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!

How to Choose the Work that Makes You Happiest.

From Walter Murch, an Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer:

“As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old…At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions about things, but you’re not old enough yet to be overly influenced by the crowd or by what other people are doing or what you think you ‘should’ be doing. If what you do later on ties into that reservoir in some way, then you are nurturing some essential part of yourself. It’s certainly been true in my case. I’m doing now, at fifty-eight, almost exactly what most excited me when I was eleven.

“But I went through a whole late-adolescent phase when I thought: Splicing sounds together can’t be a real occupation, maybe I should be a geologist or teach art history.”
— from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Be Happier: Kiss More, Hug More, Touch More.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

A few days ago, I posted about how watching the movie “Twilight” made me more determined to keep my resolutions to be tender and romantic. After I looked at my list, however, I realized that I’d never made a specific resolution to “Kiss more, hug more, touch more.” So I’ve added that to my ever-growing list of resolutions.

It’s easy to see that kissing, hugging, and touching would boost the tenderness in your romantic relationship. However, physical expressions of affection can strengthen all sorts of connections.

In her fascinating book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses a study in which students were assigned to two groups. One group was the control; one group was assigned to give or receive at least five hugs each day for a month – a front-to-front, non-sexual hug, with both arms of both participants involved, and with the aim of hugging as many different people as possible. The huggers were happier.

Another study showed that women who got hugs several times a day from their husbands had lower blood pressure than those who didn’t get hugged as often.

Interesting fact: to be most effective at optimizing the flow of the chemicals oxytocin and serotonin – which boost mood and promote bonding – hold a hug for at least six seconds.

Along with hugging, playful and affectionate touching makes you feel closer to the people important to you. And touch is important even with strangers — studies show that subliminal touching (touching so subtle that it’s not consciously perceived) dramatically increases a person’s sense of well-being and positive feelings toward you, the toucher. For example, research shows that when restaurant servers touch their customers, they increase their tips by more than 3 percent.

I haven’t come across any research that examines the effects of kissing, but I think it’s safe to venture that lots of kisses will make you happier.

Expressing affection (in whatever way you express it) makes a big difference in relationships. For instance, people are 47% more likely to feel close to family members who frequently express affection than to those who rarely do so.

But there’s another reason to express affection. One of my most important Personal Commandments is to Act the way I want to feel. We think we act because of the way we feel, but often, we feel because of the way we act. By acting in a loving way, you prompt loving feelings in yourself. It’s much harder to be angry or annoyed with someone when you’re kissing or hugging or touching.

Be careful, however, to keep those physical expressions of affection appropriate. During a radio interview after I posted about Happiness Myth #7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness, the host mentioned that he’d been walking been walking down the street when a guy announced, “Free hugs!” and gave him a big bear hug – a random act of kindness which did not result in happiness in that case. And the non-sexual nature of your full-frontal, two-armed hug might be misinterpreted, if you’re not careful.

Do you find that touching, hugging, and kissing boosts your happiness? Have you found any strategies to make sure you don’t forget this aspect of relationships?

Speaking of being more loving, over on the Facebook Page, a lot of people have posted about their strategies for keeping romance strong in a long relationship. Good ideas.

Super-fans, I’m waiting to get the email telling me that I can send you the link to the super-fabulous, soon-to-be-unveiled website, for pre-launch. I know I keep saying that, but I really am hoping that it will be TODAY! Or maybe Monday. Want to be a super-fan? Sign up here.

Happiness Quiz: How Well Do You Know Yourself?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day (or Quiz Day).
This Wednesday: Quiz – How well do you know yourself? It’s surprisingly difficult.

In doing my happiness project, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how hard it is to follow the first of my Personal Commandments, to “Be Gretchen.” Why is it so difficult just to accept my own nature?

Two of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood remind me to Be Gretchen: “Just because something is fun for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s fun for you – and vice versa” and “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.”

I’ve noticed that people often assume that everyone enjoys the same activities that they enjoy, because they believe those activities are inherently enjoyable. For example, when I commented on how well a friend had arranged some flowers, she explained, “I needed a part-time job during college, so of course I tried to get a job at a flower shop.”

“Why did you try to work at a flower shop?” I asked, puzzled.

“Well, everyone loves working with flowers,” she answered matter-of-factly.

Well, actually, nope. I would never try to get a job in a flower shop. In college, I always got temping jobs, because I could work on my own writing projects while looking productive. (Speaking of not recognizing your true nature, I missed this obvious clue that I wanted to be a writer.)

People also assume that they in fact do enjoy what they think they should enjoy – e.g., they enjoy going to the theater, because going to the theater is a fun thing to do. Nope! Not true. There are so many “fun” things that I don’t enjoy one bit, like skiing, drinking wine, going to concerts, eating pasta, shopping. And I love to do many things that other people dread doing – cleaning out closets, for example. I beg my friends to let me help them clean out their closets.

My friend Michael Melcher wrote an outstanding (and quite funny) book called The Creative Lawyer; he also has a terrific blog. The book is aimed at helping lawyers find more job satisfaction – whether within law or outside of law – but it’s also a valuable resource for anyone trying to understand himself or herself better.

Here’s a quiz, lightly adapted from The Creative Lawyer, to help you figure out your interests. Not what you wish interested you, but what actually interests you.

1. What part of the newspaper do you read first?

2. What are three books you’ve read in the past year?

3. As a child, what did you do in your free time?

4. What’s a goal that has been on your list for a few years?

5. What do you actually do with your free time? [This is perhaps the most helpful question. I finally switched careers from law to writing when it dawned on me that I was always writing books in my free time.]

6. What types of activities energize you?

7. What famous people intrigue you?

You need to pay close attention to yourself. The better you understand your true likes and dislikes, the better able you are to make decisions – in work and leisure – that will make you happy. It’s not possible to build a happy life, filled with enthusiasm and engagement, based on the way that you wish you were. For better or worse, we’re all stuck with ourselves.

As Thomas Merton noted in his diary, “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”

Have you found any good ways to understand yourself better?

Super-fans, if the date holds, you’ll get an email from me TOMORROW with the link to my fabulous new as-yet-unveiled website, so you can participate in the pre-launch! Keep your fingers crossed that tomorrow is the day. I can’t wait to see what people will do with the site.

If you’d like to join as a super-fan (to participate in the pre-launch or to volunteer to help in other ways), click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers.) Just write “super-fan” in the subject line.

Poll: Does Outer Order Contribute to Your Inner Calm?

One thing I’ve noticed in my study of happiness is that the positive-psychology literature on happiness largely ignores issues related to clutter and disorder, but pop culture is bursting with advice about mastering your stuff.

I’ve found that for myself, having an orderly, uncluttered environment greatly influences my sense of serenity — so I have resolutions like Make my bed, Follow the one-minute rule, etc.

I wonder whether this characteristic is widely shared. Is having a well-ordered desk, office, and home is important to your happiness – or not?

I sent out my April newsletter a few days ago, but only today did I notice that I’d passed the 20,000-subscriber mark. Zoikes! Thanks, everyone, for your enthusiasm. If you want to sign up, click here, or send me an email at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line.