Is Creativity Therapeutic and Can Art Make us Happier?

30/11/2012 12:24 GMT | Updated 29/01/2013 10:12 GMT

I was asked to consider this question for a panel discussion at a recent Festival of Happiness at Dartington Hall. My fellow panellists and I ended up talking about how artists are famously unhappy and how creativity often comes from a troubled place. Perhaps that is why creativity and therapy are so intertwined. The arts therapies use creative processes to help people articulate the unsayable, to draw out the bad stuff, within a controlled and safe space. Artists often say that they are driven by their demons. Can being creative be a wholly positive experience and can you be creative when you are feeling calm, centred and 'happy'? There are examples of artists stopping being creative when they find happiness in their lives.

There are obviously some contradictory and complex factors at play - it is not simply the case that creativity is therapeutic and that art makes us happier. Of course these kinds of discussions end up being about semantics - what do we mean by 'creativity' and 'happy'. Creative is a buzz word in many fields outside the arts. Creative Councils is a programme with the Local Government Association to encourage radical innovation to address long-term challenges. Many people believe that some aspect of creativity in our lives is important for personal fulfilment. There is another complication in relation to the end product - and the professional world of the arts. The arts therapies do not generally elevate the end product as an object to be shared or displayed for others. However, most professional artists would consider the end product - and whether or not it is valued by others - as an essential if not central part of their purpose as artists. Exhibiting or performing or publishing work can bring a sense of pride and achievement, but it can also open the gates to criticism and a competitive and market driven world.

Can we say that the audience that responds to these end products is 'happier'? Research by Neuroscientist Professor Semir Zeki shows that looking at artworks we perceive to be beautiful, activates the pleasure giving hormone zones in our brain - instant gratification when looking at an Ingres painting but not a Francis Bacon. But is that sort of quick pleasure fix the same as happiness? Many would say happiness is a more sustained state and relates to connecting with others rather than with pleasure as such..or that happiness can only exist in relation to unhappiness.

Happiness is high on the agenda, some people prefer to discuss Wellbeing - it seems more serious! I follow @actionhappiness and @TheSchoolOfLife on twitter, I know about the Happiness Project by Lightbox in Bristol and the Happy Museum Project, I inform myself about Wellbeing Measures to evaluate projects. I have personally witnessed people who are troubled by depression or anxiety flourish and find new ways of expressing themselves and connecting with others when they are writing poetry or making images. A recent evaluation by DR K.L. Margrove at Anglia Ruskin University has shown that engaging in arts courses has benefits for people experiencing mental health problems in terms of improved wellbeing and social inclusion.

In the prevention of unhappiness and mental ill health, wellbeing and social connections are critical. Deborah Munt, Director of Open Art talks about social contagion in the context of Open Art's Culture Club for over 55s. 'Social contagion can work across a family, a social group, to friends of friends and of course to almost complete strangers with whom we have fleeting interactions with whilst going about our daily business. If someone laughs we laugh...if someone yawns, we yawn... and as far as science tell us, human beings are built for this to happen. If we believe in social contagion, then we must believe we can actually spread happiness, kindness, joy, enthusiasm and laughter -we can infect each other with the joys of life.'

Broadening the discussion out to a bigger picture view of health and wellbeing I was excited to discover Glasgow University's After Now project led by Professor Phil Hanlon. This proposes that the waves of improvement in public health through the 20th century have reached a peak and that modernity has allowed scientism and economism to dominate public life. What we need in response to our current public health challenges is to learn how to reintegrate the good, the true and the beautiful and that this will lead to the next wave of transformational change.