A question of happiness

We consider the symbiotic relationship between wellbeing and the arts.


What makes you happy? It’s a personal question but, in recent years, politicians and policy-makers have become increasingly interested in the state of our happiness. 

While the previous Labour government appointed Richard Layard as its ‘happiness tsar’ to improve the nation’s cheer, the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is spending £2million on trying to measure our contentedness through a national happiness index.

The politicians have every right to be concerned. In 2007, a UNICEF report into child wellbeing in 21 developed nations ranked UK children as the least happy. We may be richer, healthier, have better homes, cars, food and holidays than we did half a century ago, but these aren’t making our children any happier.

According to the report, UK parents give too little priority to family time and too much to material goods. They are said to work “all hours” to increase family income but then are too exhausted or too busy to give their children the attention they need.

The report also points to the fact that material inequality is much higher in the UK than in other rich countries – in other words, the gap between the richest and poorest in society is greater in the UK than in most other developed nations. This fosters greater feelings of social imbalance, injustice and dissatisfaction. (This argument is expounded perhaps most convincingly in Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, Spirit Level.)

While the UNICEF report cites excessive materialism as a root cause of unhappiness, it doesn’t identify the kinds of things we should be doing more of to increase our wellbeing.

Recent research from the London School of Economics (LSE) provides some interesting answers here. LSE Research Professor George MacKerron’s ‘Mappiness’ project relies on an iPhone app which randomly alerts participants twice a day to take a short survey on their feelings of happiness. It has gathered three million data points from 45,000 users in the UK over the last 18 months.

Fascinatingly, the findings show that four of the top six most happiness-inducing activities are arts-related. In order, the things that make us happiest are reported as:

  1. Intimacy, making love
  2. Sports, running, exercise
  3. Theatre, dance, concert
  4. Singing or performing
  5. Exhibition, museum, library
  6. Hobbies, arts, crafts


As Clayton Lord notes in his interpretation of the Mappiness findings at Arts Journal, it is important to point out that, of those 3 million responses, only 3,500 were in the theatre/dance/concert category (about 3%).  Crucially, however, those 3,500 people who responded during or immediately after that activity were demonstrably happier.

These findings are, of course, of particular interest to CATA. It has long been proven that greater access and participation in the arts improves children’s lives in many powerful ways. Happiness, however, has always been a harder concept to measure than, for example, enhanced career prospects, social mobility or future income.

However, if the UNICEF research rings true – and we should all focus more on increasing the personal pleasure of those around us than on increasing our own financial gain – perhaps we should also be celebrating the sheer enjoyment that culture and the arts bring to millions of children across the UK.

Many charities have traditionally shied away from focusing on general wellbeing as an outcome of their activities, for fear that their work be misunderstood as lightweight or vague. It can be easier to connect with potential donors, policymakers and other stakeholders when the debate focuses instead on hard-hitting, more easily measurable issues, such as social deprivation or economic disadvantage. However, now that the government has committed serious money towards understanding our wellbeing as a nation, perhaps public and third sector organisations will increasingly be able to talk unashamedly about “happiness” as a goal.

Here, it will be interesting to see how the findings of the UK national happiness index, which is being managed by the Office of National Statistics, will be presented and acted upon. Speaking to the BBC in 2010, David Cameron acknowledged, “you cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it – and if anyone was trying to reduce the whole spectrum of human happiness into one snapshot statistic I would be the first to roll my eyes.”

However, if Mr Cameron wants to see where a nation’s commitment to the importance of its people’s happiness can lead, he need only look at the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

Here, the nation’s wider happiness is a major factor in all government-decision making; indeed, the government has a stated goal of gross national happiness (GNH). The four pillars of Bhutan’s GNH are: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance.

Here too, then, the arts and culture are identified as significant factors in the happiness of a people. The concept of Gross National Happiness may be a step too far for the UK, but the underlying principle – that access to and participation in arts and cultural activities make us happier– should be at the heart of any future policy decisions designed to improve the nation’s wellbeing.