What Arts Can Tell Us About Happiness By David Francis

When we look at the lives of kids – how they stumble things at home and ask unimaginable questions, how they run skilfully and destroy appliance just so they could see what’s inside – we see in them nature’s greatest gift and art. Pablo Picasso was right when he said that, “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Refreshingly, in many cities of the world, in many books, and in many minds, there is an underlying consciousness of the arts. When we stare at the marvels of the Sistine chapel in Rome, the sculptors of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the music of Bach, Handel, and Schubert, the painted Hall of the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, London, the Palaces and architecture of the city of France, as well as the sublime drama of Corneille and Racine, one cannot but smile in astonishment.

Kenneth Clark, in his book titled, “Civilization,” (NY: 1969, pg. 221), had captured this succinctly, when he wrote that: “For over a century the disorderly aftermath of the Reformation, followed by the dreary, interminable horrors of the Thirty Years War, had kept the Germans from playing a part in the history of civilisation. Then peace, stability, the natural strength of the land, and a peculiar social organisation, allowed them to add to the sum of European experience two shining achievements, one in music, the other in architecture. In a period when poetry was almost dead, when the visual arts were little more than a shadow of what they had been, when the emotional life seemed almost to have dried up, music expressed the most serious thoughts and intuitions of the time, just as painting had done in the early sixteenth century.” This is what many historians would call the rebirth of arts during the renaissance and baroque period.


Are Artists Happy?


A study led by researchers at the University of Zurich in Germany, under the leadership of Bruno Frey, analyzed an extensive amount of data gathered from the British Household Panel, the Swiss Household Panel, and the European Value Survey. These surveys asked participants to list their jobs and then to rate their happiness with that position on a simple scale of 1 (“not happy”) to 10 (“incredibly happy”). Artists and other creative types typically rated their overall job satisfaction higher than those in more mundane fields. In the Zurich study, the average happiness rating in creative jobs rose to levels between 7.32 and 7.67, while the average for non-artistic jobs fell to 7.06. In a study Frey performed later at the University of Warwick, findings were consistent with the earlier research: The average for creatives climbed to 7.7, while non-creative job satisfaction dropped to 7.3.This study did in fact reveal that though many artistic people may not be happy, most are, definitely.

A look at the different careers in the arts would indeed convince us about the happiness levels of artists. Anna Ortiz, gave a list of incredible careers in the arts. She wrote about Art Directors, Producers, Broadcast News Analysts, University Arts, Drama, and Music teachers, Fashion Designers, Multimedia Artists, and Animators, Media and Communication Equipment Workers, Writers and Authors, Landscape Architects, and Technical Writers. One cannot but be amazed at how broad the field of arts could be. Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for the Arts, Entertainment, and Public Policy, confirmed this research with their own study, which involved 13,000 recent graduates from various arts-related programs. Overall, many of those surveyed, indicated that their chosen career made them “very happy.” Many respondents citing the primary reason for their job satisfaction included a host of factors: the autonomy derived from their self-employment status, the flexibility in their working hours, and the passion they held for their daily creative pursuits.

This is one reason why the study by neurobiologist and University College London professor Semir Zeki, becomes profoundly important. He had found out that, looking at a work of art can actually have the same psychological effect as the euphoric experience of romantic love. Professor Zeki showed 30-odd subjects a careful selection of artworks while he scanned their brains’ reactions to them. From classically ‘beautiful’ paintings like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, to contemplative works by Leonardo da Vinci and Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical triglyphs, Zeki found that the visual stimulation of looking at something the subject considered favorable, resulted in increased levels of dopamine (“a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers”), and heightened activity in the brain’s frontal cortex. In other words, looking at art triggered the same kind of activity in the brain’s pleasure center as the experience of being in love, and even recreational drug use. These thoughts alone can make the creator(s) of such art work(s) dance happily on the streets!


The Other Side of Happiness

It was first pointed out by the 19th-century British philosopher, Henry Sidqwick, that we can’t attain happiness by aiming at happiness. Sandip Roy, had beautifully wrote that, the hedonic paradox says happiness doesn’t come with the pursuit of happiness. That is, if you go out to do a thing because it will bring you happiness, it usually doesn’t bring you happiness. The pursuit of happiness goes in vain. So if you want to take up a piano, take it up because you would love to play it. The chances are far greater that it would make you happier. If it’s ever found that piano players are happier than the rest of us, then it would be because they want to play the piano for the sake of it.

In his book, Obliquity: Why our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly, economist John Kay quoted by Frank Martela, makes the case that many goals in life, business, politics and sports are not achieved with exclusive focus on the goal itself, but rather through focusing on something else. Happiness is clearly one of these goals. The more you value it, the more desperately you pursue it, the more it eludes you. So whether the art was crafted by a Leonardo da Vinci or a Bach or by sixteenth century German or French survivors of interminable horrors or by Adele or by contemporary jazz musicians, this is what it means when an artist says he or she is happy: first, the artist acknowledges that feeling that he or she belongs, and is contributing to the wider community. Second, the artist, instead of striving to be happy, rather strives to do those things (drawing, painting, dancing, singing, and many others) that are meaningful. Third, the artist understands that in making a meaningful contribution to the wider society, that way, he or she becomes inevitably happy.

These are the lessons from the arts!



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