If You Aren’t As Happy as You Would Like To Be, Consume Art
And if you already consume it, consume more of it and produce it.
If you are unhappy or not as happy as you would like, consume and produce more art.
Citizens who consume art tend to be happier than those who don't. A study of more than 20,000 adults found those who went to the theater, concerts and read often reported more positive well-being. Researchers from the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar recruited 4,000 Croatians to test a similar hypothesis. They found a positive correlation between subjective well-being and time spent on leisure activities such as going to art exhibitions. Medical researcher Grossi also identified the link among Italians who consumed music, literature, and art.
Art can improve your subjective well-being by influencing how you feel. The Blind Side is a movie about Michael Oher, a homeless Afro-American kid who eventually becomes a first-round NFL draft pick. For non-American football watchers like me, let me explain. Drafts allow teams to recruit players throughout the rounds, as few as seven and as many as thirty. A team picking Michael in the first round meant they found him so valuable they couldn't risk losing him. This story is bound to elicit positive emotions in almost anyone because we can place ourselves in the fictional story. We can feel the protagonist's thankfulness, respect, and courage. "He deserved that," most will think.
There's a chance plays, movies, and artwork won't make you feel emotional easily. It's common among "cold" people, those who don't often bring their emotions to the forefront or who lack the vocabulary to voice the emotions they feel. As a "cold" person, I can tell you that art can still improve your well-being.
Art can make your brain simulate how you would act in complex situations you haven't lived without paying the cost of living them. In You Should Probably Watch More Netflix, I wrote:
"You don't know how you will react to discovering your partner cheats on you until it happens. And I can't think of anyone who would like to experience that to know what it feels like. Watching or reading a fictional story of someone dealing with a cheater is a better alternative.”
You open the space to think about how you would react to situations you might live in the future when you watch a fictional play, movie, or painting about those events. It is not guaranteed. But, often, the decision you come up with will have more benefits or fewer costs than the one you would have made without thinking.
Let's say being cold is not the problem, but not liking art, or at least the art forms you can access. Art will improve your well-being even then because it can raise your status. Galas, art shows, and operas often host prestigious people. People who are more likely to change your career or life in the least amount of time or know someone who can. One conversation is all you need to outweigh the annoyance of yawning. With time, you might develop a taste for art and squish every drop of benefit.
Sometimes, your social status won't change, but the group itself will improve your subjective well-being.
I'm part of a writing community called Foster. In 2023, twenty-five writers and I flew to Puerto Escondido for a four-day retreat. In it, I met people who fit the ideal of a friend I'd built over the years. My anxiety about meeting people like them was so pronounced that I spent five weeks in Mexico in 2022 because I felt I had more chances to meet them there. In close to 24 years of living, I hadn't found these people. So it does not sound irrational to believe it could've taken me more years if I hadn't participated in Foster. But I found them. And, thanks to that, I've been feeling more positive emotions than I've felt in months.
Now, if people who consume art are more likely to be happier, shouldn't most artists be happy? Or at least happier than the average population?
While I didn't find scientific data backing the idea that artists are unhappier, many artists I've met seem unhappier than others.
Of course, this could be an illusion.
My experience and conventional wisdom tell me artists tend to be more attuned to their emotions and less ashamed of sharing them than people in other fields. How they feel about themselves and the world inspires them to create. Without emotions, few ideas would come, if any. There would be nothing to express. So when artists create, for example, poignant artwork, it isn't because they are in despair. But because they have the emotional serenity to discuss these events without affecting their feelings.
If this is true, I can see how those who work as artists aren't unhappy, on average. But how the kind of people who want to become artists have inner challenges already and seek art to solve them. Their "negative" art is, thus, not proof of art affecting their well-being but of their need to express these emotions somewhere to heal. So the benefits of art are still there. Higher relaxation, reduced anxiety, and increased well-being. It's just that the average artist trying to enjoy them has gone through more than the average person.
What I can see as a cause of unhappiness, though, is artists' average incomes. Architecture, design, and production are artistic paths that lead to an above-average income. But dancers, entertainers, actors, photographers, and musicians earn less than other fields. Fine arts, art directors, and animators earn, on average, $50,505 annually. More than the US median of $48,305 but below the average in business-oriented creative fields such as marketing, branding, and creative direction.
As a result, many artists live in below-average rent, food, and safety conditions that affect their well-being. How "bad" these conditions can make them feel depends on how good or bad their social circle is doing. Studies have found that absolute income doesn't have a significant effect on life satisfaction. But relative income does. Suppose an artist earning $30,000 a year hangs out with others earning the same. In that case, he might not obsess over his below-average living conditions. But dissatisfaction will likely come if everyone around them makes $200,000 a year.
Those "sad" artists you meet, assuming they are "sad" and not just attuned to their emotions, might be because of their past and living conditions. Not because art is not improving their well-being.
So it's worth asking, how can you benefit from art?
The obvious answer is to "do" more art. Go to more museums, knit, and learn to play an instrument.
This is a valid suggestion, but there is a caveat. For art to bring the benefits we have described, you must be engaged in the activity. Quality of life researcher Alex Michalos found weekly time spent on any of sixty-six art-related activities didn't predict happiness. But how engaged people were in the activities did. You won't know if you will like a particular creative activity, though. So benefiting from art might be a matter of jumping between artistic activities until you find the one you like and then building a habit of doing it.
"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced," said Vincent van Gogh.
The most unfortunate thing that can happen is spending a few hours on an activity you don't like. The most pleasing is that you will have a method to be happy for the rest of your life.
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