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Member Highlight: Philip S. Morrison

Professor of Human Geography (Emeritus),  Victoria University of Wellington, Te Herenga Waka, New Zealand.

Describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies.

I have always been fascinated by and deeply concerned about social inequality – both internationally and within New Zealand where I’ve lived most of my life (I was born in London to parents of Shetland and New Zealand origin).  This concern for social division and inequity still drives the questions I ask and the contexts in which I seek answers.

I first sought intellectual leverage in the disciplines of economics, sociology and psychology but felt dissatisfied with the partiality of each.  Only in human geography could I embrace the holistic approach I felt was necessary - where all three disciplines as well as history could be drawn on in order to understand the social divisions we witness in particular places.  The radical humanism that prevailed in the teaching of geography at Victoria University of Wellington in the late 1960s was a particular stimulus.

The central problematic throughout my career has been the geography of inequality: why inequality should have a geography and how that geography contributes to successive rounds of inequality.  My early writing offers few clues as to these deeper drivers but they were there:  in my Masters (VUW), my PhD (University of Toronto) and my post-doc in regional science (University of Pennsylvania).   In all three apprenticeships I focused on housing, where inequality was manifest. However, the reasons for inequality lay elsewhere. I began by taking a labour economist’s perspective and searched for those factors which accounted for the uneven distribution of income and how it was reflected in housing and neighbourhood quality.   These investigations led me to ask why unemployment itself had a persistent geography which led in turn to the study of local labour markets (Urban Studies, 42, 12)  and the role of internal migration (Environment and Planning A, 43, 8).

Answers to questions of who gets what through the labour market and other institutions cannot be separated from where people live.  Income and wealth are clearly drivers but they operate within political and social constraints of place - both countries and settlements within countries.  The same turns out to be true of wellbeing.

Over the last decade or so we’ve been seen a gradual acceptance of the view that the subjective wellbeing that individuals express is a more direct measure of what people want out of life than objective measures such as income and wealth.  The arrival of the subjective meant I finally had a meaningful dependent variable whose geography I could address.  As a result, over the last decade and a half I have focused on the geography of happiness – on how and why people’s appraisal of their life varies so much from place to place.  Once wellbeing became measurable I was able to focus on local expressions of subjective wellbeing (Regional Studies, 54, 8) and I have argued for the potential of a wellbeing perspective within regional science (Handbook of Regional Science, 2014, 2020).

The mix of people who live in a place is an obvious starting point, but we also need to know what attracts them to particular locations, what retains them, how they  interact with those around them as well as the way the objective characteristics of place influence their individual and collective behaviour.  These questions drew my attention to the urban wellbeing paradox and why average levels of wellbeing fall in the largest metropolitan centres of many developed economies (World Happiness Report, 2020).   

Although I have enjoyed the journey to this point, I remain dissatisfied with the way scholars measure wellbeing.  While we give lip service to the fact that wellbeing combines positive and negative feelings, most of us have persisted in employing a single net measure, usually life satisfaction. As such we deny ourselves an opportunity to identify those different events and circumstances which cause pain on one hand (ill-being) and pleasure on the other (well-being).

In order to gain greater control over questions used to measure wellbeing I joined several university colleagues from a range of disciplines in setting up a multi-cohort, longitudinal study of first year students entering Victoria University in 2019, 2020 and 2021: The YOU Student Wellbeing Survey.    By including a wider range of well-being measures we’ve been able to gain a more comprehensive picture of student life including their variable reaction to exogenous shocks such as COVID-19.  Sub-samples of these cohorts are still being followed every six months as they work their way through their degree(s). Surveys in many different countries now report similar patterns of wellbeing among their university students. 

What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?

I began presenting my wellbeing work in Regional Studies conferences in Beijing (2012), Los Angeles (2013) and Piacenza (2015) and then at conferences run by the European Regional Science Association (ERSA) in Vienna, (2016), Groningen (2017), Cork (2018) and Lyon (2019).

At the same time, living far away from most wellbeing researchers was an incentive to bring people to wellbeing conferences in New Zealand. Therefore I joined colleagues Dan Weijers (Philosophy, University of Waikato) and Aaron Jarden (Applied Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne) in running a series of three International Conferences on Wellbeing and Public Policy.  The first we held in in Wellington, 2012, the second at Hamilton College, New York 2014.   The third was also held in Wellington, 2018, in collaboration with the New Zealand Treasury who were beginning to explore ways of placing wellbeing at the centre of public policy.  We discovered it was easy to attract the field’s top scholars to a country they had yet to visit and our Wellington guests included Paul Frijters, Andrew Clark, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Ed Diener as well as in-coming ISQOLS president, Martijn Burger.

What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QoL researchers?

My concern for place means I try and interpret the behaviour and dispositions of individuals in context.   Most of us spend our lives in one place, in one city. Not surprisingly, we develop deep attachments to those places we call home. The quality of social relations in that place and the characteristics of the managed physical environment have an important influence on our personal wellbeing. At the same time, the precise nature of those local influences and the mechanisms through which they work are not well understood. 

I’ve looked for answers in several places. For example my Master’s student Pascarn Dickinson and I recently sought reasons for the strong negative influence the unequal distributions of wellbeing were having on the average wellbeing of those living New Zealand urban communities (Social Indicators Research, 159).  A few years earlier PhD student Mikko Weckroth and I had asked whether the lower average wellbeing apparent in the Helsinki-Uusimaa region was due to a tendency of metropolitan capitals to attract those with extrinsic values, such power and achievement, which are negatively related to life satisfaction (Regional Studies, 52,3).

A further example is addressed in a chapter of the forthcoming Edward Elgar book being edited by Valeria Fedeli and Camila Lenzi (Spatial inequalities and wellbeing. A multidisciplinary perspective). There I explore the way (European) metropolitan residence amplifies the positive wellbeing of the tertiary - educated who typically enjoy a wider set of social contacts compared to the majority of the workforce whose metropolitan experience lowers wellbeing returns from fewer contacts.  

In yet another recent example in ‘Happy and Healthy Cities’, a special issue of Sustainability (13,20), I sought evidence for an expected negative effect of metropolitan residence on the lower quantiles of the wellbeing distribution in three European countries. 


How long have you been a member of ISQOLS? Why did you choose to be a member of ISQOLS?

I joined ISQOLS relatively recently and attended my first conference in Hong Kong in 2018 followed by Granada in 2019.  Then COVID-19 intervened and I was unable to travel to Rotterdam in 2020 or Vermont this year. Although I did make a point of presenting virtually, sitting in front of a computer screen is a far cry from actually being there and I am dearly looking forward to the next ISQOLS conference in Rotterdam in 2023.  

So far I have found ISQOLS to be a very well run forum for our critical but supportive evaluation of each other’s work. The annual conferences are a chance to meet the faces behind the papers and to meet new colleagues in a convivial and supportive environment.  

How has your involvement in ISQOLS impacted your career/research/advancement in your knowledge of QoL studies?

ISQOLS is deliberately multidisciplinary and as such offers great opportunities for taking on new perspectives and sometimes new topics.  For example Stephanié Rossouw and Talita Greyling took advantage of the magical atmosphere at the conference dinner beneath the Alhambra in Granada to invite me to join them in applying their new Twitter-based index of wellbeing. The time series work that ensued was an adventure and together we learned a great deal about how COVID-19 impacted New Zealand’s national wellbeing (Applied Research in Quality of Life, 17, 3).

Feel free to include any other important comments or things you'd like to share with the ISQOLS community.

The lessons I’ve learned from my reading in the field of happiness and quality of life over the last decade or so have influenced several decisions I’ve made in my personal life.  I’ve had cause to reflect on the temporary returns to the acquisition of material goods (no, we don’t need the latest Tesla), the centrality of the family (the joy of grandchildren),  the benefits of community engagement (swimming, cycling and singing together) and, above all, a greater awareness of the mental vulnerability of others.  All have been informed by my burgeoning library of papers and books on wellbeing, many of which have been authored by members of ISQOLS.



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