Art Should Be a Habit, Not a Luxury
Just like exercise and sleep, engaging with the arts is a necessity for a full and happy life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
If someone asked whether you like the arts, you’d probably say you do—at least in theory. According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults say the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences.” Still, only 30 percent attended a concert of any type in 2017; 23 percent went to an art museum; 6 percent attended a literary event. Fewer than half actively created art of any kind.
The No. 1 reason for this mismatch between values and behaviors is, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, that we don’t have time for art—we are weighed down by our day-to-day responsibilities. Maybe you play a little background music while you work or do chores, but even before the pandemic, you rarely saw a live performance, let alone visited a gallery or watched a play. And reading poetry? Perhaps not since high school.
Too often, we let the humdrum reality of life get in the way of the arts, which can feel frivolous by comparison. But this is a mistake. The arts are the opposite of a diversion from reality; they might just be the most realistic glimpse we ever get into the nature and meaning of life. And if you make time for consuming and producing art—the same way you make time for work and exercise and family commitments—you’ll find your life getting fuller and happier.
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“The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” William Wordsworth wrote in an 1807 poem. “Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s point was that, left to their own devices, many people allow life to become a numbing routine of working, earning, and struggling for more, in search of fulfillment that never seems to come.
In 1818, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer took up this problem. What we might today call the “hamster wheel” he more grandiosely dubbed the “wheel of Ixion,” named after the king in Greek mythology who tried to seduce Zeus’s wife, Hera, and was punished by being bound to a great fiery wheel, spinning for eternity. This wheel was, for Schopenhauer, a metaphor for the worldly rat race, which was governed by an attribute he called Wille, or “will”—our mindless drive for worldly success. Will subjugates us, turning us into Homo economicus, and condemns our days and years to drudgery.
In some respects, will is a capitulation to reality, a response to the fact that each of us must meet our basic needs. But Schopenhauer argued that will in fact leads to a form of delusion, in which our focus becomes so narrow that we no longer perceive objective reality. We obsess over our everyday experiences, which are small and subjective, swinging thoughtlessly between desire and boredom. Art, by contrast, forces us to stop looking through the soda straw of our workaday lives and see the world as it truly is. In experiencing art, we contemplate and absorb universal ideas, instead of fixating on the stultifying minutiae of me, me, me.
Engaging with art after worrying over the minutiae of your routine is like looking at the horizon after you’ve spent too long staring intently at a particular object: Your perception of the outside world expands. This refocusing enables what the Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman calls panoramic vision, widening our perspective of true reality by allowing us to see more. In addition to increasing awareness of the broader world, Huberman shows that narrow vision heightens our fear response, but widening our perspective lowers stress.
Art opens our mental aperture and provides relief from the narrow tedium of will. “The true work of art leads us … [to] that which exists perpetually and time and time again in innumerable manifestations,” Schopenhauer wrote in 1851.
Think of a time when you heard a piece of music and wanted to cry. Or recall the flutter of your heart as you stared at a delicate, uncannily lifelike sculpture. Or maybe your dizziness as you emerged from a narrow side street in an unfamiliar city and found yourself in a beautiful town square; for me, it was the Piazza San Marco in Venice, with its exquisitely preserved Renaissance architecture. Odds are, you didn’t feel as if the object of beauty was a narcotic, deadening you. Instead, it probably precipitated a visceral awakening, much like the shock from a lungful of pure oxygen after breathing smoggy air.
Art transcends mere good feelings. It can provoke in us the full range of experience and emotion. A melancholy song may inspire sadness, which can be a strangely ecstatic experience. Even the experience of fear can make art seem all the more sublime. None of this would be the slightest bit paradoxical to Schopenhauer: The truth can be sad or scary, but it is always a source of intense satisfaction.
If you are among the 73 percent of Americans who feel that art is “pure pleasure to experience and participate in,” you might see it the same way you see eating out, or skydiving: as a luxury item in your limited budgets of time and money. As such, it probably gets the same sort of treatment as any minor hobby.
Don’t make this error. Treat art less like a diversionary pleasure and more like exercise or sleep or loving relationships: a necessity for a life full of deep satisfaction. I’m not saying you need to quit your job and become a poet. But you should make a daily effort to get off the wheel of Ixion.
Start by programming art into your schedule, beginning with 15 minutes before or after lunch if you can. Make a list of music, poetry, literature, and visual art you want to enjoy and learn more about. Day by day, make your way down your list. You will be amazed by how much you can cover in just a short window, and even more amazed at the transformative effect it will have on your appreciation for life, seemingly even in areas unrelated to the arts.
Next, dabble in art yourself. Take a class in pottery or watercolor, or write a little poetry. Though no empirical studies exist measuring the amount of existential awareness one derives from making art, a few studies suggest profound psychic benefits.
Try not to focus too much on your performance. The point isn’t that everyone needs to be a great artist; it is that we all could benefit from opening our consciousness to the crystalline awareness that exists in the creative realm.
Teachings about the moral and emotional benefits of art are arguably as old as humankind’s ancient sacred scriptures. For example, the soul-deadening drudgery of will is expressed concisely in the Book of Genesis; it is Adam’s penance for eating the forbidden fruit: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”
But nowhere does God tell Adam that he cannot find any relief from this drudgery. Christians believe that people are made in God’s image; God is a creator of a world “pleasing to the eye and good for food.” It is no biblical stretch for a believer to think that art is a reminder of the bliss lost in the fall of mankind.
Adding more art into your life may not transport you to the Garden of Eden, but the idea is surely worth putting to the test nonetheless. You have nothing to lose but a few turns on the wheel of Ixion.