Happy Artists: New Research Finds that Artists Are Happier Than the Rest of Us

Artists have a reputation for being unhappy and depressed. We tend to believe that artists are more likely to have mental illness than the rest of us–whether depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and even suicide. But many scientists have claimed just the opposite: That artists are no more crazy than the rest of us. How could that be, when there are so many famous stories of mentally disturbed artists, from poets like Silvia Plath (suicide) to artists like Vincent van Gogh? What’s the real story–is there a link between artistic creativity and mental illness?

Probably not. Two new studies provide evidence that artists are more happy, and more psychologically stable, than the rest of us–exactly the opposite of our “mad genius” stereotype. The first is a massive study* using data from the European Value Survey, the British Household Panel, and the Swiss Household Panel, by a research team at the University of Zurich. The survey includes each person’s occupation, and then asks them to rate their job satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 10. The results show that “artists generally are happier than the rest of the population,” in the words of co-author Bruno S. Frey, the research director of the Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts at the University of Zurich.

A second study, from Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for the Arts, Entertainment and Public Policy, surveyed 13,000 graduates of arts programs. Examining these results, Curb Center director Steven J. Tepper says “Arts graduates are resilient and resourceful…they are happy with [the careers] they put together.” Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, seconds this conclusion: “Artists tend to be happy with their choices and lives.”**

So why do we continue to believe the false myths about crazy artists? Actually, there is a good historical and cultural explanation–but it’s too long for a blog post, so for that, you’ll have to read Chapter 2 of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. But in the meantime, the take-home message today is that artists are well-adjusted and happy.

*Bille et al. 2013. Happiness in the Arts.

**Grant, D. 2013. What does a fine arts degree get you? The punch line: Maybe a job. Wall Street Journal, 11/11/2013, p. R2.

3 thoughts on “Happy Artists: New Research Finds that Artists Are Happier Than the Rest of Us

  1. Does this mean that very few cases of mental disturbacne among artists has been widely publicized, gaining the entire community a skewed reputation? Or does it mean that artisitic people are happier in present times, than they were in previous centuries? What do you think, Keith?

  2. The reality is your first suggestion: a very few cases have been highly publicized. But when large-scale studies are done comparing the incidence of mental illness among artists and non-artists, the proportion is essentially identical. This is the case with historical studies and with contemporary studies. I summarize the various studies in my 2012 book _Explaining Creativity_.

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