Art and Happiness: New research indicates 4 out of 6 happiest activities are arts-related (!)

Last week, an article that was actually published nearly a month ago on passed through my Facebook feed four times in two days.  The article, titled “The three times people are happiest—you may be surprised,” rather vaguely discussed a research project out of the London School of Economics that was mapping happiness levels associated with various activities—and the results, per the article, indicated that, behind sex and exercise, the next most happiness-inducing activity was attending the theatre.

This landed with a big thud inside my head, as it sits so squarely next to a lot of the work we’re trying to do to understand the impacts, effects and benefits of the arts beyond the economic, so I did a little research and discovered that the project is called the Mappiness Project and it is the graduate work of an LSE researcher named George MacKerron.  And I emailed him, he emailed back, and we chatted briefly.

So here’s the shocker—the Chatelaine article, and the Marie Claire article it’s based on, left out potentially the most amazing part of MacKerron’s (very preliminary) results so far.  Of the top six most happiness-inducing activities, again after sex and exercise, the other four are all arts-related They are, in descending order:

1)      Intimacy/making love
2)      Sports/running/exercise
3)      Theatre/dance/concert
4)      Singing/performing
5)      Exhibition/museum/library
6)      Hobbies/arts/crafts

MacKerron’s research, which relies on an iPhone app that randomly dings at you twice a day and has you take a short survey on your happiness and alertness, has garnered three million data points from 45,000 users in the UK over the last 18 months.   And it’s important to point out that, of those 3 million responses, only 3,500 were in the theatre/dance/concert category (about .3%).  But, and this is important, those 3,500 people who responded during or immediately after that activity were demonstrably happier.  The way McKerron put it to me, “Someone at the theatre will average about 6 points happier than someone who isn’t.”  (It’s on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being completely unhappy and 100 being completely happy).  This, compared to someone having sex, who averages 12 points happier than someone who isn’t, and I see a new ad campaign.

MacKerron and his co-researcher/advisor, Susana Mouranto, are (at least for now) particularly looking at the impact of the environment around an individual on their happiness, and so as part of that they have attempted to control for confounding variables in an attempt to ensure that they’re actually measuring the happiness induced by the event of that moment, and not the general happiness level of the individual.  In this case, MacKerron is intrigued by the theatre result in part because theatre attendance requires advance directed action (i.e. you have to buy a ticket), so that tends to mean that he feels more comfortable extrapolating that they’re happier because they’re in the theatre, and not in the theatre because they’re happier.  He has more trouble with such conclusions in places like parks.

Survey responses that come in more than an hour after the solicitation are discounted in an effort to ensure that people are actually recounting their happiness levels as accurately as possible (and, at the same time, to be realistic about allowing a person to finish up (ahem) whatever activity they’re doing at the time).  And so, in this way, MacKerron’s work isn’t really about long term echoes of an experience—more instant gratification than long-term emotional health.  Which is in itself interesting.  And, while he didn’t have the demographic data in a useable form when he chatted with me, he does have demographics on the respondents as well as relatively-accurate GPS location tracking of where people were when they responded, which spark two ideas in my head: such research has the possibility of (1) helping us better understand if our work is differently-affecting different people and (2) allowing us to actually map of particular events (or organizations) are instigating higher happiness scores in general.

All in all, MacKerron’s work, which he’s also discussed in a TEDx talk, has a lot of potential to tell us more about what role the arts play in the emotional well-being of individuals—and I can’t wait for him to begin publishing his work, which is in process.

Across all types of theatre work (see (very preliminary) graph), our research into intrinsic impact indicates that captivation (i.e. getting lost in the work and losing track of time) and emotional resonance are particularly affecting impacts with theatre.

In this sense, then, perhaps another word for captivation (especially in context with sex and exercise) might be euphoria, which Webster’s dryly defines as “a feeling of well-being or elation,” and Wikipedia more colorfully defines as “a medically recognized mental and emotional condition in which a person experiences intense feelings of well-being, elation, happiness, ecstasy, excitement and joy.”

Six points happier.  Six points, I would argue, healthier.  That’s awesome data, and I can’t wait to see more.

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  1. says

    Clayton: Nobody is happier that me that this research is actually happening and that preliminary results are trending toward the positive for the arts. I remain concerned, however, about publicizing this kind of research (in a fashion magazine) without the contextualizing information needed to really interpret the results, the kind of information one would expect from econometric research regarding methodology, sample size, and so on. So, a big THANK YOU for providing some of that here. I wonder especially about the sampling strategy. Did you discuss that? Are the iPhone app users people who are pre-disposed to be arts consumers anyway (well-educated, economically advantaged, etc), and how are they controlling for that? Most important question of all: Perhaps we can all put our heads together about replicating this study in the US??? (What would it mean if attending a NASCAR race pops up in the top three with exercise and sex, both of which engender physiological changes (the release of endorphins) that we interpret as happiness?)

    • says

      I agree, Linda, the Marie Claire piece (and even more disappointing the New Yorker piece, even if it was only online) were bad journalism at their very worst – it took me one email and a Skype call to get some hard facts about the work. Yeesh.

      To your questions – Mappiness (the app) has had 45,000 users over it’s lifetime of about 18 months, and users tend to lose interest after about 6 months of reporting on average. They currently have about 1,000 active users. Users are asked to provide basic demographics, so presumably they can indeed get to things like racial, age, etc bias (and I expect that the data, when analyzed that way, will probably show that the 3,500 theatre data points out of the 3 million data point sample were (1) from a relatively small pool of people and (2) from a relatively homogenous group of people in the way we all would expect). I don’t get the impression they’ve really done that yet, but I know they do have a paper in prep on the more general findings, particularly as it relates to location, which is actually his main focus.

      When you sign up for the app, which is free, and which I did, you generally agree to the terms, and then answer questions about general happiness (I assume as a baseline), general health, asthma (?), gender, birth year, marital status, employment status, household make-up, income level, and how that income level has varied in the past 3 years. Interestingly, not race, not sexual orientation, and no particulars about profession, which I might consider potential blind spots, although perhaps moreso in the US than in England.

      I’m intrigued by the idea of getting this to work in the US, though I agree that it presupposes a certain group of people (those, if nothing else, who can afford an iPhone and know how to download an use an app). In a way, those presuppositions make the findings all the more intriguing, as that group (except for the affluence) is actually demographically off from our suppositions, or at least i would think – probably younger, more diverse, more plugged in, and less generally likely to be the ones who would attend the arts. But perhaps that’s an English thing.

      I’ve emailed George to see if he’d be willing to connect more about this…we’ll see. In the meantime, thanks for the comment, and I’d love further thoughts!

    • Mel says

      Hi everyone, I’m from London and came across this site as I’ve just started a social sciences degree and my first project has elements of this discussion within it.

      Can I just ask those who clearly have more experience and exposure to this industry – Why are fashion magazines so inappropriate for this type of information, and what to they seek to gain by using it..??

      Hope everyone has a great day.

  2. gregorylent says

    the common denominator?

    being absorbed.

    starting from that, and think about the self, and consciousness, and the mind .. you will most definitely end up at “spirituality” and finally begin to understand that word.



  3. says

    Thank you for this, Clayton. And thank you for the intelligent response to Linda’s intelligent question! Gregorylent has the right of it as well. I have Tweeted & FB’d this item and it is already being liked and shared. Thank you and keep it coming!

  4. says

    I happened across your post by chance, and have spent a very happy (!) 40 mins following up links to find out more about your intrinsic impact project. I’m intrigued by the five indices of impact, and am wondering by what process they were derived. (I also notice that the ‘spiritual value’ one seems to have been replaced by captivation somewhere along the line – I’d have thought both would have a useful place.)

    Anyway, your comments on euphoria reminded me of a formulation for types of happiness proposed in the book Mind Gym: Give me Time ( which sees three axes of meaning, pleasure and challenge in the form of a Venn diagram, and the place where all three overlap representing rapture. I’ve not found their material about this online to give you a link, but I blogged about it in the context of choral singing a couple of years ago:

    The thing that strikes me about the results of the LSE study is that the activities rising to the top are those which involve more than one dimension at once: pleasure and challenge, or emotional resonance and social bonding.

  5. says

    Well done Clayton for bringing this work to a wider audience. Most of us working in a creative industry do so because it is so rewarding – when I rehearse my team of actors for a forum theatre event the room is full of energy, and laughter and it is just simply the best time – add an audience to that and it’s amazing. Yep creative = happy!

  6. says

    Coincidentally, I’ve been reading a book called The Geography of Bliss, in which the author travels to purportedly happy places to discover their secret. He chooses they places based on sociological happiness research studies. I’m currently in the chapter on Iceland, where the author surmises that Iceland is happy because it accepts/forgives failure. Of the arts in Iceland, he says:

    “One result of this freewheeling attitude is that Icelandic artists produce a lot of crap. They’re the first to admit it. But crap plays an important role in the art world. It’s fertilizer. The crap allows the good stuff to grow. You can’t have one without the other. Now, to be sure, you don’t want to see crap framed at an art gallery, any more than you want to see a pound of fertilizer sitting in the produce section of the grocery store. But still, crap is important.”

    Makes me wonder how we create a climate of creation in which failure is in constant flux with optimism—kind of like Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, where “everybody’s got a plan” even though only a fraction of them can work out.


  7. says

    Thank you Clayton for this interesting information. I am personally convinced that there is a direct link between Art and happiness. I have seen it during all the networking events I am organizing as my company specializes in networking through Art and Culture. People open themselves in a deeper way after an inspiring artistic experience, a concert or a play and it has a direct impact on the other participants. My goal is to introduce more of these moments of happiness through Art into the business environment particularly in large firms where happiness seems to be a rare feeling. As far as I am concerned, Art became a vital element in my life.


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