Art and happiness


Dear Artist,

In the recently published Against Happiness, popular writer Eric Wilson disparages our current love affair with putting on a happy face. With our “feel good” culture and the widespread use of happy drugs, everybody’s trying to be cheerful and there are no decent dollops of melancholy and sadness, he says. When this happens art becomes bland, unchallenging and redundant. Dr. Thomas Svolos of the department of Psychiatry at Creighton University School of Medicine thinks Wilson is right. “When you’re melancholy, you tend to step back and examine your life,” he says, “That kind of questioning is essential for creativity.”

What these guys are talking about is a redefinition of happiness, and I think they’re onto something. Life’s not about getting free of pain, but rather finding happiness through service to some process with links to a higher ideal. A state of thoughtful melancholy and sensitivity breeds an elevated creativity and a more profound happiness. Here are a few of my own keys:

Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape (1922) oil on canvas by Georgia O'Keeffee (1887-1986)

Lake George
(formerly Reflection Seascape), 1922
Oil on canvas
16 1/4  x 22 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Work alone and be your own motivator.
Take time for private wandering and nature’s gifts.
Dig around and explore purposefully.
Serve others as well as your own passions.
Look for potential in all things and all beings.
Face life’s deeper meanings squarely and truthfully.
Move through thoughtful understanding to pervasive action.
Know you are partner in a great brotherhood and sisterhood.
Accept sadness as part of the human condition.
Know that in the big picture you are not important, but what you make and do is.

Storm Cloud, Lake George, 1923 Oil on canvas 18 x 30 1/8 inches by Georgia O'Keeffe

Storm Cloud, Lake George, 1923
Oil on canvas
18 x 30 1/8 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe

Currently, 11 percent of American women and 5 percent of American men take antidepressants, the magazine Scientific American reported in February. A high percentage are prescribed ad hoc by family doctors without benefit of thorough analysis. Does anyone prescribe a host of golden daffodils, a mountain stream, or a robin’s nest on which to contemplate? Perhaps it’s too “do it yourself” and non-profit to be considered. But it seems to me that’s where happiness lies and dreams are made. Just try painting that nest. It’s a spiritual act, loaded with joy. “The world,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “is so full of a number of things, that I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

Best regards,


Lake George Reflection (circa 1921-1922) Oil on canvas 58 x 34 inches by Georgia O'Keeffe

Lake George Reflection (circa 1921-1922)
Oil on canvas
58 x 34 inches
by Georgia O’Keeffe

PS: “The overemphasis of drugs is a knee-jerk reaction that’s thrown our whole concept of happiness out of whack. Happiness is now seen as a lack of suffering as opposed to accomplishing important societal goals, like creating art.” (Thomas Svolos)

Esoterica: Much has been made of the connection between full blown clinical depression and creativity. We have Beethoven, van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sylvia Plath, and so many others. These are the extremes and have not much to do with the normal healthy understanding of the mystery of our existence and the daily trials of life. Garden variety melancholics also carry the torch of happiness.

This letter was originally published as “Art and happiness” on May 27, 2008.

O'Keeffe Lake GeorgeThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.” (Elizabeth Gilbert)



  1. The world IS full of wonderful things and I prescribe the same “Private Wandering and Nature’s Gifts” and to “look for potential in all things and all beings” – that’s a quest that never grows stale and though it may not bring immediate gratification, as we are so hoping, it does open the door to this ” Happiness” that invites creativity. Thank you for this gem of a letter including the Georgia O’Keefe Paintings – so much mood and happiness in them.
    Sara, I also remember your dad saying “Happiness is like painting; it’s practiced, tested, reworked, and mastered.” I had it in my notes.
    May we seek to have a Happy Day.

  2. “Serve others as well as your own passions.
    Look for potential in all things and all beings.
    Face life’s deeper meanings squarely and truthfully.”

    I love this! Wonderful letter thank you Sara, thank you Robert. As someone who tends to struggle with the ups and downs of the mind I take great satisfaction and reassurance from the beauty I find in every day things and people and I find great happiness in helping others and I’m frustrated when I’m constantly being told that I do too much! Sometimes drugs can be the answer and at other times simply being allowed to experience is enough. And sometimes that experience can be dark and that’s OK too.

  3. Thank you so much. I’ve found myself lately in a real funk, stressed by financial circumstances and family issues. My daily plan is to dig out of my self induced black hole and create, but my enthusiasm and desire seem to drown with a lack of energy to start when I know in my heart that if I did I would feel better. And, reading your email blog has confirmed that creativity is a process and knowing that my photography is my passion, and yet I need to channel that same passion into my jewelry designs.

  4. Luc Poitras (Montreal, Qc) on

    For me, happiness is a moving target. When I hit the target, I’m compelled by my personality to look for another one. I don’t always hit the target. I’m a striving being. It’s not always fun.

  5. “The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions — the little soon forgotten charities of a kiss or smile, a kind look,
    a heartfelt compliment, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering…and you find that you have excluded life itself.” C.S. Lewis

    • Sheri-Lee Langlois on

      Agreed on all of Robert’s keys but for the last one. In the big picture, I am as important as the butterfly whose wings move the air that I breathe. And what I make and do are a reflection of my self. Love the Georgia O’Keefe paintings and the whole jist of the article

  6. Just read this letter. Feeling much joy and both reflection anticipation at the same time. Thanks for the letter as well as thoughtful responses, “Know you are partner in a great brotherhood and sisterhood.”

  7. Thank you Sara! Beautiful & meaningful. I have had this quote on my fridge for years, and my life experiences have proven it true, to me.
    “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Happiness is within…”. Abe Lincoln.

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Featured Artist

I, Ramya Sadasivam, have been practicing art since 2006. I so love to portray Indian culture, customs, day to day chores of the hard-working laborers, happy village life and life of women. I love to capture the difference in values between the shadows and bright light and also I like to capture genuine emotion.