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Can Art Create Happiness?

It is with great excitement that we offer you our first editorial by creative writer and journalist Simona Rosenfield. Her first assignment was to share her views based on the book "How Art Can Make You Happy" by Bridget Watson Payne. Alongside her words is a wonderfully rich tapestry of colour by artist and illustrator Nick Ogonosky (see his bio at the end of this piece). Enjoy!

Can art create happiness? That is a mighty question that demands delving into the undercurrent. Bridget Watson Payne has cornered this question in her book “How Art Can Make You Happy”, and I’ve been invited by Yellow Pad Sessions to build from her work and share my experience with this idea. So not only am I going to dive right in; I am going to dive deep.

Art has a huge potential for delivering purpose and happiness to people’s lives. From a simple creative thought to a great masterpiece, art bubbles up from the undercurrent to take many shapes and serve many functions. One of those essential functions is to bring people together.

Payne explores this concept at length. She writes, “Imagine, for a moment, a picture hanging on a museum wall. Imagine the thousands or even millions, of people who have walked past it. Some have been profoundly moved by it, some have been mildly interested, and some have blown past, hungry for lunch…When you look at this picture you are connected not only to the reality of the artist who made it, not only to the reality of whomever or whatever it depicts but also to the reality of the millions of other people who have seen it, just like you are doing. You may be alone, but you are also together.”

So how does connecting through art relate to the basis of human happiness? Well, in this context, I invite you to consider art in the broadest sense—all the creative expression, creation, repurposing and interpreting you can envision. And I invite you to consider happiness in the context of connecting and living in the present moment.

Imagine wanting happiness; working hard at it so as to exhaust yourself in its pursuit. You perfect the technique of being happy: reading books, taking supplements, spending time, money, and energy in achieving it. And finally, are you happy? I wouldn’t think so because it sounds kind of lonely.

To understand what brings about happiness and why we need to have a proper understanding of its meaning. For me, one of the best ways to explore happiness has been to learn more about people who have endured its counterpart, suffering.

World-famous psychiatrist, novelist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl had a thing or two to share about happiness in the face of unimaginable anguish. He published them in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, based on his experience and studies of the most profound examples of suffering and misery during his time in Auschwitz.

Frankl wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.”

He believed we must invest our time in creating purpose and meaning in our lives through work, through love, or through the attitude, one brings to suffering. He believed that happiness is an inevitable consequence of a life spent meaningfully, not as a goal to achieve or a memory to preserve. Not to be strived or longed for.

Frankl’s theory of happiness coincides with where we have attempted to land: here, in the present moment. Spending time reminiscing, longing, or otherwise analyzing memories doesn’t particularly stir a sense of happiness within. Instead, it can be a great source of suffering. Likewise, planning, worrying, and expecting of the future can act as a source of stress, and ultimately suffering too. Happiness is possible by remaining present and living meaningfully.

The initial question: “What is happiness?” might not encompass enough in this regard. The more far-reaching question might be: “Does one achieve happiness or is it the consequence of something?”

Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and spiritual guide Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that happiness often surfaces when one is grounded in the present moment. It was Buddha’s belief that suffering is the result of harbouring desire and expectations.

The lifelong journey of the devout Buddhist, or happiness scout, is to learn to let go of desire in order to relieve suffering. This relief comes from neither expecting something from the future nor wishing something from the past but existing in the present. We must let go of the attachments that arise when we lose ourselves in time travel and connect to the here and now.

The connection between art and happiness is the potential for art to invite attention to the present moment. In moments where the feeling hurts—a splinter from an intricate wood carving; in moments where the feeling sings—finishing a wonderful book; in moments where the feeling meditates - not much else is occurring beyond the heart beating and the breath flowing, we are absolutely connected to the moment. And to ourselves.

Here we have an integral piece of the puzzle fall into place as it relates to the example developed by Payne. It highlights the importance of connection in art, and how it supersedes even subject matter, the very same that catalyzed the link. By connecting us to ourselves, art allows us to live a shared experience, even if that art depicts pain, sorrow, discomfort, anguish, or loneliness. That’s right - art facilitates connection across the spectrum of empathy and empowerment. The undercurrents of this shared experience awaken you to the finer details of the moment; you notice the quality of the brushstroke, relish in the gift of sight, and tune in to the sights and sounds around you.

In an effort to explain the great undressing that arrives when one lives mindfully, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “You cherish these wonders of life that are available, and you come to realize that conditions for your happiness are more than enough for you to be happy right here and right now.”

What he’s really saying is that one does not reach happiness with outstretched arms. In every moment that there is breath in the body, one has the choice to observe in awe the miracle to exist as is. I have been lucky enough to live many of these moments in the pursuit of my own creative experience as well as in the connection I have felt through the works of other passionate artists.

When your hand glides over a smoothly sculpted bannister, and you notice the temperature and texture, this is connecting through art. When you hold stock-still in contemplation, and the slight ruffle of your silk shirt registers against your skin, this is connecting through art. When you read a story that stirs hurt, and your breath feels shallow as it floods your chest, this is connecting through art. There is so much beauty in these small moments that tickle our senses like the great gift of a tender touch against the hand. The subtle pleasure allows us to tune in to our full emotional range and connect us with our own gratitude.

When we investigate new ways to connect with others, and ourselves, art naturally finds its way into our daily life. Whether enjoying works of our own or others’ creation, we allow art and joy to be intimately intertwined. When we invite gratitude to the mix and allow the three to mingle, every moment is a potential masterpiece. Every instance can be its own miracle, and happiness indulges in us, effortlessly.


Nick Ogonosky

Illustrator for the Anna Goodson Illustration Agency

Contact (Agency): +1 (514) 482 0488

Ever since he was a young child, Nick has always felt the need to create. After growing up and realizing that he couldn't work at Jurassic Park or realistically be a rock star, he decided to hone his skills as an illustrator and has since then been working with top clients both nationally and internationally.

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