How to be happy


Dear Artist,

Psychologist Martin Seligman has determined three levels of happiness — what he calls the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life. We all know the types. The pleasant-lifers seem to automatically feel good. They clown around and bubble with joy. The good-lifers may not bubble but they know enough to make the best of it. They have to work a bit to stay happy — they do it in the home or office, with love and family, etc. Those at the top of Seligman’s list — the meaningful-lifers — “identify their signature strengths and then use them in the service of something they believe is bigger than they are.” These folks might even be depressive, like Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, but they overcome. According to Seligman, they are ultimately the happiest.

Artists have known about this since the first Neanderthal drew a charcoal tiger in a cave. It has to do with perceived magic. It has to do with respecting a power, a spirit, a great love. It means accepting the idea that the master is also the servant. Because art and art-making begin to throw light on the universal question of meaning and purpose, it also means passion. Work comes out of passion and passion comes out of work. Paul Gauguin said: “Happiness and work rose up together with the sun, radiant like it.” It’s a surprise to some of us that in these days of communication and interaction, getting happy is still something we have to do on our own. Gauguin, and countless other creative people, went to a lot of trouble to move off the beaten track. They knew the premium that comes with an inner life, reflection, contemplation and self-discipline. “The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude,” said Voltaire.

Meaningful-lifers have the feeling that they are making a contribution. For artists this means trafficking in beauty, mystery, entertainment, challenge, reinforcement, understanding, worship, empowerment and joy. In the great point-system called the studio there’s a kind of hard-won abundance that can be more fun than an SUV full of clowns. I often think that some artists just don’t know how happy they are.

Best regards,


PS: “Happiness is living by inner purpose.” (David Augsburger)

Esoterica: Seligman is one of the more optimistic of the happiness gurus. His message is that leopards can change their spots. He has determined that circumstances don’t make much difference: wealth, climate, catastrophe, even health don’t matter a lot. For him, achieving the happy life is a full time job. To me, happiness is like painting; it’s practiced, tested, reworked and mastered. As anthropologist Boris Sokoloff noted, “Like swimming, riding, writing, or playing golf, happiness can be learned.”

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


The greatest gift
by Paula Timpson, East Hampton

We artists take from our inner resources that which makes true happiness. Giving and learning to live life from the inside out. This brings real happiness deeper than the bubbly shallow surface reality that the mainstream share.


Back in the world I love

I didn’t touch a paintbrush for about a year. Six weeks ago I picked up my paintbrush and did a small painting. That helped to get me back in the world I like to be in: the art world. I’m feeling lucky that I love art. To someone else my paintings may be silly or childlike, but it’s the way I want to paint.


Gathering of the light, ongoing
by Marina Morgan

Your timing is interesting. A local guy called T. Harv Ecker has just finished a weekend workshop on how to be still, identify one’s purpose, crystallize one’s life vision and move past the “little jabberwockies” of the programmed protective mind that impede each pilgrim’s progress towards his or her vision. It’s called Life Directions and was attended by several hundred people, (almost entirely non-artist). There must be something in the air — about the planetary movements — the cumulative effect of centuries of accumulated prayers by spiritual people… shucks. I don’t know. There is, however, a Gathering of the Light ongoing.

I go back to the first four lines of Songs of Innocence by William Blake. That’s my reminder system for my childhood truths.

And I made a rural pen,

And I stained the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

Every child my joy to hear.


The value of regular creative time
by Kim Blair, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Your letter on happiness could not have arrived at a more appropriate time (synchronicity). Yesterday I came to the conclusion that I begin to feel frustrated and sometimes angry when I have deprived myself of creative time. When too many obligations begin to infringe upon my creative time I begin to experience these negative emotions. Like regular exercise, regular time set aside for creativity is an important part of my preventative health care. Unchecked frustration and inner anger can have a negative effect on one’s health. Creativity has many rewards, happiness is just one of them.


Life of a meaningful-lifer
by Sara Genn, Vancouver, B.C., Canada


painting by Sara Genn

I am a meaningful-lifer going through life as a good lifer. That is to say, I truly believe my art has a higher purpose, that what I do is bigger than me, and I strive for historical and spiritual significance, and it is what sustains me, but I am really operating on a day to day Polyanna rose-coloured glasses cup half full blind optimism refuse to acknowledge the negative, the embarrassing, the failing or the mediocre.


Going further than happiness
by Randy Jewart, Austin, Texas, USA


painting by Randy Jewart

I’m with the gist of what you are saying. I don’t think you go far enough. So if Christians decide/learn to be “happy” that they are saved and their lives have meaning because they dig Jesus, aren’t studio artists learning to believe and be “happy” that they are masturbating in their studios doing the same thing? I put it bluntly, but I don’t go for either. I think Christians, artists indulging him/herself in her studio and a clown-loaded SUV are equally offensive. I like to hear about artists, Christians and clowns who are doing more than believing that their life has meaning. I like to hear about them asking questions, and doing something that smacks of helpfulness. What is helpfulness?


Look within
by Alar Jurma

I’ve always felt that the star all artists should hitch their wagons to, is the star of our own human divinity or the divine love that dwells within each of our hearts. We already know enough about the confusion, the suffering and ignorance in this world, so I don’t believe we need more of it on canvas, books or movies. But to be reminded of the great and inborn passion, the great flame of love that exists within every human heart, that to me is a valuable and meaningful use of our time. To me that is also the meaning behind “true giving.” Something that uplifts to higher ground. To locate that flame within ourselves first so that we can express it in our thoughts, speech and actions to others, becomes job-one for all of us. The means may differ from one person to another, depending on our nature and our destiny, but the goal is the same. To know real happiness that is beyond the fleeting moment of our sense pleasures, the empty compliments of others and with the consolations that we provide ourselves, we need to spend some time with the one who actually owns our happiness: “us.” Therefore, it follows that a life spent getting to know oneself is both meaningful and happy. Somebody once said, “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” I think that’s completely true. What are we trying to express as painters, as artists? Our human nature. And what is our human nature? Happiness. Love. Awareness of our universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Who doesn’t want to experience that, and at whatever price? So if we artists don’t know how happy we really are, as you say, maybe it’s because we’re not looking for it in the right place. That should be pretty easy to fix. Psssst! Look within!


The joy of giving art
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA


painting by Julie Rodriguez Jones

One of your readers, Nicoletta Baumeister, who is able to “hear” colors and “see” the color of words, wrote in a note to me, “Are we the vessel, or are we the contents? Again, our culture would have us believe we are the vessel, the thing that accumulates possessions. But that is not where the dance of life takes place. It seems to me that we must be of the water within the capsule; truly being alive only when we pour out our talent, energy and love because only then is there room for more gifts to flow in.”

That for me summarized what we as artists must also be about in order to give back to others the gifts that we have received. When I first made the transition to art, I wondered about how I could still serve the community, because we must admit that art is indeed self-serving if for no other reason than the tremendous joy that we receive. It is quite possible though to give back to others through art and then discover, in the process, that it too brings as much joy. When you know that other are struggling, offer your services gratis: the school that needs a new brochure or website, a colleague that needs business feedback, a non-profit that needs a fund-raiser or a student that needs help creating their first portfolio to submit to college. What is the meaning of life? Nicoletta has eloquently captured it.


Jagged personalities in art
by Chris Pfouts

Finally, in a sea of Burger Tyrant smiles, a little look at real happiness. To me, the work is all that matters. If you can’t separate the man from his work, a smart philosophy for living is not to meet your heroes. The man who wrote those brilliant books, or who turned out those gorgeous canvases, is likely to have an old soup stain on his necktie and worn shoe heels, bad breath, or a leering interest in waitresses. Human, in other words. Charlie Parker’s heroin problems in no way negate his musical contributions. And they say Ambrose Bierce was rude and cold to anyone who hadn’t soldiered in the Civil War, as he had. Current lowbrow art rave, the late Von Dutch, was a drunken pig in person — but damn, he was good in the studio or the shop. The work was genius, and good thing, because it was impossible to tolerate the guy himself. I was there to see it. A hungry media looking for product at any cost has brought us looks at the real personalities of movie stars and musicians. Sadly, a lot of them are jabbering idiots, with nothing to say and a big platform to say it on. We were much better off in the 1940s and 50s, when these people lived day to day off the public screen. In the old studio system, the studios were smart enough not to let movie stars run around unmuzzled. You turn your back for a second and Lana Turner ends up in bed with a low-rent gunsel. Harry Crews said something like, “I don’t care for well-rounded personalities, the ones that count are jagged and shattered, they leave the most interesting impressions.”


Substitute for addiction
by Joyce Madden

Many years ago I suffered from a stroke, I had been smoking for some twenty or more years, but on that day, I gave them up. Then I started to paint, in oils. I did real dreamy type paintings in a landscape mode. Later I graduated (?) to watercolor — now I have to really concentrate on what I’m doing — there is more planning and some drawing. Oils were so easy, if you didn’t like an area, wipe it off and repaint — my paintings just seemed to grow. Since I gave up cigarettes, it seemed that I had to find a substitute — I did: painting. The theory that you need to have something to occupy your mouth and hands, works — you talk to yourself and your hands are busy painting a masterpiece.


Dealing with possessive representatives
by Holly Boruck, CA, USA


painting by Holly Boruck

I’ve been selling work through one representative for about 7 years and have begun to feel that not only am I not making enough money to survive, but that I’m not producing the kind of work I have passion for. She sells my work wholesale (hence the artist receives a very low fee) to art consultants and interior designers. I’ve received many nice commissions through her (lobby of the GAO in Washington, DC., corp. offices of several large firms, etc.), but it’s time for me to either move on or expand. Outside of my rep., I’ve also been commissioned to do other large work by a Disney subsidiary.

Since I have been hitting the pavement and promoting myself, I’ve begun to run into something I’ll call — Proprietariness. When I expressed my desire to seek work outside of my rep. she requested that I not sell certain styles of my work to anyone else. I agreed, and we sat down to list these styles as ‘hers.’ I’ve been producing work that I felt more passionate about and have begun to promote it. Now, through making inquiries out in the art world I’m getting responses such as, “well if you have your work with so and so, then I can’t work with you… unless you want to leave them and come over to us.”

My question is: How can I have my work in as many venues and with as many reps. or agents or galleries etc. as will have them? Not only is my art an expression of who I am, but if I want to make a living at it, it’s also product, right? So why can’t my product be offered to the buying public in as many places as possible? What kind of agreements do you have with your galleries and other venues as to where and how you sell your work?

(RG note) I believe in handshake agreements. Written ones may suit certain types of artists but I find not many. Dealer possessiveness can limit growth, happiness, and success. Unless your rep has had a hand in designing your work, nothing can be claimed as ‘hers.’ It’s natural for some reps. to give a try at controlling you, though. Be honoured that they are trying. My suggestion would be to figure out a way to protect a dealer’s territory and yet take a proactive interest in a wider distribution. Be up front and clear — let them know that you want to make a better living from your art and outline the plan you have in mind. Be prepared to burn bridges. When one door closes, another door opens.


Art middlemen and agents
by Page Samis-Hill


painting by Page Samis-Hill

I’ve been approached by an agent in Laguna Beach, Calif. He’s anxious to represent my work in several galleries. I am prepared to give him originals. I have a price that I am interested in achieving but know there is a huge mark-up in the process for the gallery and him. I know you suggest not signing papers. I plan on taking several pastels with me in April when I will meet with him for the first time. Do I need a lawyer?

(RG note) Not yet. The main problem here is the middleman concept — a person who takes your stuff around to dealers and distributes you in a given area. The idea works once in a while for shy artists, widows and widowers of artists without the inclination, and a few whose action is so big they don’t care about the percentages. Ideally, these arrangements protect the artist’s valuable time, but in reality they can be just as hands-on as if you were dealing with the galleries yourself. Furthermore, most dealers want to deal directly with you. Direct dealing artists are happier artists because they are getting paid more and they are more in touch with the real world — which, contrary to popular belief, can be empowering. Over the time I’ve been an artist many of these would-be middlemen have offered to get into my life. I wouldn’t bother with one unless she was my mom. But if you think this fellow can be effective for you, and you want to try him, give him a period of time — say two years — to prove himself. Be up-front about it. Do it with a shake of the hand with a present witness. The lawyer comes later when your middleman is outstandingly successful and you want to break up.


CV appropriate for certain realities
by Ariane Goodwin, Ed.D.

For me, there are simple, professional realities when a CV is appropriate — like applying for a teaching position, a grant, fellowship, etc. However, when a CV is used as a stand-in for an artist statement, that does not work, as I detail in my book. I back up my position from a psychological/social/internal connection point of view. I debunk the myth that an artist statement is about marketing, while acknowledging that it can be aimed in that direction.

(RG note) Ariane Goodwin is the author of Writing The Artist Statement: Revealing The True Spirit of Your Work. You can find out about it at


Art gallery evaluation
by Donna Brower Watts, Aloha, Oregon, USA


painting by Donna Brower Watts

I especially want to thank you for the art gallery evaluation sheet. I have shown my work in many places, including a co-op gallery that I belong to and a small gallery where my work is in a group show currently, but have held back for one reason or another from approaching the “big” galleries. I know I need to beef up my portfolio and “just do it” and your guide is really a help.

(RG note) This guide is at








Jennifer Young,
Richmond, VA, USA


The rescuer
by Jennifer Young


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 60 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.


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