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Art and Happiness

Can drawing, doodling, and painting lead to true happiness?

I am going on the road in the coming weeks to talk about art therapy and its interface with trauma recovery, mindfulness practices and resilience-building. In particular, audiences want to know, "Does the creative process of art making make us happier?" The connection between artistic creativity and happiness is a slippery topic at best. After all, what about all those less-than-happy ending stories about artists with depression or other emotional challenges? Doesn't art come from emotional pain? But there is a growing body of research that underscores the contrary, that art has a powerful effect on us in positive ways.

The connection between the creative process of art making and personal happiness is by no means a new idea. Back in 1996 Psychology Today published an article, "Capturing Creativity," by Robert Epstein who enthusiastically extolled the joys of artistic creativity, among other experiences. Epstein noted, "...greater creativity breeds greater happiness. The creative process is itself a source of joy for most people. And with new creative powers we're also better able to solve the little problems that beset us daily." And the more recent research of Semir Zeki, University of London, connects the mere viewing of art with an increase in dopamine and activity in the brain's frontal cortex, resulting in feelings of pleasure that are similar to being the throws of romantic love. What's more, positive sensations are almost immediate when viewing an enjoyable or stirring work of art.

What I continue to find exciting are several aspects of art making that are much more commonplace and are pretty much available to all individuals. In a post in 2008 I explained the "effort-driven reward system" and its relationship to handwork and crafts. Repetitive satisfying art making may actually mediate depression and anxiety by stimulating the "accumbens-striatial-cortical" connection in the brain. It is perhaps connected to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named "flow," an experience of complete concentration and absorption. Because flow is close to other mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga, it may offer many of the same positive, attention-focused benefits through deep engagement in an art process.

The concept of flow points to two happiness factors that have enhanced human life for thousands of years via the arts. One is the capacity to find joy in creativity through the pleasure of invention and exploration. This capacity is based in evolutionary biology to ensure survival of individuals and communities through innovation. The other is the ability to get pleasure and relaxation from creating useful, yet aesthetic objects; this is a form of rejuvenation that is not only practical, but also health-enhancing.

Finally, I have had the fortunate opportunity to hear what clients of all ages consistently say during art therapy sessions about the intersection of art and happiness. Even when expressing what are obviously painful experiences and memories through art, people invariably report that art making is a source of joy for them despite what their art communicates. They report that they find comfort in art's ability to take them outside their personal struggles and refocus their attention to positive sensations of exploration, relaxation and stimulating challenges. There also is pride in mastery of new skills and in discovery of previously unrealized abilities. But most of all, there is "client consensus" that art making holds the possibility to transform that which is painful into something eventually positive. To me, that is the ultimate testimony that art and happiness are inevitably intertwined.

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC

©2011 Cathy Malchiodi

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