Last week, an article that was actually published nearly a month ago on Chatelaine.com 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
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.