n.4 • HOW CAN ART HELP US TO BECOME HAPPIER?
“We have our arts so we don’t die from the truth” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Does art really wash from the soul the dust of everyday life as Pablo Picasso suggested?
Does art really console those who are broken by life and prove Van Gogh saying right?
Or do we have our arts so we don’t die from the truth like Nietzsche once said, an idea which was then made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing?
Nietzsche explains in Art and Life that affirming life means coming to see it as beautiful. Seeing life as beautiful doesn’t erase the psychological obstacles to living life, and art serves “between as comforting deception and as a medium for a joyous confrontation with terrible truth”.
Art, for Nietzsche, becomes a life-enhancing quality because it remains faithful to earth while re-enacting experience of imagination, while aesthetics helps to create humans’ eternal joy.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel stated: “If we are in a general way permitted to regard human activity in the realm of the beautiful as a liberation of the soul, as a release from constraint and restriction, in short to consider that art does actually alleviate the most overpowering and tragic catastrophes by means of the creations it offers to our contemplation and enjoyment, it is the art of music which conducts us to the final summit of that ascent to freedom.”
Scientific evidence also suggests that creating art may elevate one’s mood, enhance one’s problem-solving ability and increase open-mindedness. Two factors in happiness that enhanced human life for thousands of years were able to be realised via the arts. One is the capacity to find joy in creativity through the pleasure of invention and exploration. This capacity is based on evolutionary biology to ensure survival of individuals and communities through innovation. The other is the ability to gain pleasure and relaxation from creating useful yet aesthetic objects; this is a form of rejuvenation that is not only practical, but also health-enhancing.
There is a growing body of research that states that art can make people happier, whether they are creating their own art or just enjoying it. In 1996, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Capturing Creativity” by Robert Epstein which stated that “greater creativity breeds greater happiness. The creative process is itself a source of joy for most people. And with new creative powers we're also better able to solve the little problems that beset us daily."
Another more recent piece of research from Semir Zeki at the University of London, who specialises in neuro-aesthetics, found that seeing art increases dopamine levels and has an almost immediate activity in the brain’s frontal cortex, resulting in feelings of pleasure similar to those felt when experiencing romantic love.
A leading international expert in the "healing arts" fields of art therapy, Dr Cathy Malchiodi writes in Psychology Today in 2011 that she had the opportunity to hear what clients of all ages consistently say during art therapy sessions about intersection of art and happiness.
“Even when expressing what are obviously painful experiences and memories through art, people invariably report that art making is a source of joy for them despite what their art communicates. They report that they find comfort in art's ability to take them outside their personal struggles and refocus their attention to positive sensations of exploration, relaxation and stimulating challenges. There also is pride in mastery of new skills and in discovery of previously unrealised abilities. But most of all, there is "client consensus" that art making holds the possibility to transform that which is painful into something eventually positive. To me, that is the ultimate testimony that art and happiness are inevitably intertwined.”
School of Life founder and philosopher Alain de Botton describes art as a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.
For example, Yayoi Kusama is known to fight mental illness through her art. She says “I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
Scientific studies have found that if people are suffering in various ways, it helps if they draw, paint or sculpt objects from clay. In an article entitled The Connection Between Art, Healing and Public Health, Heather L. Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel declare that "art helps people express experiences that are too difficult to put into words, such as a diagnosis of cancer”. Further, they believe that expressing oneself through art could help one to retain or construct a positive sense of self.
According to Dr Shelly Carson from Harvard University, art “increases positive mood, broadens attention and allows us to see more possible solutions to creative problems.”
Happiness and creativity go hand in hand
However, you don’t have to be artistically creative in order to be able to benefit from the positive side of art. Even if you don’t make your own art, just engaging with art or any other creative activities could also help.
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul”, declared Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and he seems to be absolutely right. ‘Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, an article published in February 2019, mentions a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and reports that there is a correlation between creative expression and happiness.
The study found that participants felt happier when they were engaged in creative activities. Creative could mean anything from cooking to writing a diary and from playing music to dancing or drawing, and these activities don’t necessarily need to be artistic or garner marketable success.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of A Man Without a Country, wrote that “Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
So, if research suggests creative people are happier, and most artists declare their wisdom and experience in favour of art making life more beautiful, we should clearly engage with art and creative activities more. In fact, don’t worry, be artsy!
What about post-truth? The subject of the next chapter is the Venice Biennale and its latest exhibition ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ and the role played by the arts in society.
Do you find your mood improves when you're being creative?
Share your thoughts in the comments below