well-being any time soon. These first four dimensions of well-being remain at the core of human survival-related needs. But adding this fifth dimension is a recognition that evolution does not stand still, and clearly humanity is beginning to appreciate that its historic me-focused survival-related actions are not always positive, and in fact, many of our behaviors can and do directly threaten the very survival and fitness they were designed to support. Museums can and should play a role in re-focusing human activities towards a more just and sustainable future. Being able to document how museum experiences shift people’s perceptions of their global well-being has the potential to be an immensely powerful tool in understanding and measuring the value of museums, now and into the future.
Berman, B. (2019). $21 trillion in U.S. intangible assets is 84% of S&P 500 value – IP rights and reputation included. IPCloseup.com. https://ipcloseup.com/2019/06/04/21-trillion-in-u-s-intangible-asset-value-is-84-of-sp-500-value-ip-rights-and-reputation-included/ Retrieved March 27, 2022.
Buss, D.M. (ed.) (2019). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind, Sixth Edition. New York: Routledge.
Cameron, F. (2012). Climate change, agencies and the museum and science center sector. Museum Management and Curatorship, 27(4), 317–339.
Falk, J.H. (2018). Born to choose: Evolution, self, and well-being. London: Routledge.
Falk, J.H. (2021). The value of Museums: Enhancing societal well-being. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Falk, J.H. (2022). Making the case for the value of museum experiences. Museum Management & Curatorship. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647775.2021.2023906
JYU. (2021). Wisdom community. Planetary well-being. Humanities and Social Science Communication, 8 (258). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00899-3 Retrieved October 23, 2022.
Jones, R., Hussain, N. & Spiewa, M. (2020). The critical role research and evaluation assume in the post-truth era of climate change. Journal of Museum Education, 45(1), 64-73.
Kaplan, R.S. & Norton, D.P. (2001). The Strategy-Focused Organization. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Koller, T., Goedhart, M. & Wessels, D. (2020). Valuation: Measuring and managing the value of companies, Seventh Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Smith, L., Broad, S. & Weiler, B. (2008). A closer examination of the impact of zoo visits on visitor behavior. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16(5), 544-562.
Spitzer, W. (2014). Shaping the public dialog on climate change. In D. Dalbotten, G. Roehrig, & P. Hamilton (Eds.), Future Earth – Advancing civic understanding of the Anthropocene (pp. 89–97). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Wallace-Wells, D. (2022). Beyond catastrophe: A new climate reality is coming into view. The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/10/26/magazine/climate-change-warming-world.html Retrieved October 30, 2022.
1 Happiness is just one of many manifestations of well-being, but in and of itself does not represent the essence of well-being. For more detail see Falk (2021).
2 I make no claims to being an historian but clearly there are many examples one could point to as signs of this kind of well-being. I single out the environmental 50 years ago as the beginning of the growing worldwide acceptance for a perception of the need for global well-being but clearly there are examples that pre-date this time. For example, the late 19th/early 20th century labor movements, the post-World War II “ban the bomb” movement, as well as the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the peace movement were all arguably attributable to a growing perception of the need for global well-being. Also worth noting are the pervasive and in many cases quite ancient “land ethics” held by many hunter-gatherer/aboriginal communities; which also could be argued to be exemplars of the awareness and manifestation of a global sense of well-being.
Posted Nov 8, 2022