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 kind 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 #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.

JacobCollinsbedI 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.”JacobCollinslandscape

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!

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Very intriguing question. I’m wondering if it comes down to, “never enough.” I find that those two words can sum up a lot. Are creative people unsettled because it keeps them searching? Great post!

  • SUCH an important question, Gretchen!
    I think artists in general are happier people — because they have an avenue of self-expression, and even in the midst of pain, there’s a way for artists to connect with themselves and others… and beauty. Also because artists, I believe, tend to see more possibility in the world, as every slice of life is an opportunity for inspiration, a potential spark for the next creative idea.
    I also think that when an artist is NOT happy, that unhappiness can run deep and strong — more so than non-artists. The place where an artists’ work comes from is deep… and the shadows there can be quite intense.
    Unfortunately, it’s the negative that gets most attention in our society, so the artists we know most about are the ones who had more troubled, “tortured,” and unhappy times in their life.
    I think our society does a huge disservice — to artists and non-artists — by propogating the stereotype of “starving, tortured artist.” I’m pretty sure there are more fulfilled, inspired, and deeply happy creatives out there than not.

  • I’m an artist. Rather than feel that I’m more creative if I feel happier, I’d say I’m happier when I am creative. Rather than say that artists have deeper negative emotions I’d say that artists have deeper and more insightful emotions, some negative and some positive.
    Finally, the notion that artists and other creatives are brooding and angry is a generalized and very old stereotype (often propagated by artists who think that’s how artists should act). Most of the artists I know are well-adjusted.
    I’m happy because I think being creative is one of the most empowering things one can do.