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The Art Therapy + Happiness Project

Artistic creativity is primarily a force of health and well-being.

© 2015 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD | Art Therapy + Happiness Project
Source: © 2015 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD | Art Therapy + Happiness Project

As an art therapist and expressive arts therapist, I have always been fascinated by how people communicate innate resilience and strengths through art expression. In fact, I believe that artistic creativity is primarily a force of health and well-being rather than a mirror of dysfunction, pathology or disorder. Although the field of art therapy is partially based on seeking diagnostic information from the content of art expressions, in contrast my worldview as a practitioner focuses on facilitating individuals’ creative exploration and artistic self-expression to find both the “pleasant life” as well as the “meaningful life.”

In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman explains that the pleasant life is what we generally think of as “happiness”—a life filled with positive emotions, lacking in struggle or conflict, and obtaining what one believes one wants and/or needs. In contrast, the meaningful life is closely linked to self-expression, feeling productive, and contributing positive actions for the well-being of others. The meaningful life does come with a price, however, because it inevitably includes experiences of distress and self-examination. But it also brings with it the rewards of enhanced resiliency and the ability to cope with difficulties, including trauma, grief and loss. To me, art expression is a compelling pathway to both the pleasant life as well as the meaningful life articulated by Seligman. In brief, it has the potential to make meaning of life’s inevitable challenges while supporting the pleasant life through engagement in satisfying, self-soothing creative endeavors.

Best known for articulating the concept of “flow,” psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi notes that we are driven throughout life by two powerful motivations relevant to creativity throughout the lifespan. One is our human ability to enjoy creative exploration that, according to evolutionary biology, has helped us to survive and flourish as well as enjoy self-expression. The other is the rejuvenating, pleasurable quality of creativity that allows humans to self-regulate, relaxation and restore emotional balance and enhance a sense of health and well-being. Similarly, Stuckey and Nobel (2010) propose that engagement with the arts is a health-enhancing activity and one with both personal wellness outcomes and broader societal implications for public health. They note that when people are invited to participate in creative and artistic processes, they are more able to reconnect their feelings with a sense of meaning and “find our identity and our reservoir of healing." 

© 2015 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD | Art Therapy + Happiness Project Research Journal
Source: © 2015 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD | Art Therapy + Happiness Project Research Journal

In the spirit of encouraging art expression in service of resilience, positivity, pleasure, personal meaning and health, The Art Therapy + Happiness Project is about to begin its third year via an online global community of participants in what I call the Four CsConnection, Contribution, Compassion and Courage (Malchiodi, 2013; 2014; 2015). In brief, these are four forces that can help us to be more resilient when challenged by life events. The Project combines creative self-expression and connection through shared experiences and community; art prompts focusing on compassion for self and others; contributions in the form of “art swaps” to reinforce personal meaning and life-affirmation; and finally, a platform to motivate participants to have the courage to tell their stories and speak their truths via art. The online, interactive platform allows everyone to engage at one’s own pace, experiment with ways to increase creative self-expression in one’s own life, and network with and be inspired by others around the world through art making for health and well-being.

As I written in past posts, I have been fortunate to witness and hear what individuals of all ages consistently say during art therapy sessions about the intersection of art and "happiness." Even when reporting painful experiences and memories through art expression, people invariably state that art making is a source of positivity for them despite what their visual images may communicate. They share that they find comfort in art’s ability to take them outside their personal struggles and refocus their attention to positive sensations, relaxation, and self-discovery. To me, this is the best evidence that art making is an experience which contains the possibility for transforming pain into positivity as well as a compelling pathway to both the pleasant and the meaningful life.

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT

© 2015 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Join the ART THERAPY + HAPPINESS PROJECT! No previous art experience is necessary; see for more information.