Are the arts trading in happiness? If so, what kind?

happiest place on earthA couple weeks ago I wrote a post on changing definitions of success in which I, essentially, asked, Can we change them? And do we really want to? In a thoughtful comment to the post (well worth reading in full) a veteran policy advocate, Margy Waller at Topos Partnership (who worked with ArtsWave in Cincinnati on The Arts Ripple Effect) floated the possibility of happiness among citizens as a measure of our success. She wrote:

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, … redefined the measure of success for his city:

“If we in the Third World measure our success or failure as a society in terms of income, we would have to classify ourselves as losers until the end of time. With our limited resources, we have to invent other ways to measure success.”

Instead of GDP or rates of poverty, he focused on a kind of equality of quality of life ~ seeking to create a city of joyfulness for everyone, saying:

“Economics, urban planning, ecology are only the means. Happiness is the goal.”

Suppose we did the same in the arts? Instead of the dollars and cents of economic impact, or the old butt in seats case — what if we focus on happiness?

Margy quite rightly notes that happiness is an area of “serious” economic and sociological research and she provides links to several interesting studies and projects, including the Mappiness Project out of the London School of Economics (previously discussed in a post by Clay Lord), which found that 4 of the top 6 happiness-producing activities for participants were arts activities: theatre/dance/concert, singing/performing, exhibition/museum/library, and hobbies/arts/crafts.

Coincidentally, the day I wrote my post on success I was sent a link to an article in the Atlantic, There’s More to Life than Being Happy, which distinguishes between a “happy” life and a “meaningful” one. I was drawn into the piece because it opens with a discussion of a book I have read many times, Man’s Search for Meaning, by holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl. For those who are not familiar with the book, it is Frankl’s analysis and reflection on why some were able to endure the camps psychologically and others were not. His conclusion: meaning matters and those that were able to withstand the horrors had some purpose for which to live.

The Atlantic article cites the following passage from Frankl’s classic text:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Having a purpose is powerful. I suspect it is one reason why nonprofits are often so resilient in the face of life-threatening problems.

The author of the Atlantic article makes the point that the book’s “ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning.” The article goes on to site recent research that examines the differences between leading a “happy” life and a “meaningful” one, which found:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.

Meaning, by comparison, is associated with using your talents to “serve something greater than yourself.” It’s about transcending both the “self” and “the present moment.”

Which leads me to my question: If, as Margy Waller and others have suggested, our goal were happiness—if our aim were to increase the overall level of happiness of a community, or to contribute to the “happiness economy”—what kind of happiness are we talking about in the nonprofit arts?

When I was in primary school there was a certain kind of happiness that would arise if the nuns announced a Congé* and classes were canceled and replaced by a play day. There was another kind of happiness that ensued when I understood the various proofs of the Pythagorean theorem and the gas laws.

What’s the happiness exchange that we’re striving for? We deliver experiences (a play, an exhibit, a concert, an opera) that make people happy (because they are out and about and liberated from mundane chores and cares), and they deliver money to us in the form of ticket sales or contributions and make us happy in return (because we get to stay in business another day)?

Happiness without (much) meaningful exchange?

That’s good – but is it enough?

Disneyland, so it claims, is the “happiest place on earth”. Like Disneyland, one could argue that we are trading  in what are called experience goods (indeed, we’ve spent the better part of the past 20 years improving our  methods in the arts for creating total experiences for patrons). But I would argue that, unlike Disneyland, the arts don’t exist merely to give people a relatively shallow and fleeting high—network television can do that, Broadway revivals can do that, happy hour can do that. (It would seem to be a primary purpose of happy hour.)

And I do not mean to diminish the joy of such experiences—all of which I partake in with some regularity.

But perhaps if we are trying to deliver “mere happiness” we are selling the arts short. I notice that in early mission statements of resident theaters in the US (the subject of my research) the phrase “entertain and enlighten” is sometimes used. It’s good to do both; and I sometimes wonder if, over the years, we have let ourselves off the hook for the second “e”. Many mission statements seem to talk about “delivering artistic experiences” with little specificity as to the purpose of those experiences beyond entertainment.

Perhaps the rewards to society that come with striving to help people find something more meaningful should be our goal (even if many people may be coming to us looking merely for a play day). If so, we need to think about how we measure (account for) not only a happiness that derives from a stimulating evening out on the town, but a deeper happiness that derives from … meaning making … or better understanding oneself, others, and the world we share … or feeling life has great worth or value, etc.

And yes, one might reasonably expect that doing so should deliver something back to us beyond merely another day in business: relevance–what I like to think of as meaningful existence.

* Congé is a day celebrated in Sacred Heart schools that comes as a surprise to students and faculty. It signals a day that academics are put aside and the fun begins.

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  1. Clay Lord says

    It seems to me that happiness is another crucial way to talk about measuring transformation and impact, in that it is attempting to get at the true nature and goal of what we do, and also in that it is difficult to measure, subjective, and the subject of much scrutiny and some ridicule in parts of the fields in which it plays. That said, in happiness economics, they have determined to look happiness–satisfaction with life–as a concrete indicator and harbinger of success. This is because happy people are more likely to participate in society, they’re more likely to participate in meaningful exchange, and they’re more likely to, you know, participate in the marketplace (which is to say buy things). What is important, I think, is to keep from turning this idea of measuring happiness into some sort of self-satisfaction indicator, by which I mean turning it inwardly and saying that we are going to measure how happy we are in this field. We do a lot of inward looking. Where Disney succeeded, as you say, was in creating an atmosphere where the experience is so relatively seamless and our time there as tourists so fulfilled that by and large people don’t remember the hours of waiting in lines, the screaming kids, the idiotic double strollers, etc. On my last visit to Disney with my daughter, who is 2, we rode 13 rides in something like 8 hours, a total of perhaps 45 minutes of riding time, and we considered it a great success. At the end, Cici got an ice cream and I got a variety of fantastic photos and memories. That’s the power of happiness, I think, to be able to overwhelm the inevitable bumps and create transformative memories.

  2. says

    Life with meaning brings happiness. The arts give meaning to life, and therefore bring happiness.

    The central component of Frankl’s definition of “purpose” is compassion, a desire to serve others and alleviate suffering. (This desire to serve others helped give him the will to survive Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Türkenheim.)

    These concepts of meaning can also function as aesthetic criteria. The principle intention of many performers is first and foremost to present themselves. Such artists think more about themselves on stage than the people, music, theater, or dance they are presenting. Their art is egoistic. They do not serve art, art serves them.

    The other kind of artist, the ones that subserviate themselves to their art, create more meaning. They stand for higher purposes than the ego can contain. Maria Callas and Arthur Rubenstein are examples. Their music is essentially an expression of love for others, an expression of compassion for the human condition. By transcending their own egos they help lift us beyond ours. In some ways, truly great artists transcend even the art forms within which they work. Meaning is created that not even art can contain. People who combine artistic skill and transcendent spirituality in this manner are rare.

    These principles also apply to arts organizations. Their basic orientation can be can be to serve themselves or to serve others (though of course there always has to be a little of both.) By this definition, self-interest dominates commercial art forms like Hollywood, while compassion for others dominates non-profits. The primary goal of a for-profit organization is to take, while for the non-profit it is to give. A non-profit is thus more inclined to serve others rather than itself. Self-transcendence is by nature self-negating, and yet it is self-negation in the interest of others that brings happiness.

    This explains why non-profit arts generally give a more profound kind of happiness than commercial art forms. They strive for a deeper sense of meaning and a desire for transcendence which they extend to others. Deeper meaning equals more happiness and a greater well-being for both the individual and society.

    • Aaron Andersen says

      You make some excellent points, but I have to say that I’ve met lots and lots of people who perform in nonprofits who are mostly interested in serving themselves and winning accolades and being better than their peers to a superlative and minute degree that only their peers can even notice.

      In many many many cases, as we know, performers couldn’t make a living wage if they were completely dependent on ticket prices. A nonprofit structure allows somebody other than the customer to subsidize the performer. This can serve both the selfless and the insanely selfish.

  3. says


    I was raised to appreciate the joy & surprise of discovery. It’s one reason why I love James Burke’s “Connections” series. There’s a simple joy in solving a mystery novel that subconsciously trains us to observe & connect things in the real world (if we let it), and a deeper joy in making those real-life connections. One doesn’t need a science degree to enjoy Burke, but he’s a gateway drug to a greater interest in science–he plays well to all audiences. In some ways, he informs the way I see the world & write about it.

    I could babble on–there’s much to think about here…

  4. says

    We have the innate ability to sense when something is special (as in Ellen Dissanayake’s concept of ‘making special’) and that sensing of the special makes us happy. But society as a whole doesn’t ordinarily have the ability to cause or make something special to happen. More often than not you end up with Disneyland Kitsch rather than authentic experiences. That is where the Arts come in. The Arts lead people to happiness.
    If we want more happiness lets create a better environment for artists to create that happiness.

  5. says

    Love it! I said it before and I’ll say it again: the progression of value from any agency (let’s use the arts for now) evolves from delivering services, to staging experiences to guiding transformations. When arts guide the transformation of a society, they are at the pinnacle of their value. Happiness should be the goal of any societal transformation.

  6. says

    Arthur C Brooks is a former professional musician who now runs AEI, American Enterprise Institute.
    He wrote a best-selling book Gross National Happiness.–/dp/0465002781/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378472077&sr=8-1&keywords=Arthur+Brooks+gross
    It’s implications for high-arts in particular are huge.
    The President of Lincoln Center references this book in his own.

    If only the arts grasped that happiness was first and foremost…..

  7. Classicsax says

    I appreciate how you identified different types of happiness when talk about anything, including the arts. I am a performing musicians, and I find that there are two types of happiness in a performance, the happiness of giving someone an experience, and the happiness of taking away an experience as the listener. When i listen to a great concert, i lose track of time, and i become encapsulated by what i am hearing. There is a connection between me and the performers, and i can clearly see their personality, their struggles, etc. When I perform, i try to be that transparent, and give the audience a glimpse into who i am. Like many of the comments have stated already, there is an exchange of happiness that goes on throughout the entire process. There are two books that i can recommend that i believe really hit on this topic. The first is called Cultural Democracy by James Graves, and the 2nd is The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Harlberstam. I highly recommend both these books. Thank you for posting about redefining happiness and success. Its so easy to define success as your income, and if we participate in the arts, we have to find a different definition.


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