The Happiness Project

Are Artists Unhappier Than Non-Artists?

There’s a question in the subject of happiness that puzzles me. Are artistic folk—or people of other kinds of genius—less happy than other people, and if so, why?

On the one hand, studies suggest that people who are happier are more creative, more resilient, more engaged, and more persistent in the face of difficulty and frustration. This would suggest that happier people would tend to be better artists (or whatever) than less happy people.

On the other hand, as discussed in Daniel Nettle’s Happiness , studies suggest that creative and influential people in the arts and public life tend to be more “neurotic”—meaning that they’re inclined to have more frequent and deeper experiences of negative emotions like anger, guilt, sadness, and fear than less-neurotic people.

Certainly popular culture teaches that artists and geniuses tend to be tormented, brooding, angry, etc.

Which is true?

I’m not sure. I do believe that the association of unhappiness with great ability goes along with Happiness Myth NO. 1: Happy people are annoying and stupid . Because unhappiness is associated with discernment, sophistication, and depth, it seems right that artists and other extraordinary types would be less happy. Plus it seems cooler . What’s more, given that association, people who want to demonstrate their soulfulness or intellect may be choose to emphasize their negative emotions.

It’s also true that unhappy people tend to have more colorful lives than happy people, so their biographies are juicier, and we tend to know more about their lives.

I don’t know what’s true as a general matter, but I know that for myself, I’m more creative and productive when I’m happier. I’m more willing to take risks; to spend energy in ways that may not be directly useful; to shrug off criticism, rejection, failure, and scorn; to open myself to new experiences, ideas, and people.

As for art in particular: a deep love of art, whether creating it or appreciating it, does bring a kind of melancholy – the yearning for perfection, the desire to swallow it up, the despair of achieving your vision, the painful beauty of masterworks. But that melancholy is also set in a context of beauty, discernment, and joy.

I remember one afternoon a few years ago, when I needed to pick something up from a friend who is a brilliant artist. He has a painting school which meets in the first floor of his house, so when I stopped by to see him, I walked through a room full of students who were busily drawing a model, while music played and light poured in from a skylight. I walked back to my friend’s private studio, which looked exactly the way you’d imagine – cans full of paintbrushes, canvases stacked against the walls, odd casts and stretchers and other artistic apparatus lying around.

He was painting when I came in, and to my surprise, he could paint while we talked. (I can’t imagine being able to do work and talk at the same time – utterly impossible for me.) Anyway, as we were talking, he was working on a beautiful, beautiful painting.

He stopped for moment to step back and consider his handiwork, and I said to him, with more than a touch of envy in my voice, “Jacob, you are lucky .” I gestured broadly around the room.

“I know,” he nodded, and he sat back on his stool and smiled at me. “Yes, I know .”

Now I’m asking every artist I meet about this question. Are artists less happy? Are geniuses less happy? What do you think?

* I get a big kick out of the blog Living Oprah —a woman spent the year of 2008 “living her life completely according to the advice of Oprah Winfrey.” The year has run, and she’s working on a book right now, but she still posts. Hmmm…does her project remind you of anyone else’s? Just goes to show that everyone’s happiness project is different—I find every one fascinating.

* Excellent! A reader has started an online group for discussing reading related to happiness. If you’re interested, join up !