1Recent studies have shown that the distribution of the perception of happiness in Spain is similar to that of other developed countries (on a scale of 0-10, the Spanish average is 7.3).
2Culture and leisure contribute to our happiness and we prefer to share many of these experiences with other people.
3The empirical evidence shows that the simple presence of others – being surrounded by people at a concert or a museum – has a positive effect and, therefore, makes up happier.
4The most recent empirical studies have confirmed the so-called “Easterlin paradox”, according to which (at least from a certain threshold) more income or more economic resources do not mean greater happiness.
The graph shows the impact of cultural and leisure activities on the happiness scale (from 0 to 10), as well as the percentage of Spaniards who participate in each activity. In Spain, all cultural and leisure activities obtain high average scores on the happiness scale, varying between 7.29 and 7.5.
- Empirical evidence on consumption and happiness shows the importance of public support for the arts as a source of happiness and the promotion of policies aimed at facilitating access to culture.
- Actions aimed, for example, at better reconciling working timetables in order to undertake more shared cultural activities can have positive effects on happiness.
- In this sense, many cities, above all European ones, have a long tradition of support for art, acknowledging the recreational aspect of all culture, which must not be overlooked in public policies that are to be implemented in relation with happiness.
What is happiness and how is it measured? No consensus exists on a unanimous definition of the concept, whose meaning, furthermore, has evolved over the course of time. It seems indisputable, however, that happiness depends on many factors, prominently including participation in cultural and leisure activities, whether in an individual or shared way. This study presents some relevant results, in both the international sphere and in Spain, which show empirical evidence regarding this relationship.
1. The two dimensions of happiness: individual and social
The desire to achieve happiness is a timeless common denominator among human beings. Although an exhaustive review of all the lines of research and their inter-disciplinarity goes beyond the objective of this study, it is interesting to mention two questions.
The first, referring to the nature of happiness, distinguishes between one current with the merely individualist (selfish) search for happiness, a typical phenomenon in Western society, and an approach that contemplates of two dimensions of happiness (Cieslik, 2015): the individual and the social (co-produced or collective).
The second aspect, referring to the main determinants of happiness, highlights the growing interest in culture and the arts as a “source of happiness” (Frey, 2008).
This work proposes to present some recent results on the co-participative (social) dimension of culture and its impact on happines.
2. The “Easterlin paradox”, or whether it is true that money does not bring happiness
For a long time happiness has been held as synonymous with the search for material wellbeing, as marked out by the utilitarian view of the economy, according to which more income or GDP per capita leads to greater satisfaction or greater happiness. This thesis has been challenged over the last four decades by the “Easterlin paradox”, which shows the opposite: working with macroeconomic data for different countries, Richard Easterlin (1974) confirmed that, on average, there was no significant difference in the long term between the level of happiness perceived by people in richer countries, with their basic needs covered, and that of people in less wealthy countries.
Interest in the question has led to a new research pathway, so-called happiness economics (Frey, 2008) which has the aim of introducing alternative indicators to a country’s material development in order to evaluate policies and the distribution of resources. Bhutan, for example, has been a pioneering country in introducing Gross National Happiness as an indicator of its society’s progress.
More recent studies (Clark et al., 2012) show that the “Easterlin paradox” remains in force, highlighting that in the long term, the inequality observed in happiness levels perceived within one same country has gradually declined; the percentages of both extremes of the happiness scale (not very happy and very happy, respectively) have fallen, while in contrast the concentration in the central zone of the scale has increased. This would be equivalent to less dispersion and, in consequence, a more egalitarian distribution of the perception of happiness of those surveyed.
Spain, France, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands are some of the countries that, having met the selection requirements imposed by the study (such as, for example, experiencing periods of continued income growth), have been analysed in detail and show this tendency.
Thus, this behaviour observed at the two extremes of the happiness scale, in particular that of maximum happiness, has led to a shift in the interest of researchers towards the non-material component of happiness and wellbeing. In this sense, the question and answer proposed by Bill Ivey, former director of the National Endowment for the Arts (USA), are of great current relevance: “If the dream of a bigger car, grander house or more exotic holiday is taken off the table, how can policy leaders act to advance a high quality of life for all?” (Ivey, 2009).
Ivey considers that the answer lies in having a vibrant “expressive life” understood as the balance between heritage (what we are) and voice (what we can become). Culture and the arts can be the space for the union of the two components of the equation, because they are an expression of our ideas and identity (heritage) and also the space (voice) that allows us to experience emotions and create and transmit new values for the future. According to Ivey, a person capable of achieving this balance between heritage and voice can also achieve happiness and governments should promote an “expressive life” by guaranteeing, for example, access to culture for all.
3. Lack of a unanimous definition and the consequent complexity of measuring happiness
The majority of recent studies on happiness and its determining factors share as a common characteristic a growing inter-disciplinary nature (Frey, 2008). However, no consensus exists on a definition or unanimous understanding of the concept, which depends on many factors such as the sociocultural context or the life cycle. This has led to its meaning gradually changing over the course of time.
The use of a large variety of definitions to measure happiness –feeling good, feeling satisfied with life, absence of negative emotions, etc.– makes interpretation and comparisons between countries difficult. For this reason, the concept usually used as a synonym is that of “subjective” or “self-perceived wellbeing”. The two concepts – happiness and wellbeing – are considered subjective as they are based on individual evaluations.
Some studies establish two major categories: evaluative wellbeing and affective or emotional wellbeing (Fujiwara and MacKerron, 2015).
In the first case, individuals self-assess their level of happiness or of wellbeing. The Opinion Barometer of the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research (CIS, 2014), for example, puts the following question to people taking part in the survey: “In general terms, to what extent do you consider yourself to be a happy or unhappy person?” They are asked to indicate their self-assessment on a scale of 0 to 10 (with 0 being “completely unhappy” and 10 being “completely happy”).
In contrast, affective wellbeing measures the positive (happiness) and the negative (anxiety, stress, tiredness, etc.) feelings experienced by a person in real time, for example, at different moments throughout the course of the day. The difficulty represented by gathering the information (time and cost) means that measures based on affective wellbeing are more scarce, although the Internet and apps facilitate them (Fujiwara and MacKerron, 2015).
Graph 1 presents the distribution of the perception of happiness measured by the CIS survey (2014), which has an average of 7.3 (scale 0-10), with 8 as the value that is most repeated. The survey includes a total of 2,465 individuals of adult age (18 years or over), and the data also indicate that almost 50% of those surveyed score themselves above 7 and more than 20% above 8. A scale recoded into three levels (0-2, not too happy; 3-8, pretty happy; 9-10, very happy, Clark et al., 2012) shows that 76.4% of those interviewed perceive themselves to be pretty happy, 22.1% as very happy and only 1.5% as not too happy. Recent studies have made clear that the distribution of the perception of happiness in Spain is similar to that of other developed countries (Ibid.).
4. The relationship between cultural consumption and happiness
The empirical evidence has highlighted the positive effect of cultural and leisure activities on happiness and wellbeing; thus, for example, watching television, going to the cinema, listening to music and reading books all have a positive effect on the happiness of the people doing these activities (Ateca-Amestoy et al., 2016); going to the cinema is among those with the greatest effect, and watching television the lowest of all. The study, with data from 2007, is relevant because, although it does not include data from Spain, it makes reference to thirty countries worldwide. Wheatley and Bickerton (2017) analyse data from 2010- 2011 for the United Kingdom and also confirm that participation in artistic, cultural and sporting activities increases satisfaction with life and the general feeling of happiness of those surveyed. Other studies available in the World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven, 2017) also indicate that cultural consumption makes us happier.
In a similar vein, a study by Fujiwara and MacKerron (2015) estimates the impact of participation in different cultural (and non-cultural) activities on happiness and the sensation of relaxation, in real time. The study’s data were collected via the Mappiness (an app especially designed for the Apple iPhone) project in the 2010-2011 period, for over a million people from the United Kingdom. Despite some considerations regarding the representativeness of the data, the results show that cultural activities are prominent among those with a greater impact on happiness and feelings of relaxation (table 1).
In the global ranking of the forty activities measured, being at a theatre, dance or concert occupies second place in terms of their impact on happiness, followed by singing and performing (third place), going to exhibitions, museums and libraries (fourth place), doing hobbies, arts or crafts (sixth place), listening to music (thirteenth place) and reading (nineteenth place) (table 1).
5. What activities bring happiness to Spanish people?
In the case of Spain, an exploratory analysis of the data from the CIS (2014) enables observation of the scores for cultural and leisure activities on the happiness scale (from 0 to 10), as well as the percentage of those participating in each activity. As shown in graph 2, all the activities have high average scores on the happiness scale, varying between 7.29 and 7.5. In general, the data confirm results from other studies (Ateca-Amestoy et al., 2016) although more analyses will be needed to determine whether the differences observed in happiness averages are significant or not. Activities such as going to the cinema or the theatre are positioned among the highest-rated in the happiness ranking despite not having the greatest frequency, whereas other activities, practised by more people (greater frequency), such as watching television, score less highly in the happiness ranking (graph 2).
From the series of data it could be inferred that activities assimilated as achievable and incorporated into our daily life, over time, ultimately contribute less to the improvement of our happiness.
6. Undertaking cultural activities in company increases happiness
Studies that have analysed the determining factors of happiness coincide in highlighting the importance of connections with other people, especially the family, and friends and social networks, to be happier (Barker and Martin, 2011). Data from the CIS survey (2014) reflect that in Spain also, relational aspects are linked to happiness; in the list of fifteen elements included in the survey, after health (50.2% of those surveyed), getting on well with the family occupies second place (10.2%), closely followed by having good friends (5.9%).
Barker and Martin (2011) focus on the greater participation – greater happiness connection in three spheres – family, workplace and politics. A review of the bibliography enables them to confirm the existence of a positive effect, especially through the construction of personal relations and helping others (for example, in the workplace). Bryson and Mackerron (2013) also confirmed that we are happier if we can work from home and, if we are at work, we are happier working with colleagues than working alone.
In any case, studies on happiness or wellbeing when cultural and leisure activities are shared with others are somewhat scarce. Harmon (2016) has confirmed that couples who share leisure activities increase their “marital capital” which has an influence on wellbeing on a personal, partnership and also group level. The positive emotions experienced as a result of sharing leisure activities stimulate the desire to share more leisure activities in the future with partners and with friends.
Fujiwara and MacKerron (2015) estimate the impact of sharing different cultural activities with other people (partner, children, family members, colleagues, work customers, friends and others) on happiness and feelings of relaxation. The results indicate that the simple presence of others – being, for example, surrounded by people when we go to a concert or an exhibition – has a positive effect and, therefore, makes us happier. When the activities undertaken are shared and we interact with others, the effects are significant and positive only for some cultural activities such as, for example, singing with one’s children (for feelings of relaxation). The study, undoubtedly, opens up an interesting pathway for investigation into possible explanatory factors for these effects of interaction.
In the case of Spain, the data from the CIS (2014) make it possible to distinguish between cultural and leisure activities more prone to being undertaken alone (reading, listening to music, listening to the radio) or shared (with partners, friends or family members) such as going for a walk, going to bars and night clubs, going shopping and watching television (graph 3).
In graph 4 we can observe a breakdown of the shared activities by type of company (with partner, friends or family members). The data show that with friends we prefer to go to bars and night clubs (38%), play something (29.5%) or attend concerts or musical shows (23.7%) or sporting events (23.2%); with partners we prefer to go for a walk or stroll (46%), go shopping (38.6%), watch television (37.3%), go to the cinema and to the theatre (36.3%) or go hiking in the countryside (34.2%).
With regard to interaction with others when undertaking different cultural and leisure activities, and its effect on happiness, the results presented in graph 5 show that in the majority of cultural and leisure activities there is a larger percentage of people who perceive themselves as happy or quite happy when they are in company. Only for some activities that are usually undertaken alone, such as reading, listening to music, doing handicrafts or listening to the radio, is the proportion of those who perceived themselves as quite happy or very happy greater without company.
The data from the same survey on time shared with others indicate that we prefer to share weekends with the family (partner, children), whereas during the week, we spend the greater part of our time with work colleagues or fellow students. If for some activities, such as sporting events, regular participation is important for achieving a positive effect on wellbeing, for cultural activities there are studies that show that frequency is not a determining factor (Wheatley and Bickerton, 2017).
The empirical evidence that exists on cultural consumption and happiness shows the importance of public support for the arts as a “source of happiness” (Frey, 2008) and of promoting policies designed to facilitate access to culture (O’Hagan, 2016). The results presented here, in particular studies such as that by Fujiwara and MacKerron (2015), highlight the need to continue researching the effect of co-participation in cultural and leisure activities on people’s happiness and wellbeing.
In the case of Spain, the results presented are of an exploratory nature, which means more analyses are needed to quantify effects like those estimated in other countries such as the United Kingdom and be able to make comparisons. However, what the data do indicate is that we prefer to share many cultural and leisure activities because that way we feel happier. Actions oriented, for example, towards better reconciling working hours to be able to undertake more shared cultural activities have positive effects on happiness. The new information and communication technologies can help, through specially designed applications, to compile information in real time on the impact of certain specific cultural activities.
The development of social thinking in recent decades has brought us closer to the notion that happiness demands both material and moral progress, which raises the need for us to think about new ethical and social values that substitute the individualist principle fuelled by market economy dynamics. In this sense, many cities, especially in Europe, have a long tradition of support for public art and, by extension, for urban art (with Rome being the historical example par excellence), as well as for local arts and traditions (festivals and celebrations), recognising the recreational aspect that all culture has, which must not be overlooked in new public policies in relation to happiness.
Lastly, the importance of the collaborative dimension of happiness should be asserted. In this specific case, in relation with the arts and culture, in reality this means defending the place of the other as an intrinsic and inseparable part of the individual self. As Spinoza’s Ethics says, “My mind, as well as my body, is explained through relations with other minds (other ideas and images, other memories …)”. Our individual happiness is fuelled, also, by the happiness of others.
Ateca-Amestoy, V., M. Gerstenblüth, I. Mussio y M. Rossi (2016): «How do cultural activities influence happiness? Investigating the relationship between self-reported well-being and leisure», Estudios Económicos, 31(2).
Barker, C.J., y B. Martin (2011): «Participation: the happiness connection», Journal of Public Deliberation, 7 (1).
Bryson, A., y G. MacKerron (2013): Are you happy while you work? Discussion Paper no. 1187, Centre for Economic Performance, Londres. Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (2014): Barómetro de noviembre 2014, Madrid: CIS.
Cieslik, M. (2015): «‘Nor Smiling, but Frowning’: Sociology and the Problem of Happiness», Sociology, 49(3).
Clark, A.E., S. Flèche y C. Senik (2012): The great happiness moderation, Discussion Paper Series, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, No. 6761.
Easterlin, R.A. (1974): «Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence», en P.A. David y M.W. Reder (eds.): Nations and households in economic growth: essays in honor of Moses Abramovitz, Nueva York y Londres: Academic Press.
Frey, B.S. (2008): Happiness: a revolution in economics, Cambridge, MA y Londres: MIT.
Fujiwara, D., y G. MacKerron (2015): Cultural activities, artforms and wellbeing, Manchester: Arts Council England.
Harmon, J. (2016): «Couples and shared leisure experiences», World Leisure Journal, 58(4).
Ivey, B. (2009): «Expressive life and the public interest», en S. Jones (ed.): Expressive lives, Londres: Demos.
O’Hagan, J.W. (2016): «Attendance at publicly-funded arts events», Social Observatory of ”la Caixa”.
Veenhoven, R. (dir.) (2017): World Database of Happiness, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Happiness Economics Research Organization.
Wheatley, D. y Bickerton, C. (2017): «Subjective well-being and engagement in arts, culture and sport», Journal of Cultural Economics, 41.
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