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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Enjoy the past comments below for Art and Happiness…
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.”