Eat, sleep, exercise, make art

“How to build a lifeis 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 if you liked the arts, you would probably say that you like them, at least in theory. According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, more than two-thirds of American adults say the arts “elevate me beyond everyday experiences.” However, only 30% assisted a concert of any type in 2017; 23% went to an art museum; 6% attended a literary event. Less than half have actively created art of any kind.

The #1 reason for this mismatch between values ​​and behaviors is: according to National Endowment for the Arts, that we don’t have time for art, we are overwhelmed with our daily responsibilities. Maybe you put on some background music while you work or do chores, but even before the pandemic you’ve rarely seen a live performance, let alone visited a gallery or watched a play. And read poetry? Maybe not since high school.

Too often we let the monotonous reality of life get in the way of the arts, which can seem frivolous in comparison. But it is a mistake. The arts are the opposite of a diversion from reality; they may well be the most realistic insight we have ever had into the nature and meaning of life. And if you dedicate time to consuming and producing art, the same way you dedicate time to work, exercise, and family commitments, you will find that your life becomes fuller and happier.

“The is world too much with us; late and soon, / Get and spend, we waste our powers”, William Wordsworth wrote in an 1807 poem. “We see little in the nature that belongs to us; / We gave our hearts, 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 striving 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” has more grandly double the “wheel of Ixion”, named after the king in Greek mythology who tried to seduce Zeus’ wife, Hera, and was punished by being bound to a fiery ferris wheel, spinning for eternity. This wheel was, for Schopenhauer, a metaphor for the frantic race of the world, which was governed by an attribute he called Wille, or “willpower” – our insane drive to succeed in the world. The will subjugates us, transforms us into Homo economicusand condemns our days and our years to drudgery.

In some ways, willpower is a surrender to reality, a response to the fact that each of us must meet our basic needs. But Schopenhauer argued that willpower actually leads to a form of illusion, in which our goal becomes so narrow that we no longer perceive the goal. reality. We are obsessed with our daily experiences, which are small and subjective, swinging without thinking between desire and boredom. Art, on the other hand, forces us to stop looking through the soda straw of our everyday lives and see the world as it really is. In experiencing art, we contemplate and absorb universal ideas, instead of fixating on the mind-numbing minutiae of me me me.

Engaging in art after worrying about the details of your routine is like gazing at the horizon after spending too much time staring intently at a particular object: your perception of the outside world expands. This refocusing enables what Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman calls panoramic vision, broadening our perspective of true reality by allowing us to see more of it. In addition to increasing awareness of the larger world, Huberman shows that tunnel vision increases our fear response, but broadening our perspective reduces stress.

Art opens our mental opening and relieves the narrow boredom of the will. “The true work of art leads us… [to] that which exists perpetually and over and over again in innumerable manifestations”, Schopenhauer wrote in 1851.

Think of a time when you heard a piece of music and you felt like crying. Or remember the beating of your heart as you gazed at a delicate and eerily realistic sculpture. Or maybe your dizziness when you came out of a narrow street in an unfamiliar town and found yourself in a beautiful town square; for me it was the St. Mark’s Square in Venice, with its beautifully preserved Renaissance architecture. Chances are you didn’t feel like the beauty object was a narcotic that was choking you. Instead, it likely precipitated a visceral awakening, much like the shock of a breath of pure oxygen after breathing in polluted air.

Art transcends mere good feelings. This can provoke in us the full range of experience and emotion. A melancholy son can inspire sadness, which can be a strangely ecstatic experience. Even the experience of fear can make art all the more sublime. None of this would be the least bit paradoxical for Schopenhauer: the truth may be sad or frightening, but it is always a source of intense satisfaction.

If you are among the 73% of Americans who feel this art is “a pure pleasure to experience and participate in”, you can see it the same way you see it dining out or skydiving: as a luxury item in your limited time and money budgets. As such, it probably gets the same kind of treatment as any minor hobby.

Don’t make this mistake. Treat art less as a pleasure of diversion and more as exercise or sleep or romantic relationships: a necessity for a life full of deep satisfaction. I’m not saying you have to quit your job and become a poet. But you have to make a daily effort to get off the wheel of Ixion.

Start by scheduling art into your schedule, starting with 15 minutes before or after lunch if you can. Make a list of the music, poetry, literature, and visual arts that you want to enjoy and learn more about. Day after day, work your way up your list. You’ll be amazed at how much you can cover in a short window, and even more amazed at the transformative effect it will have on your appreciation of life, seemingly even in areas unrelated to the arts.

Then touch the art yourself. Take a pottery or watercolor class, or write some poetry. Although there are no empirical studies measuring how much existential awareness one derives from creating art, a few studies suggest deep psychic advantages.

Try not to focus too much on your performance. The point is not that everyone has to be a great artist; it is that we could all benefit from opening our consciousness to the crystalline consciousness that exists in the creative realm.

Jeveryone about the The moral and emotional benefits of art are arguably as old as the ancient sacred scriptures of mankind. For example, the deadly drudgery of the will is concisely expressed in the Book of Genesis; it is Adam’s penance for having eaten the forbidden fruit: “Cursed be the ground for your sake; by hard labor you will eat it all the days of your life.

But nowhere does God tell Adam that he can find no relief from this drudgery. Christians believe that people are created in the image of God; God is the creator of a world “nice to look at and good to eat”. It is not a biblical exaggeration for a believer to think that art is a reminder of the bliss lost in the fall of mankind.

Adding more art to your life might not transport you to the Garden of Eden, but the idea is worth trying nonetheless. You have nothing to lose but a few spins on the Ixion wheel.

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