Art in a Happy Place

Teaching Articles - Essays to fuel your creative life

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Reflect with Cameron Brooks as he considers the role that happiness might play in education and life. He offers insights, ideas, and recommended reading.

Art in a Happy Place

by Cameron Brooks

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Maybe it's an instinctual need for change tied to fall's flux, or the exhaustion that takes hold during the homestretch before the winter break. In Carl Sagan's book Cosmos he writes, "We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still." I testify to this quote around the midpoint of each school year, when wanderlust sets in and the search for teaching jobs abroad begins.

While researching K-5 positions, I discovered an opening in Bhutan. The primarily Buddhist South Asian nation is the first in the world to develop a Gross National Happiness Index. The GNH measures quality of life in terms of nine index variables, such as psychological, educational, and cultural indicators, rather than the simple value of goods and services. While this spurs all sorts of questions, here I will address one: If the level of cultural preservation and the arts in a given society relates directly to overall well-being, then how are the arts nurtured in the happiest places in the world?

As I began looking for answers I found a range of studies, with rankings that vary considerably. Author, cyclist, and explorer Dan Buettner's most recent book, Thrive, is a travelogue of "Blue Zones," or places with high rates of happiness. The book also serves as a composite of previous research conducted by, in the author's words, "a small army of psychologists, social scientists and scholars" from around the globe.

Ruut Veenhoven, professor emeritus at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, ranks Denmark as one of the happiest places on earth (second only to Costa Rica). This he attributes in large part to the "Folkehoejskoler, or Danish folk high schools." The schools were first developed by Nikolai Grundtvig, who believed education "should focus on asking the question, 'Who are you?' rather than 'What can you do?'" In lieu of assessments, "classes prepared students for society and for participation in the arts. They promoted a spirit of freedom, equality, and disciplined creativity." There are currently over 70 folk high schools in Denmark, where students can choose to study art, music, or philosophy, to name a few.

While learning about the bluest locales along Buettner's travels, I can't help but reflect upon the happiness level of our culture, compared to those who assert that devotion to the arts creates a happier citizenry. If more people ascribed to an ethos of "developing an individual's artistic ability as a means to create social harmony," what sorts of changes would we see in our communities?