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:

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.

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,


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.


Confronting the demons
by Jill Brooks, Manitoba, Canada


watercolour painting
by Jill Brooks

I would agree that folks are bombarded today by instructions to stay positive, see the cup half full, and be grateful for what they have. These are instructions, in many cases, to disregard their true feelings. If one is even slightly depressed, this only increases feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Why are people discouraged from experiencing their feelings? Because their expression makes others uncomfortable. Better we should confront and talk about these demons and work towards dispelling them. Art does this. The attached painting of dying roses in their beauty was an attempt to work through feelings of loss and sadness.


Cognitive behavior therapy
by Elizabeth Barton, Athens, GA, USA


“Late Autumn Woods”
watercolour painting
by Elizabeth Barton

You ask does anyone prescribe a host of golden daffodils? Yes! Psychologists do! I was a practicing psychologist for many years before retiring and turning to art. Many psychologists treat depression with cognitive behavior therapy. A person is taught to focus on the daffodils more and less on the smilax (to continue the analogy!). Research shows that depressed people are much more aware of bad things than good — finding a balance works best. On to the daffodils!


Anti-depressants save lives
by Patricia Burson, Boston, MA, USA


“Dryad, Naiad”
original painting
by Patricia Burson

Your current Art and happiness, trivializing a serious disease, is naive and disturbing. The brain is an exquisitely complex and mysterious organ. Anyone who has had a loved one with mental illness can truly appreciate the life-giving miracle of drugs. These “happy drugs” not only save lives, but enable an individual to function, to live a “normal” life, (as does insulin for diabetes, drugs for epilepsy. etc) and occasionally experience some degree of joy.


Benefits of art therapy
by Dr. Robert Newport, Los Angeles, CA, USA


“South Pacific Suns No. 2”
acrylic painting
by Dr. Robert Newport

Clinical Depression, for which anti-depressant medication is prescribed, is not melancholy or sadness and it precludes the experience of sadness in relation to life’s struggles and losses. Whether or not it is best treated with medication or other modalities may be debatable, what is not debatable is that it must be treated. At one time, it was estimated that perhaps as many as twenty percent of Americans suffered from clinical depression at some time in their lives. Many factors may contribute to the genesis of this disease, and it may be argued that slowing down and smelling those daffodils would prevent much of it (as so might a number of cultural and attitudinal adjustments), but daffodils and mountain streams won’t cure it once it has begun. Art, however, might, and art therapy is a very powerful treatment modality, useful with both artists and non-artists alike. However, art therapy is effective when administered by an art therapist. Sadness and the melancholy that results from looking at the world and discovering our existential meaninglessness and helplessness, might very well be useful in an artist’s struggle with the creative process.


Art comes out of conflict
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic


“Fertility/ Abundance”
walnut and plum sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

Eighteen years ago I met my son in Finland and we did a month backpacking in the North Country. We were in a ‘vanity gallery’ in Copenhagen and this quite lovely lady, about half way between our ages was selling some absolutely wonderful rustic collages. She explained that when in her 20s she had married a much older fellow, an artist. In time he died and all he left were these collages which she was trying to turn into money. We talked about the Danish “art scene” and she agreed that it was pretty weak. Her comment was, “How do you make art in a society with no conflict?” To carry this to your piece, how do you make art with no inner conflict? How do you make art when there is no conflict in your society? Depression is unresolved inner conflict, often self-directed anger or aversion.

Further, I have been rereading Herbert Marcuse’s, Eros and Civilization. He makes the sharp comment about the great tragedy and loss of the modern world’s separation of thinking and pleasure. Thinking is now work therefore cannot be pleasure. Someone should go back and tell Newton, Halley and the boys that their late evening wine and speculation sessions were not pleasure. So since mental activity, art too, cannot be pleasure, what do we have left but some sort of drug or alcohol blur.


Medications for good health
by Sandra Village

With the discovery of the medications that we have today, we have the ability of improving our daily lives before we go into a deeper depression. What is needed is a more healthy attitude about medications. The medications help us see the roses so we can smell them. When you take the medications for mental change it will help you if you need it, if you take them and really don’t need them, they don’t hurt you. Far more people need to be medicated but are not because people have a negative attitude about the wonderful discovery of medications for good health. I am not psychotic nor did I have deep depression, but for me medication gives me a far superior quality of life than without them.


Appreciating the darker moods
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA


“The Real World”
oil painting
by Gregory Packard

I have the life I’ve chosen, and I love it! Even so, melancholy and depression are in my nature. I have found, ironically, that from these periods I can sometimes dig deeper into myself and manifest paintings of greater joy than if I were in a period of more even temperament. It’s almost as if the child inside of me is trying to get out, and in a way through painting he does. I do not like all that comes with my life’s darker moods, but I have come to appreciate them for what they can offer and am even grateful for the opportunity to give voice to a part of me that would otherwise be silenced.



Restoring chemical imbalances
by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA


“Under The Tree”
oil painting
by Philip Koch

Your point that an all-happiness-all-the-time goal would be unwise is well taken. I do want to point out that we can overdo this caution. Clinical depression unfortunately most often, like diabetes, has a biological origin. Anti-depressant drugs always fail if one expects them to be “happy drugs.” That is not how they work. What they can do is restore the chemical balances in the brain that allow a depressed person to feel normal again. They don’t become “happy.”

As you so often remind us, the core of the art spirit resides in the simple taking of pleasure in whatever surrounds us. That is impossible for a person suffering from depression. Probably anti-depressants are inappropriately prescribed some of the time. All that happens in that case is the recipient will feel no elevation of mood. Like you I am all for being open to experience and finding pleasure in what others may have overlooked. Let’s all have as artful an attitude towards life as we possibly can. But for a significant number of people, a genuinely artful attitude may include psychiatric medications.


Nature, art and a balanced solitude
by Carolyn McFann, Largo, FL, USA


“Study of Paphiopedilum and Phragmapedium Orchids”
pen drawing
by Carolyn McFann

There is a place for melancholy in producing art, provided the feeling doesn’t take over and make the person feel frozen. I have had major clinical depression my whole life, causing a chemical imbalance that makes happiness very hard to achieve. I’ve spent a fortune on therapists, anti-depressants and other things to help myself but in the end, doing my art, enjoying nature/animals and spending time alone to reflect are what make me the closest emotion to happy. A therapist once told me that many artists tend to have depression, and that our strong feelings are what contribute to the beauty of our artwork. I don’t know, but I have spent a lifetime with my art, and it has made life more enjoyable. At 44, I’m “happier” now than ever before, and the more relaxed I feel, the better my work tends to be. The worst time in my life was when I went against my natural tendencies, was surrounded by people in corporate jobs that did nothing for me, and had no time to myself. Time and experience has taught me to follow my inner feelings, and they have always led me back to nature, art and a balanced solitude. It’s better than any anti-depressant on the market, and works for me.


Leveling of the playing field
by Anonymous

I am probably among many who will take exception to your comments about depression. As someone who has tried repeatedly over the years to go off anti-depressants, I can tell you they are hardly “happy” pills. They simply allow one to function, often minimally. That’s it. No highs. No euphoria. Just a leveling of the playing field that without them, becomes an abyss. No one could love nature more than I always have but in the darkness that is clinical depression, even the beauty and spiritual and creative inspiration that is nature becomes one more exquisite torture of the soul. Don’t deride what you cannot understand. Depression is not romantic melancholia, it is living death.


12 steps to happiness
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


“Backyard Visitor”
watercolour and ink painting
by Theresa Bayer

I am happiest when:

1. I focus on having courage rather than being worried or doubtful or fearful.

2. I focus on what I want, and not on what I don’t want.

3. Instead of fretting about a problem, I turn it around and see what solutions there are, what can be learned from it, what hidden advantages there are, what can be changed, and what can be accepted. I say “can” instead of must, because I believe acceptance is a free choice.

4. I take every opportunity to appreciate beauty in life (I count my blessings).

5. I see the used paint tube as half full, rather than half empty.

6. I see my failed paintings as steppingstones to being a better artist.

7. I hold to my own artistic vision and am inspired by others, but not influenced.

8. I give sorrow its due, but not a drop more.

9. I try to put those painful things that I don’t understand into a broader perspective, remembering that it’s a mysterious universe.

10. I focus more on loving than on being loved.

11. I remember that happiness is an inside job; not the happy-face sticker over a bad situation, but looking for deeper meaning in every situation, because there is joy to be found in the oddest of places.

12. I focus on self-forgiveness, rather than on guilt. If I can forgive others, I can forgive myself, too.


Paintings for Pain Management Clinic
by Cindy Frostad, West Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Squeezed Tear” (left)
“Winged Peace” (right)
acrylic paintings
by Cindy Frostad

My very first ‘major’ piece of art was actually, and unintentionally, a release of an immense quantity of angst. To my utter horror, a very gentle person wanted to purchase it for her Pain Management Health Clinic. In shock, I turned her down with an ‘absolutely not!’ Then, she quietly put forth, ‘I was thinking that if you could do a painting that is the opposite of the first one, I could then show my patients that the first image represents where they are at the present and the second painting represents a place where they want to get to. It was brilliant of her, creative, full of insight and completely humbling with her compassionate vision. The two paintings were installed in a huge stairwell with the angst one facing clients on their way up and the calming one in view on their way out. I would never have imagined that my paintings would be used for the benefit of others.


No room for variation
by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK


“Mystery Of Venice”
oil paintings
by Richard F Barber

I have been pondering as to why galleries expect their artist to stick to one subject; I have never, and will never confine myself to one subject. As an artist I feel that it is my right to paint whatever I choose to, in which ever style I choose to, with no barriers set up by galleries or the like. I see it as my God-given right to have that unshackled freedom. If I choose to do a surrealist painting, a loose landscape, or a tight photo real portrait, a seascape, a figurative or nude painting, then the gallery should accept my variation of artwork without question, for it is the person that buys the artwork that should have the choice as to which they wish to purchase, not the gallery. They may well like your artwork but not that particular subject, the same as I like certain works of art done by the old Masters, but not all of their work.

An Australian artist friend of mine painted a seascape that had no sky, it was a beautiful painting with lots of movement and you could feel yourself there, but the gallery said: “No Sky, No Sale,” so it was rejected. They never gave it a chance.

(RG note) Thanks, Richard. While boorish in his remark, that gallerist may have rejected the work for other reasons. Still, it’s true, except for the very well known artists, most gallery owners want to keep the artists working within a narrow genre. For the expansionist, experimental artists, this is frustrating to say the least. From the gallery point of view, they often simply don’t want to confuse their customers. “This is the work of John Q. Bland. He paints pigeonholes.”


Copy for free?
by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA


“Maize and Mirth”
pastel painting
by Mary Aslin

I met a nice couple last summer at an art festival. They liked my work, but seemed primarily interested in receiving accolades and affirmation from me on the artistic gifts (sculpture) of the male half of the couple. He is, in my view, very talented in this area. He takes classes and receives high-profile commissions. Fast forward to this year. The couple sees one of my paintings, wants to buy it, but indicate that they can’t afford it. Male half of couple wants to COPY my painting and give this COPY as a gift to his wife. They come to my gallery opening and are very disappointed to learn that the painting has just sold. In fact, the woman who bought it has already taken it and left. I tell them that they can buy a print but it sometimes doesn’t have the same feeling or look as the original, even though it can be very good quality. They tell me that they have the image of my painting projected on their computer screen and are trying to copy it. “Could I give a plein air lesson for a fee?” they ask. “Sure,” I answer. We set up a time. Male half of couple cancels at the last minute. Today I get another call. He has finished COPYING my painting, but wife says it’s not right. Would I be willing to meet with him to assist him? There is no fee or payment mentioned. The implication is that I can meet with him for an hour and show him how to make it right… and Voila! A COPY of my painting… for free!! I’m aghast. Any insights would be much appreciated.

(RG note) Thanks, Mary. Good one. Something similar happened to me and I was able to nip it in the bud. I said, “I allow students and young people to copy my work for educational purposes only when I invite them, which is frequently, but I do not allow mature artists to save themselves some cash or build their bank accounts by doing so. If they ever did I would take them to court.” Even though the guy was a certified dough-head and well-known cheapskate he thought better of his bright idea. You need to tell this couple where to get off right now.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Art and Happiness



From: Rick Rotante — May 27, 2008

True “Happiness” is a myth. I know mystics and eastern cultures in particular strive to reach ultimate happiness. I don’t believe we know what makes us happy anymore. I’m not sure we had a grip on what made us happy in earlier times. Advertising was created to make us believe that the trappings of society would make us happy. Money would make us happy, marriage, children, sex, fast cars and drugs to numb us while we wait for happiness to knock on our door. Have these things and you will be happy. Use this sedative or downer or upper to bring the panacea you are looking for. Mind altering drugs have been with us longer than I can remember. Ancient societies have used cocaine, mushrooms, peyote, marijuana, and many other drugs long before we adopted them. Today the world is threatened with annihilations. The Twin towers showed us we too are vulnerable in America. Too many wars are happening all over the world, the bomb is now available to third world countries with little regard to their use and the consequence. America has risen to the top of the heap and is now the big boy on the block. Our politics and sorry way of doing business is eroding the fiber of America. We can and will be knocked from our perch sooner or later. If history has taught us anything, it is that all great societies come to an end eventually. I don’t have the answer but I do believe that music, art, dance, poetry brings a calming to humans. Creating it or viewing it raises our level of peace of mind. I’ve experienced it and I’ve seen it in others. I’ve seen the look when someone takes the time to listen to music, see a painting, dance in the streets.

Happiness is not one thing, certainly not same thing for everybody. Happiness is achieved when all the other emotions are experienced. It’s the yin yang approach. Balance in one’s life. Being open to all emotions and experiences. Giving back. To appreciate anything you have to experience its opposite. One never knows true happiness until one experiences true sadness. One doesn’t appreciate true having until one goes without. Being an artist in this life has been a bonus because it has caused me great pain and given me great personal rewards. I’m lucky to have others appreciate what I do and in creating art I connect to people.

From: Robin Maria Pedrero — May 27, 2008

Robert, I kept nodding my head in agreement as I read Art and Happiness. I am an advocate for being healthily drug free, pressing on towards more organic. There’s nothing like the REAL THING artificial food and artificial happiness just don’t cut it. Both authors for artists Julia Cameron and Janice Elsheimer recommend walking and being outdoors. Your keys are spot on. I am thankful that you have many subscribers and how you brighten our day!

From: Antonija — May 27, 2008

I think true happiness exists, but not as our society and cuture has defined it, lately. If you watch TV with all the psych drug ads — it seems as if we’re the nation of the stressed and depressed!

Well — stress is not such a bad thing. If it weren’t for stress, we’d still be living in caves and eating berries!! Stress is necessary for progress. And I agree about happiness: it is not the absence of stress, but the result of meaningful accomplishment. Even in schools — that little tidbit has been forgotten!

When faced with stress, upset and bad fortune, the human spirit can always find ways to cope without drugs or chemical means, if given a chance. Your keys a step in the absolute right direction. Well done!

From: Anonymous — May 27, 2008

Rick me think with “One never knows true happiness until one experiences true sadness”. I know that is the popular belief, but I trace my true happiness back to the times before the sadness and tragedies. All the unfortunate things that happened later took a bite out the ability to be happy. I wonder if that is the true meaning of the expulsion from Eden.

From: Cathy Harville — May 27, 2008

Greetings Robert,

I feel compelled to comment on “Art and Happiness”. I have bipolar disorder, a real and complicated brain illness, for which there is no cure. The mood swings can only be managed with lots of therapy, medications, education, and hard work. I have been in and out of hospitals and the emergency room many times.

Life is a daily struggle. I cannot hold a job. Sometimes, I can’t even take care of myself, or the simple tasks in life. Essentially, I cannot count on myself. While depressed, I can’t paint. While manic, I produce unpredictable messes of energy. Yet, the illness has helped me to see the world as precious, and each episode brings a new awareness and nuance to my work.

For some, depression is a temporary situational experience. For me, my illness is something I need to manage every day. The thing that makes it most difficult is that there are no outward signs that I have a chronic illness – unless you see me on a day where I look like a bag lady. Society has not accepted the idea that our brains can be ill, like any other organ. The brain is so mysterious, that the general population is not aware of brain illnesses. People fear what they do not understand.

People also feel helpless when faced with a suffering person. Most of us shy away from life’s miseries. To appear needy, or ill, is not very appealing to the masses. So, putting on that happy face is necessary for me to navigate in the real world. My support system – my family (those that understand), my close friends, my medical team, and others that share bipolar disorder – gets me through life, so I am able to be authentic – at least some of the time.

Everyone human being has challenges. We are not measured by our challenges, but how we react and deal with them. Despite my challenges, I am comfortable in my own skin. I love my life, although life may seem not to love me at times. I love to make art, and relish the productive times I have. I am a happy person, and thankful that I can deal productively with my challenges.

So now that I have rambled around, I guess I just want to point out that depression, and other brain illnesses are very, very real, and not to be taken lightly. And that person who seems happy all the time, may be courageously dealing with a challenge that may put others in a dark room for days. I applaud those that seek happiness, in spite of all the complications of our lives, and our bodies. I applaud those that get up in the morning, smiling, and looking forward to what the day may bring. I applaud these people, because I know how difficult it is at times.

May the force be with you,

Cathy Harville

From: Jim Cowan — May 28, 2008

The importance of greys has often been mentioned. Probably by yourself. Without the grey the brightest colours won’t sing like they could. Drug takers I imagine are on the lookout for perpetual highs and total avoidance of lows. A doomed venture.

I remember in my youth being attracted to girls/women who were going through the throes of a failing relationship. Inevitably,as soon as the ex became aware that their rejected other was surviving quite well with me they re-gained interest and took her back. This in turn led to me walking rain-lashed streets in Toronto… and writing the sweetest poetry.

From: Madeline — May 28, 2008

always like your columns, and this new one is no exception. Your “keys” to a happier existence are distilled wisdom. Thank you!

I would say, that after suffering through the death of a loved one and dealing with an unfortunate marriage for years, the only thing that made me want to get through my day was an anti-depressant. Even today, the art work I do which seems most successful to my teacher and others has a bit of melancholy, still. And, I am on a reduced dose of the anti-depressant, so I am getting better. But I still need the pill to want to exercise, call a friend, or go to the studio. Hopefully, as I continue these good activities, I will become well enough to go it on my own.

Just thought I would add a personal experience to your knowledge of anti-depressants. Thanks!

From: A. Goodwin — May 28, 2008

I work with hundreds of artists and not one of them has ever asked me: How do I become happy? In fact, happiness is never even mentioned — in 6 years not once! Depression isn’t mentioned either.

The rumblings from this corner of the world tend to be more pragmatic and less psychological or philosophical (unless it’s related to conceptually based works of art): How do I sell my work? How do I phase out my day job to do what I love? How do I balance the ‘rest of my life’ with making art? How do I stay engaged and not get discouraged? How do I get a hold on technology so the 21st century doesn’t pass me by? Is my work right for licensing?

I suspect the whole notion of happiness is ill defined, or thoughtlessly substituted for a range of other emotions that allow creative beings more nuance: engaged, consumed, ecstatic (when creative flow is in high gear), effort, joy, struggle, breakthrough, resistant, excited…what’s the latest, strong emotion you’ve experienced while creating?

From: JL Sellers — May 28, 2008

What you suggest is only for those who’ve chosen to over-amp their lives. A feel good culture exists because of the fact that people prefer to feel good. Lying to oneself is never a good idea, that plan will indeed fail. However, genuine searching for goodness and happiness is natural and healthy. Great art is natural and healthy.

From: Lorelle A. Miller — May 28, 2008

The best art is born from expression, be it bliss or despair.

I know as an artist that what I search for is truth. The challenge is to stay alive and allow feeling to survive. Not shut down. If an artist is numb how can he create in all honesty. If he has become

immune to the excitement or disappointment found throughout life, how can the work or the process be all it could be. Seeing honestly, feeling with sensitivity, taking the time to really identify with the subject at hand is the magic that moves the brush.

This comes with clarity not mood enhancers. Be real and stay alive while you paint. The honesty of your observations is what we are waiting for.

From: Roger Cummiskey — May 28, 2008

Live, Laugh and Love… All these are free and easy to pass on to others. Their supply will never run out so share love and laughter freely each and every day!

From: Ruth Phillips — May 28, 2008

I used to be very dubious about all those ‘happy’ Buddhists. Surely not, I thought. Where’s the suffering? You can’t just put it away in a drawer. They should all be in therapy, I thought. More and more, however, like you, I realize that art is a meditation and because of that a spiritual act, and that this act as a daily practice makes us ‘happy’. There is so much made of art as self expression, but I think of it as the opposite. Isn’t it about getting beyond the self by being ‘with’ an object or a piece of music? Then again, perhaps that was the original meaning of self expression? Getting rid of self?

The other day I was playing Bach for a friend’s memorial. Almost no-one was listening and I looped the suite a good four or five times. I took a different journey through it each time, observing it , if you like, from all angles. Each time I disappeared more, but my happiness increased.

As you say art does not make suffering go away but it takes us beyond it and joins us with our fellow men and the host of daffodils.

From: — May 28, 2008

I teach art at Sacramento City College and in my studio classes I always talk about how the act of doing art can connect the artist with whatever he or she is painting or drawing. It takes visual concentration, and, and as you visually connect, there is a heightened sense of perception and therefore the connection takes us back to our childhood when the world was fresh and full of wonders. Yeah, kind of corny but true, and that perception, that newness, that feeling of wonder can give the artist a feeling of calmness and peace! Why, when that happens, who the hell needs a pill!

From: Diana Botkin — May 28, 2008

The new antidepressants are a godsend to many. The meds may even be keeping some from suicide who would otherwise be desperately depressed. That’s good medicine in my book. To quote the old Dupont motto.. with tongue in cheek…”Better living through chemistry”.

From: Sigal Shapira Blaauw — May 28, 2008

I have always thought that being happy is totally overstressed in our society- “Put on a happy face”- why are we not allowed to cry ?

A parent in my son’s class complained his son cried in class one day. I said that sometimes crying is good. Our feelings are like colors, we need all of them to paint a painting.

From: Angela Treat Lyon — May 28, 2008

I think they’re right. It isn’t about getting happy, it’s about creating happiness with ourselves and who we are in whatever situation we find ourselves. I think that often that takes a lot more fortitude, strength and forgiveness than we are usually prepared for and we have to grow ourselves into it.

I believe that creating your reality has four elements: know what you want, know you can have it, take whatever action required to receive it (including clearing old non-supporting beliefs, habits and emotions), AND persist in the focusing, expecting, acting, navigating — until it does come.

From: Val Norberry — May 28, 2008

Were there no mountain peaks, there would be no valleys.

From: Jack Dickerson — May 28, 2008

Do it yourself is essential for any inner success in the world of art. Art is a total expression of emotions and feelings from the inner self. These expressions can cover the full gamut, from one extreme to the other. Although this may seem like BS to the majority of people… for whom art seems to be some magical talent… it is essentially the truth. There is truth in art. Once one understands that the subconscious does NOT lie, and cannot lie… And that it will reveal the truth about the inner self… Then one will understand the origins of artworks of all types. If you feel down, it will show up in subtle ways in your art… and visa versa. It is only when you let your art really and truly flow out… without manipulation… that it will reveal all the different types of emotions you feel. Robert, as you rightly said, the learning about putting on a happy face sometimes can lure people away from their problems, with the result that they may never solve them and ACTUALLY find the happiness that is true. I think creative people have the opportunity to evolve this kind of critical thinking and approach a more balanced life. What makes humans different from animals? Reason? Not completely. The answer always is: CREATIVITY. Nothing would evolve and change without creativity. A unique power which is worth uncovering in each of us.

From: Marilyn — May 28, 2008

I’m 52 and suffered with depression all my life. Within the last year, I was finally diagnosed properly/correctly with bipolar disorder. In my case, my medicine has given me “life” in more ways than one. I agree… doctors are quick to prescribe drugs. In my case I wish I’d found a “good” doctor with the right tools to effectively diagnose my symptoms earlier in my life. Thus I believe in the maxim of “one must endure the pain to enjoy the wealth of happiness and joy”

However… I very often align myself with the artists you’ve mentioned, ie. Mozart, Beethoven, O’Keefe, Michaelangelo and others. There is a very fine line between intelligence and craziness. I know… I walk the line every day.

I was forced to leave the corporate world behind because of my health. Once released from hospital… something within my being was triggered and one day without knowingly doing so I had painted a picture. Where the supplies came from I’ll never know. Once I had returned to a state of “awakeness” … only by the fact that I saw my name scribbled on the art piece did I realize I had created something. God removes one part of your being but perhaps replaces it with something much more wonderful.

More than half a life later, I am a survivor- albeit a very very “happy” survivor of mental health illness. I am a full time artist, living each “moment” of life… with a paint brush in hand. I am more happy now than I have ever been. I’ve seen the darkness thus I can now enjoy the light.

From: Claudio Ghirardo — May 28, 2008

I would have to greatly agree with you regarding melancholy as helpful in our lives. I have come to believe that all of our emotions as gifts that are helpful in various areas of our lives. The problem in our “feel good” society, talking and listening to friends and others, seems to be to get a quick fix solution; either to avoid feeling down or people just don’t seem to know how to handle feeling sad or melancholy so we use drugs or buy something, especially a self help book to get away from the melancholy. Maybe we need to let people know that art is one great way to work through the melancholy and see that it will all work out in the end.

From: Gregory Albright — May 28, 2008

Yes, it is true that the new antidepressants are probably over prescribed, and when used but then not followed up on to address the issues that led to the need in the first place, are abused. Taking a drug and not facing life issues in a thoughtful and circumscribed way leads to dependency. Some of these drugs are hell to give up, and at $3/day, there isn’t much in our pharmaceutical industry to encourage weaning. It isn’t even being recommended now.

On the other hand, true clinical depression is a debilitating disease, and as you know, two of the people you mentioned in your letter took their own lives. In the case where depression prevents healthy engagement with life, these drugs are a god-send, and responsible for saving lives (or at least returning lives to productive work) in many cases.

From: Marti Adrian — May 28, 2008

Oh Robert, how right you are. I very much loved your list of keys to happiness because they are my own. I have never believed in anti-depressants as a band-aide solution to the natural cycles of life’s ups and downs. Yes, there is a time and a place for them, but for the majority – if they could only know what it feels like to go out alone and commune with nature – what powerful medicine is found there, I think we would have a society that would be much less materialistic, and much more caring of the destruction of the beauty around us.

From: Kittie Beletic — May 28, 2008

I imagine we all have keys to happy moments, as well as to our more lasting joyful ones. Using the ready resources of self-expression to move through melancholy and its relatives rather than dull its ache with medication is a sure way to strengthen our life muscles. Feeling through and not wallowing or avoiding … talking about it using our poetry, our bodies or our expression of choice deepens our experience and surely makes better art.

From: Patricia Watkins — May 28, 2008

You know, I suspect that had Van Gogh had the advantage of having treatment for what probably was bi-polar condition, he would have created just as prolifically and have lived a long and healthy life as well. I know he would not have been so tortured to the end of his short life. We lost a wonderful talent too soon. I agree that antidepressants should not be given willy-nilly to just anyone, but I thank God we have them for those of us who truly need them. I would not be in the world today if I had not had the advantage of those same drugs after the death of my husband and daughter. I take antidepressants. I finished my education, I raised my two remaining children, I now teach visual art to middle school students, and I paint beautifully (if I do say so myself) in fact, much better than when I was so mentally depressed. When I was so depressed, most of my paintings ended up covered in black paint until the very meaning that I began with was obliterated. I could not understand why I seemed compelled to layer the black over everything until I came back to myself. Then I knew it was just a symptom of my complete and utter suicidal depression. I am diabetic; my antidepressants are just as needful for my life as the insulin I must take before every meal. Without either, I would not be here. Even a family doctor can understand suicidal depression. Most people do not seek help until they are at the end of their tether. Insurance makes it such that the family doctor is often all they can afford. Mental therapy is way too expensive for a teacher. My family doctor refilled my prescriptions until I needed something more, because I was slipping back into the worse of my symptoms. How annoyed I get at the Tom Cruises in this world who are so quick to say antidepressants are evil when they themselves have never suffered from severe depression. I suspect Van Gogh would have gone on to do bigger and better things had he had the advantage of treatment. I don’t think artistic talent or creativity is tied to depression. I think those of us who are depressive personalities create despite the mental illness. Without it we are free to truly express our talent without being tortured souls in the process.

From: Barb — May 28, 2008

I’m one of the 11% of women who take antidepressants, but I would be dead without them. Not sad, not disillusioned with the absence of joy, but dead. Your twice weekly letters allow me the challenge of looking to see the mountain stream. I may look, but sometimes the wonder is just not there, just the pain of being alive. I attribute this sometimes to my frustration in my lack of creativity, however, at the moment, I am fine, and I can find joy, thanks to my Dr. and medication, and some encouragement.

From: Joani Stotler — May 28, 2008

I think that the world is searching for a human sense of happiness through constant gratification. A higher sense of joy brings a different point of view and as in art, a totally different vantage point can change the way you see things.

From: Tinker Bachant — May 28, 2008

Your keys are precisely what I do or try to do and know or try to know. I’ve always thought it was just my way of coping with life. Good to know I’m not alone!

From: Sheilia Reindorf Lenga — May 28, 2008

I do believe that there is something in the makeup of artists, whether it is in the genes or their makeup that they do have something that makes them have mood swings. Artists see things differently than other people. They see things that no one else sees. I could be driving with a friend and I’d say, wow, did you see that deer at the edge of the road, and they hadn’t seen it at all. Or I would be walking in the woods and see a beautiful spider web with its captured prey that another person would have almost crushed with their boots. I was visiting in Mexico and my friend was walking ahead of me. She was in front of a store and I said wait a minute I want to take a picture and she started posing. I said “No, could you please move over”. She looked puzzled. I saw a reflection of the surrounding street and cathedral in a glass ball in the window that I wanted to take a photo of!

From: Patti Eldridge [] — May 28, 2008

One common thread that I’m hearing over and over among my artist friends is how being able to escape back into our art and for a brief moment forget our troubles has saved our lives and kept our slippery grip on our sanity! I just wonder; what do other people do? Maybe they’re the ones taking the happy pills.

From: Larry Moore — May 28, 2008

I figured this out a while back: Life is supposed to be hard not easy, we are supposed to struggle not glide through, to want and not to have. So when good things happen, even little ones, I am ever grateful. But nothing makes me happier than painting in a field and hearing some new bird song, it’s a natural Darvon.

From: Pam — May 28, 2008

Your writings usually speak to my heart and this one opened the hole that I had there and let sunshine in. I am constantly berated for not being “happy”, everyone tells me to “fake it until you make it”. I ask why? Isn’t faking it a sadder thing to do then just to accept the mood you are in for the moment? I find when I am sad that my image of things changes, takes a turn that I must work through, a learning session; Be it the colors I choose or the subjects I paint, there is a message in being sad.

From: Lisa Schaus — May 28, 2008

I heard an actor in an old western, say, “Happiness is a white man’s disease.”

From: Antoinette Ledzian — May 28, 2008

Bingo . . . your words filled in my card, diagonally. Thank you for the reminder that we don’t always need to feel good and that creativity can be sparked by melancholic moments, sans prescription drugs. After 3 weeks of fighting a bronchial infection and refusing doctor’s orders for prednisone, I’m healthier than ever. What does frighten me is the current addiction to popping powerful pills for a quick fix. What I’ve learned in the past 61 years is that patience, spending alone time with nature and using art to process life are secrets to the best medicine, freely available for healing our minds, bodies and souls. Now, back to work (play)!

From: K. M. — May 28, 2008

I feel the need to respond to this letter as I take some issue with it. I am one of the 11 % of women on anti-depressants and an artist. I have experienced a lifetime’s portfolio of sadness and melancholy and self-reflection. It is the meds that get me out of bed and into the studio able to lift my brush. Please realize that these are not “happy pills” that keep us from feeling anything but happy, these can be lifesaving antidotes to unbearable pain. I have plenty of sadness to draw from, don’t in the name of art, suggest I forsake my means to create it. Everyone’s story is different. Your letter’s brushstrokes are broad and may hit the mark for some but I believe there are many people like me who could only wish it were as easy as a walk in the park.

From: Courtenay James — May 28, 2008

Does your smug rejection of medication extend to all illnesses or just to those stemming from the mind? I could claim that your blood pressure medicine, your insulin, etc. limit your creativity. I think your painting would be much better if you suffered a little physical discomfort, because Degas suffered from high blood pressure and degenerative eyesight.

From: Marlene Lewis — May 28, 2008

Anti-depressants are not a panacea. But they are one more way of helping some people “want” to paint the nest. It’s hard to do it from bed.

From: Roberta Williams — May 28, 2008

I totally agree and amen! Often, we take time in sadness to seek healing or forgiveness or just reexamine our faith, where we wouldn’t do so otherwise. In that can come beautiful, if painful, expression. When we come through it, on the other side, we have hopefully become stronger and learned much.

From: Esther Koehler — May 28, 2008

A WONDERFUL letter. You hit the nail on the head.

From: Jane Morris — May 28, 2008

Enjoyed this letter. It seems that we are bombarded with info — tragedy around the world, told what we should be doing, speaking, eating, sharing, how to exercise, when to do this and that, etc, etc, etc. I have found it all too, too much. It’s like being on some roller coaster that just keeps moving faster and faster.

This winter I finally saw a little blink of light and have made some good changes. The views, and peacefulness of the new country area up at Whistler makes you realize it is time to smell the roses.

From: Carol Chapel — May 28, 2008

I had to smile at the Art and Happiness letter.

From: Dana Cooper — May 28, 2008

In my opinion, too many medications are unnecessarily prescribed, but when really needed, they give the individual the opportunity to enjoy “a host of golden daffodils, a mountain stream, or a robin’s nest on which to contemplate”.

From: Peggy Buchanan — May 28, 2008

Art is not only happiness, at the Vista del Monte Fitness & Aquatic Center in Santa Barbara, California it’s down right healthy! As an international speaker/instructor/trainer in the fitness industry for the past 30 years years, I found what I like to think has been my “higher purpose”; motivating people to take personal responsibility and put some kind of movement into their daily lives “just for the health of it”!

If I told you there was a drug that cost nothing, with relatively no side effects that would improve your blood pressure, overall strength and stamina, your mood, your sleep and overall body composition (less fat more lean) would you take it? Sounds like a no brainer, but judging by the current popularity of sedentary lifestyles and all the negative side effects that come with it, the answer is obviously no. I believe the reason few health professionals don’t prescribe the above drug nor contemplating daffodils, mountain streams or the bird’s nest is the same; too little profit margin and our culture’s preferred obsession with quick fixes and life in the lazy lane.

From: Laura Kaufman — May 28, 2008

I don’t, and have never taken anti-depressants, and believe as you that pain can be addressed by being “not afraid” to find alternative action to healing/curing what ails you!

From: Lori — May 28, 2008

I too believe that our culture demands an unreasonable level of happiness. Life happens and we are expected to push our momentary grief aside and smile. This is unreasonable and harmful. Happiness seems to be the goal and yet most of us seem to be so unhappy. Being sad is not the same as being depressed in my opinion. Often grief and sorrow that I feel moves me to see the world more clearly and as I result I do my best work. Depression tends to withdraw and turn on ourselves.

People try to classify events as good and bad and therefore overreact to them. Moments in time should not be judged like that. If things were good and bad, my lymphoma would be the worst thing that could happen and I would not have seen it as an opportunity to dig deeper. I certainly wasn’t happy about the situation but that doesn’t mean it was bad. Happiness is not as important as a sense of peace with all things. That should be our holy grail. As you say, a dose of golden daffodils can bring one to that place in an instant.

From: Sandy Wisecup — May 28, 2008

I have to disagree with one of your keys though. You say “Know that in the big picture you are not important, but what you make and do is. I believe we are each important because we each have a purpose in this life, in this world, in this time and place of history, and we are obligated and required to, yes, “do” what we were created to do.

I believe that the greatest cause of depression, pretense and escapism with drugs etc., is the feeling of lack of worth. We are each here for a purpose. To create art, help others, build buildings, grow food, raise children, love the unlovely, love the lovely, etc etc. I am important because I am created, because I am loved, because I have a personalized purpose for existing. And so are you. Believing that gives me motivation to create art. It is a big part of my purpose.

From: Jo Ann Hope-Smith — May 28, 2008

Thank you Robert this letter carries a most significant message

From: Joan Sinatra Hathaway — May 28, 2008

Thank you so much for this letter. It is just what I needed to hear today.

From: Hugo — May 28, 2008

Hm, very timely. Just this morning I wrote into my sketchbook “in acceptance of my brokeness”. I want to elevate that to “in celebration of my brokeness”. When I can accept my imperfection, my realization of hurt, my broken dreams – I am much more able to accept the people around me, and the messages that are everywhere. And somehow I think I am easier to be around. And I can be more free to produce work that I can allow to take on a life of its own, rather than having to direct it to the least minutae. When I can face what is broken about me, I become softer at the edges, my work becomes more meaningful and my message more acceptable/readable to others. And then there’s a real strange thing, by accepting my unhappiness it heals – and I become happy!

From: Kelly Walker — May 28, 2008

In my pain comes joy. I retrieve myself from that inner depths of despair and dust myself off and place myself in full view. What if this was it, the last supper, the last day? Shouldn’t I then continue to do the best I can. Everyone has a story to tell, a purpose to fulfill and a life to live. Possibly if I keep walking this path I am on, one day I might just be fortunate enough to live long enough to see the fruits of my labor.

From: Anonymous — May 28, 2008

I believe we as a nation are addicted to being numb! I think the antidepressants can make one numb, but not happy. Unconcerned, but not optimistic.

For most of my life, I have been jokingly called a manic-depressive by my friends. I have my ups and downs. In an enthusiastic mania, I will stay up all night and paint something I enjoy. In a depressive slow-down, I clean my studio, or sleep a lot. But I certainly appreciate the “up” days so much more when I contrast them with the “down” days. Life would be so bland without the ups and downs.

Now, as for my friends, they know they will just not hear from me when I am down. I sleep and keep to myself. And sometimes they don’t hear from me when I am up and happy if I have a project of the moment. It’s been suggested I might do better, be more level, on an antidepressant. Why on earth would I do that? I would miss my high energy, and lose much of my inspiration. I truly love the ups and downs. Why would I want a constant numb?

From: Kate Lehman Landishaw — May 28, 2008

Well, certainly in the United States it behooves what’s left of the economy to have people think happiness is a matter of buying the right thing(s), whether home decor or prescription drugs… only profit-inducing purchasing will keep the mainstream economy moguls happy, after all!

From: Ted — May 28, 2008

With all your work writing and reporting, when do you find time to paint?

From: Gina Rider — May 28, 2008

I really identified with this one.

From: Jennifer Kechemir — May 28, 2008

It seems that melancholy and artistic talent are soul mates, and just as there are many writers that are alcoholics and many geniuses that are bi-polar, it seems that gifts come with their own curses. For many years I did not do any artwork, mistakenly thinking if I got rid of the gift of talent I would also be rid of the curse of melancholy. But just the opposite is true and I was more melancholy not creating than when I did create. Now I see my creativity as my anti-depressant and know that if I don’t create, then the feelings I’m trying to express in my artwork only intensify and cause me pain if they are not released.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — May 28, 2008

When I immigrated to Canada in 1994, most of us immigrant professionals went through, what I call, “indoctrination” programs innocently called “job find clubs”. The one I took was full of eastern Europeans being taught to smile in all occasions and to hide their real emotions. I was fascinated by this but some of my colleagues went through hell realizing that they needed to turn their personalities inside out in order to blend in, or even to just get a job. Many did not succeed.

My theory is that this entire fake happiness has been introduced and promoted by the employment forces. Happy people are more productive than moody people and for that purpose it doesn’t really matter if the happiness is real or fake or drug induced. Things get done faster when they are not reexamined, and all that is expected from the workforce is to get things done. The employers that really encourage creativity are rare. Did you notice that artists are traditionally viewed as moody and willful, but as we caught up with marketing techniques and became more business-like, we are catching up with the “productivity” attitudes where unhappy is frowned upon.

From: Michael Epp — May 28, 2008

I read some years ago that Beethoven, who lived with chronic pain for some reason or other, refused to take laudanum [the pain medication of choice at that time]because it would cloud his mind and interfere with his musical composing. One more reason to consider him a hero.

Also, a few years back I went to a clinic, not having a physician of my own at the time, and complained of sleeplessness and depression, and the doctor whipped out his prescription pad. I was shocked. Needless to say I threw the prescription away.

From: Moncy Barbour — May 28, 2008

You seemed to have forgotten Pollock. I suppose that you did not have time for them all.

From: Karen Gillmore — May 28, 2008

I think a distinction needs to be made between “melancholy” and “full blown clinical depression”. I think from your PS you are aware of it, but it seems unclear, so I’d like to address that.

Depression is a serious disease which involves an upset of the delicate balance of brain chemistry, with physical damage to parts of the brain if left untreated. Melancholy and sadness are moods, which usually pass (if not, check for depression), and as such are indeed, in my own experience, fodder for creativity. However, the person with capital-D Depression, unless very unusual, is more likely to be hampered in creativity than to find it enhanced. Creative pursuits, while good therapy for many things, including mild depression, are very difficult when one is having difficulty even getting out of bed to face the day, and perhaps contemplating suicide.

From: L Thomas — May 28, 2008

I so very much enjoy your letters by email and thank you for the motivation that you instill in me by your kind and wise words. I do want to clarify some points though in your last one called Art and Happiness;

-Antidepressants do not make you happy. They make you feel normal and you still feel sad if you have reason to be. They are not a happy pill but let you feel in control of your own emotions.

-Let’s blame the widespread increase of the use of antidepressants on our society. Life is now fast paced and often out of control. Our demands as workers and therefore at home are out of control. We are pressured to perform.

-Unless you live in the woods with the calmness of nature around you, it is difficult to slow down and enjoy that robin’s egg even if we want to. Most of us have to wait until the kids are grown and we are retired to get that chance. Hopefully we have the resources to do so at that time.

-I think that art can still be a reflection of our state of mind- definitely of stress and anxiety. I am not sure if that is as nice to experience though- for painter or for viewer.

From: Angela Treat Lyon — May 28, 2008

I’ve studied compositions in painting and drawing for years in terms of psychological inner reflection, and have noticed something very intriguing: many artists fill the left side of their works with most of the detail, color and imagery of the everyday world, while the right side is often emptier, even unfinished, sometimes more abstract and even looser in line–especially the lower right corner. You can even see it in photographs.

From: Joan Pribanic — May 28, 2008

In this letter I think you have fallen into a trap of generalization. I agree that a “little melancholy” and soul-searching can be useful to an artist. However that “little melancholy” is not the same as depression, and no amount of advice such as “snap out of it” or “find a field of daffodils” is going to help. In fact, that sort of attitude is why so much stigma attaches to depression. For those of us who suffer bouts of depression, antidepressants are the key to allowing us to get out of bed and into our boots so that your otherwise sage advice can be taken and used. I suppose that such drugs are over-used, but please don’t assume that they always are.

From: Paul Azzopardi — May 28, 2008

Perhaps happiness signifies a state which is too “excited”, perhaps what we need seek is contentment, something more subdued than happiness? I learned that I am most contented when I least think about such things.

From: Jennifer Hendrickson — May 28, 2008

“The mystery of our existence” – that’s the phrase which for me holds the key to everything. It’s the big question on which all religions and philosophies are based, but from which they stray far. It’s a question to which there is no answer except recognition, awe, or call it worship if you like. Something to think about, celebrate and be inspired by every day.

From: Carmen Roa — May 28, 2008

I loved this article! I have periodic depression, as do several members of my family. No one (besides myself) in our family has been willing to step back from the alcohol ridden, caffeine fueled ‘superlife’ the media tries to convince us is normal. To simply sit by a pond, pet an animal, or spend time outdoors is depression-displacing. Even time with loving friends is therapeutic.

I made the life-changing move from Houston,TX to a small village in New Mexico 5 years ago, and I’ll never look back. Here, daydreaming, cloud-watching and art for its own sake is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I have never been more at peace, or less depressed.

From: Nikki Coulombe — May 28, 2008

It’s the counterproductive highs and lows that have helped me to value the fickle and fragile nature of creativity. I really appreciate the ability to do anything at all. It’s a strange thing, but in order to go above and beyond just talent, if we are not thrown into the unknown by illness or circumstance, I think we still need to go there voluntarily sometimes. Leave your comfort zone, as they say. Nothing is scarier than being at the mercy of extreme emotions, and painting is such a safe place to go for it all and always come out victorious… even failures contribute to your next successes.

From: Alice Smith — May 28, 2008

I can’t begin to tell you how very disappointed I am that you would treat those of us who fight the debilitating horrors of clinical and bipolar depression so very insensitively. Antidepressants are not “happiness pills”. They are expensive medications that make functioning possible. As a matter of fact if you don’t need the drugs, they won’t work. It would make a lot more sense if the disease were called something other than depression. Depression is painful, physically as well as mentally. Smelling the flowers won’t help because when you are truly depressed the flowers have no smell. If a healthy person won the lottery and then lost the ticket they would be upset not depressed. If the person was clinically depressed winning the lottery would not make them happy because they would lack the capacity for happiness. It is not an enviable position to be in. Think about it.

From: Dee — May 28, 2008

Profound thoughts. Research has found linkages between creative mothers and mentally ill sons. (Does this affect fathers also?) Perhaps. Maybe the sheer quirkiness of artistic temperament is a spot on the continuum of emotional differences. Of course, then meds’ influence significantly decreases creativity, or alters it. Does the good doctor have research to prove his claim? A little melancholy is a good thing, but too much inhibits ability to create. Conversely, an innate push to make something remains, plus a constant search for beauty’s refreshment, and the grace of peace.

From: David Carpenter — May 28, 2008

Robert … couldn’t disagree more that you are not important. You are an amazing biological creature at the very least with stunning complexity and a miraculous brain that can think on things such as this and I’m sure do some very interesting creative things. Regarding happiness, I’m really not interested in some bland construct of a dumb fabricated paradigm. I’ll take peace, joy, or satisfaction any day. Happiness sounds like some utopian thing that people have begun to believe they should be able to achieve. It’s ill defined and misleading. Sorrow is something you can work through and joy is something you can savor while it springs to life in your heart. Peace is a state within which you can roll with either extreme and exist in the present. Ponce de Leone ran about looking for a similar mythical world and it didn’t bode well for him. There are some words in the English language we should really examine for their value such as ‘common sense’. Good sense is not common but people rail about the lack of it because some stupid word tells them it should be so. Life ‘is’. Don’t think it to death or you’ll lose the moment. If you’re not in the moment where really are you? No, I’m of infinite value as all of us amazing human beings are. Very violent, very creative, very a lot of things but very interesting and very valuable.

From: Libbie Soffer — May 28, 2008

It seems as though we’re about to bestow the “happiness” dilemma on the next generation. The pharmaceutical world has come up with a “sugar pill” as a juvenile placebo to improve the woes of our children. I guess this is an emotional training bra for turning negative moments of introspection into instant escape into feeling better, a pre-anti depressant. Had this news blurb been on a non NPR radio station I would have thought it a prank report . I’ve learned ,well into adulthood, to view happiness as an emotional response like a blip on a radar screen.I experience it as more of an emotional response to something very special. This state of mind is not to be confused with contentment, the place where we live most days. Happiness is peppered into our lives like a juicy morsel to be cherished like having your face licked by a puppy. It interrupts contentment to an emotional level hardly sustainable on a moment to moment basis.

From: Elsha Leventis — May 28, 2008

As an art therapist, psychotherapist, human being and artist, I am fascinated by and often wonder about people’s frantic pursuit of fun and constant need to be happy all the time, and their discomfort with sadness and other “negative” feelings. The medical establishment seems to be exceptionally uncomfortable with discomfort and sadness, viewing these as failure. Normal human beings cannot escape times of sorrow, spells of disappointment in our own and other’s behaviours, or moments of despair about minor and major things. In my own experience, some of my best work and greatest creativity in all areas of my life have emerged from my darkest moments, and I have learned not necessarily to welcome these times, but to view them with greater curiosity and cautious expectation. While there is need for support and even medication for serious clinical depression and mental health problems, we need to allow ourselves to fully feel our pain, sorrow, sadness, and disappointments too, and to allow and support others to do so as well. As artists we are fortunate to have a natural avenue for sublimating those intense feelings. All that having been said, there is nothing like the news that a painting has sold (or better yet, several) to lift the spirits!

From: Joan Clark — May 28, 2008

This one rings so true for me. Nature can awaken, heal, nurture and support all of our life’s ups and downs. How can we not feel a sense of hope when we see the rebirth in the Spring?

From: Holly — May 28, 2008

Happiness, like any emotion, is fleeting and the more we try to cling on to it the more elusive it becomes.

Like seeing a beautiful butterfly flutter by in the sunlit air, free and floating; instead of enjoying the gift of that ephemeral moment we run for a net to capture the creature and lock it in a jar where we think we can keep it, only to find that deprived of air, sunlight and freedom the creature dies, along with the moment.

Happiness, sadness, even elation and despair are only waves on the surface of an ocean of great stillness within its depths. I think it is important for an artist to listen and even ride the superficial waves of emotion as a means of access to the great gifts within the depths of the soul. An artist needs to feel these emotions but not get caught in their nets of illusion that will only keep them from exploring the clear, still depths.

From: Karen Martin Sampson — May 28, 2008

Perhaps it is true that too many in our society now turn to medication to alleviate everyday stress but in my case I would probably not even be here without the aid of modern antidepressants.

From: Brian Simons — May 28, 2008

I thoroughly enjoyed your article on ‘art & happiness’ and it raises many good questions. One being: is seeking personal happiness, although flaunted and highly promoted in this western culture, a worthwhile goal for an individual, or are there higher callings that one can aspire to as you mentioned, a worthy cause larger than oneself that is better suited to the nobility and dignity of a human being? I have spent many years seeking personal happiness and the harder I sought it, the more I convinced myself how unhappy I was. Another question that arises for me is: how can I be happy when millions of my brothers and sisters are suffering? The old saying that ‘no man is an island unto themselves’ bears a lot of truth in the same way that no color can stand on its own….each color needs other colors to make it so!

I think humanity is beginning to wake up to the realization that we are all related, all part of each other, and dependent on each other and that although that illusive thing called personal happiness may exist in some form or other, collective happiness is a much bigger, nobler aspiration that may actually be achievable.

From: Rick Rotante — May 29, 2008

Yesterday, I learned an artist friend of mine has cancer of the throat. My first reaction was shock, then despair. He sits at home waiting to enter hospital for surgery and radiation treatment after surgery.

I went to see him with no intention of trying to “make him happy”. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I would say except I would not be negative or depressing about his situation.

He related the circumstance of his malady as I listened. I wasn’t sure if his positive demeanor was bravado or fear masked in false courage. My tone with him was tempered with cautious optimism. I was not going to give in to any sign of negativity, which happily he did not display. He and I both believe you play the hand your dealt and make the best of it. We talked about art and what I was doing and his getting back to painting as soon as possible. This attitude seems brave under the circumstances but I believe it will serve him well and help in his recovery. Most of what I said to him, though honest and heart felt, seemed inadequate. One has to walk in his shoes to know his true feelings.

We both believe in the healing power of art and are passionate about being able to paint.

As soon as he is able, we planned a painting outing in the local mountains of California.

From: Gillian — May 29, 2008

I am so delighted to read your articulate article on the subject of happiness. I have been aware of this “problem” in our society for some time, and really been pretty concerned about it. Two years ago my husband and I sold everything and moved to Mexico to be artists, which we couldn’t do at our ages in the US for economic reasons. We were not in pursuit of happiness, but rather some sort of life true to our inner natures. It’s funny how much happiness has come with our feelings of becoming aligned with the Universe, and having time during the course of the year to watch the cycle of life on our lake. The Mexican people are wonderful, and are ALL appreciators of art. I can’t tell you what a difference this makes. It seemed to me that in the US when you say you are an artist you risk get funny looks and an “Oh, on welfare, huh?” sort of reponse. Here everyone is really interested and wants the details,

But I agree that our learning and personal depth comes from the challenges life presents, at least it has always been true for me, therefore I do not fear it, but at the same time real observable healing comes from my gardens and watching the year go by in my little rural pueblo.

Pain is a teacher, and I feel very sad for people who are put on drugs unnecessarily because they are insulated from life, and what else is there? What a gyp!

From: Gail Harper — May 29, 2008

I printed out several copies of this letter for my students, posted it in my gallery room for visitors… and then put a copy near my own work area… to remind myself daily of paragraph number three… we artists are FORTUNATE indeed !

From: Bob B. — May 29, 2008

“if you take them and really don’t need them, they don’t hurt you” That belief is the main culprit, what a tragedy that there are people who believe this and convince others!

From: Anonymous — May 29, 2008

Regarding extending this attitude to the meds for other illnesses. I had THREE family members who suddenly died and many boxes with various types of medications were found in their homes, all prescribed by doctors. Two of them died with symptoms unrelated to the medications they were taking. For one average family this is an indicator how big of a problem overprescribed medications are.

From: Barbara — May 29, 2008

I was prescribed anti-depressants for a major depressive episode a few years ago. My doctor tried several on me; they all had problems. Cymbalta made me feel drugged and loopy. I couldn’t tolerate one or two others we tried. Lexapro, which I seemed to tolerate, I took for several months before discovering that it was interfering with my sexual functioning. But you can’t stop taking Lexapro cold turkey.

Unable to find a doctor willing to wean me off the meds, I did it on my own, gradually tapering off over the course of several months. A couple years later the side effects are still with me, diminished, but apparently permanent.

I’m still melancholic, but it’s far better than being drugged.

From: Dawn Cosmos — May 30, 2008

Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss. A new group of peoples were discovered in the Amazon I read today. They are threatened by the rest of society, as is our planet and our insatiable greed for more of everything. That said, I am taking my walk to the river and perhaps I’ll see the Great Blue Heron or the beautiful Snowy Egret that live there. Nature at its best. That restores my sense of well-being.

From: Nicola Cooper — May 30, 2008

Life is change. Human beings find it difficult sometimes to make the changes necessary to keep up or “survive” thus we encounter resistance, anger, stubborness, sadness, regret, and other painful emotional elements that propel us forward to make the necessary changes in our lives. We’re all in the same boat after all. Life is wonderful.

From: Anonymous — May 30, 2008

It seems so strange that no one has hit on the real answer… If you want real happiness turn to God. There is where we find real peace and if you can be at peace with yourself and others then the rest falls into place… even art. I find a great deal of pleasure in painting. I consider whatever talent I have a gift from God. Sure it gives me a feeling of great joy when I sell, but again I give credit to the source. God never promised that we would not have problems or sadness, that’s part of LIFE! But with my faith I have a way to cope and go on. Tomorrow will be great!

From: Wes Giesbrecht — May 30, 2008
From: Anonymous — May 30, 2008
From: Marianne Bee — May 30, 2008

What a timely letter about art and happiness. I have just been to see His Holyness The Dalai Lama. He visited a city called Nottingham in the heart of England, for a series of talks. I live about an hour away and so was able to go and see him. He was stressing that service to others and a good attitude towards the difficulties of life, compassion and respect in all things was the route to happiness.

I could not agree more and am seriously worried about the compensation culture that seems to be prevalent here and elsewhere. Difficulties, accidents and other negative things should be faced with positivity. Reparation, if necessary, should be fair to all sides but responsibility must be taken for our part in any mistake we have made or been included in.

From: Rick Rotante — May 30, 2008

Robert- Can you explain what it is we’re looking at in the featured artist section. I can’t make out what it is? No pun intended. Thanks

From: Dale — May 30, 2008

It’s a girl on a swing.

From: Laura Rodriguez — May 31, 2008

When life turns difficult, I, in general, got suprised with my bad luck , but once I stop and think it over, I realize that it was me, my options, that have taken me there. Then, to continue, I begin to take anti-deppresants, and when I am rearmed, I start again, to live, to have passion for my lovers, that are my painting, my kids, my friends. My parents have both cronic deppresion, and I was raised to be the Happy Face of the family. For years, I played the game. Once I realized that that was the problem, I try to be as serious, as sad, or as.. whatever… as I really feel at any moment. And from that position, I love, I paint, I live. Authenticity is the most important quality, not happiness. To be what you really feel, even if this takes you to contradicition, to be different every day. In general, I have reached a peaceful mind, which enables me to help others in their battles for health, happiness or strength to make hard decisions. Of course, I have reached my 50s! (sorry my English.. I am Spanish speaker Uruguay)

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 02, 2008

Dale – Can you point out the body parts?? Still missing it

From: Leza Macdonald — Jun 02, 2008

Wow!! Girl on a swing is amazing. The button hole on her jacket confused me at first but that element is what made my mind want to figure this painting out. Well done Mark! Rick start at the right. It is the bottom of a swing, follow the chain up to the sleeve to the hair and the top center is the underneath of her chin! Leza

From: Vincenzo — Jun 02, 2008

Dead on, Robert. I accept that some of us have clinical problems and need professional help, but most of us do not. The fact that we have the luxury of considering what level of happiness is normal for a person says a lot about our society. I have spent the majority of my adult life working in the developing world, and I think that many, if not most, people on this planet can not conceive of such a concept as prescribed happiness. My recommendation: If you think that you have it bad, then take a trip around the world and avoid the tourist spots. You will surely return to the West convinced that our life here is full of so many riches that it will be difficult to choose which ones to single out. In turn, you may become motivated to express what wonders that life holds, rather than to turn inward and dwell on insignificant, imagined difficulties.

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 02, 2008

I can sort of make out what this is. In my humble opinion this is case of classic bad design. The cropping is awful. It works more as abstract. Not my cup of tea.

From: Leza Macdonald — Jun 02, 2008

Hey Rick, that is the best thing about art! We get to choose what we like! Enjoy your cup of tea!

From: Yvonne Evans — Jun 12, 2008

Wow! What a great newsletter. All of your weekly letters are enlightening, uplifting, and informative, of course, and I enjoy reading every one of them…. but this one in particular reached out and grabbed me. You are “right on” about the drug situation and seeking an alternative cure such as finding happiness and beauty in nature. Keep up the good work.

From: Mary Sheehan Winn — Oct 14, 2008

What interesting and provocative answers. I love artists. We’re all the same and happiness is a personal achievement, in my opinion. I tell people that making art is a mental health tool. Creating anything, artfully is truly pleasurable and brings a feeling of happiness. Despite coping with many of the struggles that are common to many artists, I’d still rather be an artist. It makes me happy.

From: Kelley MacDonald — Oct 27, 2008

Wow – this is a subject I’ve been thinking a LOT about lately. People tell me I’m ‘always happy’ – this is so not true, but when I’m melancholy I like to be alone, so friends don’t see it. I know I’m probably going to get smacked down for saying this, but I think the whole ‘depression is caused by chemicals in your brain’ train of thought might be getting way too much support. In some cases, sure, maybe. But I wonder if the ‘chemicals in our brains’ are REACTIONS to our sad feelings. I think people who are ‘down’ for a long time maybe have things in their lives that they can’t live with and can’t face, either (disappointments, grief, loss, dissatisfactions). And these wonder drugs ‘get us through’ the day, when without them we’d be stopped cold… looking at a huge piece of pain. Maybe we need to either just deal with our issues (we have them, don’t we?) and make whatever life changes we need to, or make peace, really, with them and embrace the life we have.

And the percent of people who take prescription drugs for ‘sadness’ or depression is probably at least equal to those who can’t afford the healthcare to get the Rx, and self medicate with alcohol or drugs. Sheeesh! Big problem, huh?

From: Kelley MacDonald — Oct 27, 2008

And, also, I’m with Mary – I think art IS a therapy – and a darn good one!

From: Alar Jurma — Jan 15, 2009

Genuine happiness may be elusive, but I’m sure it does exist as our fundamental, indestructible nature. But it is there as experience only after we have peeled off all the usual layers of mental loopiness we’ve accumulated. We can really only know things by personal experience, and that’s probably the reason there’s such a wide spectrum of opinion on the topic of “happiness” here. If you ask a man who’s been blind from birth if the sun exists, he might insist that it doesn’t. But for the man with normal vision, he would certainly disagree.

From: Gary Holland — Feb 10, 2009
From: Adrian Setterfield — May 16, 2009

I was always wanting to be happy and experiencing moments of such while creating art. But it never lasts….At some point it occurred to me to find out who I am without all the story I’d been given in the past. I wouldn’t want to say that there was no discovery, but in some way it was when the obvious struck…and this was that ‘I’ am not who I think I am. I is existence being itself without the identity of being a character (i.e. in reality there really is no one here who is the volitional doer of his/her life). As for happiness, this continues to come and go of its own accord. There is no identity to grab and hold onto it as my own…the same is for sadness. The depressions that I suffered for many years aren’t belonging to anyone. But if some body suffers depression, it may be beneficial to take the necessary medication to stabilize the biology.

It is worth to investigate thoroughly the truth of who you are. You have to see for yourself the unanswered question that rests in peace that passeth all understanding.

From: maria svolos — Dec 07, 2010







Swing Shift

oil painting
by Mark Heine, Victoria, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Andrew Bray who wrote, “Embrace the heat and friction of life, because it means you’re in the game.”

And also Sharon McKenna of Ottawa, ON, Canada who wrote, “Childbirth without discomfort dulls the happiness of cradling your new-born. This goes for all areas of creativity.”

And also Mary Kay Neumann of Madison, WI, USA who wrote, “We do not need to ostracize the sufferers of depression by romanticizing this terrible illness, but show the same compassion we would show anyone suffering from any other illness.”

And also Marti Adrian of Lethbridge, AB, Canada who wrote, “I don’t need anti-depressants — I need another Airedale!”

And also Kit Wilson-Pote of Guelph, ON, Canada who wrote, “If Vincent had had access to ameliorating medication, he may well have lived long with both ears intact and — most importantly for him and for us — have created more of his stupendous works.”

(RG note) Thanks, Kit. You might have added “and become less famous.”

And also Jacquie Green of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “There is a better word than happiness for the state you describe. It is ‘fulfillment,’ which is a deep, rich state of mind that implies connection and service to a goal one has set. Happy is only a mood. Fulfilled is a state of life.”

And also Rose van Staden who wrote, “I remember when my father used to look sad or thoughtful, Mom would try to make him smile, and he would say, ‘Leave me alone, I am enjoying the gloom!’ (very Scottish!)”

And also Sue Martin who wrote, “The phrase ‘attitude of gratitude’ has become trite, but it can be a very powerful mood booster.”

And also Jacqulynn Mulyk of Calgary, AB, Canada who wrote, “My key to self-examination and possible happiness comes from not following other people’s lists.”




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