A 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.