The Link Between Happiness and Careers in Art

By Anna Ortiz on September 17, 2019

The pursuit of art as a career appears to lead to a greater overall sense of happiness than does working, for example, in an office, crunching numbers on a daily basis, or as a factory worker, regularly performing repetitive, mind-numbing work. In fact, research has demonstrated a connection between overall happiness and your chosen career. Multiple studies demonstrate that people who work in more artistic, creative jobs, such as writers, music teachers, editors, and interior designers, typically rank themselves as more contented than those who work in other fields.

Other important studies examine happiness from a financial perspective. The old adage, “money can’t buy happiness,” isn’t necessarily true—living comfortably may not replace finding true love, but it helps relieve the often-overwhelming levels of financial stress encountered during a lifetime of paying bills.

Artistic Careers and Happiness

The terms “happy” and“ artist” may not immediately connect when considering famous creatives. Many well-known writers, for example, were alcoholics or suffered from depression. Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger are reported to have rarely left their homes, while poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide. And, of course, Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear. Happy people typically do not behave in this manner. Indeed, the “artist as tortured soul” is a familiar characterization, but research proves it’s simply a stereotype.

In fact, studies reveal that while not all artistic people are happy, most are. In fact, creative types are likely more psychologically stable than non-creatives. A study led by researchers at the University of Zurich in Germany, under the leadership of Bruno Frey, analyzed an extensive amount of data gathered from the British Household Panel, the Swiss Household Panel, and the European Value Survey.

These surveys asked participants to list their jobs and then to rate their happiness with that position on a simple scale of 1 (“not happy”) to 10 (“incredibly happy”). Artists and other creative types typically rated their overall job satisfaction higher than did those in more mundane fields. In the Zurich study, the average happiness rating in creative jobs rose to levels between 7.32 and 7.67, while the average for non-artistic jobs fell to 7.06. In a study Frey performed later at the University of Warwick, findings were consistent with the earlier research: The average for creatives climbed to 7.7, while non-creative job satisfaction dropped to 7.3.

This disparity in job satisfaction did not vary, no matter how the researchers approached the data. The team studied the results, considering all the possible variables: income, gender, number of hours worked in a week, age, and personality traits. Creatives rated as more satisfied in all sectors.

A Vanderbilt University Study

Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for the Arts, Entertainment, and Public Policy confirmed this research with their own study, which involved 13,000 recent graduates from various arts-related programs. Overall, many of those surveyed indicated their chosen career made them “very happy.” Many respondents cited the primary reason for their job satisfaction included a host of factors, including the autonomy derived from their self-employment status, the flexibility in their working hours, and the passion they held for their daily creative pursuits.

These findings raise the question as to why those in the arts sometimes end their own lives or suffer from depression or alcoholism. Frey and his co-authors presented the theory that while creative people typically are happier overall, they also typically don’t have the stability provided by regular employment. Their happiness may fluctuate greatly based on the amount of work they have or the level of public appreciation for their work. Indeed, they appear to experience higher “highs” and lower “lows” than people in other careers. However, this area needs additional research to confirm the theory.

Money and Happiness

Studies have also examined the correlation between professional happiness and income. Specifically, in an effort to apply the happiness/income connection to the general population, these studies scrutinized the relationship between the ideal salary and job satisfaction. At what point does money stop “buying” more happiness, researchers asked. The studies revealed that the ideal salary appears to stand at about $75,000 a year.

Economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University led a study that utilized Gallup surveys performed between 2008 and 2009, which analyzed both income and the self-reported job satisfaction of 450,000 workers in the United States. The researchers considered daily happiness and overall life satisfaction in relation to annual income.

The Results

The results demonstrated that as annual salaries approached the $75,000 figure, both job satisfaction and daily happiness levels increased. However, job satisfaction appeared to plateau at that annual figure. While people still reported feeling a bit happier making $100,000 a year, it did not rise by a significant increase, and most people at that level were not any more contented with their day-to-day lives than people earning $75,000 annually. Those receiving more money typically claimed higher overall satisfaction with their lives, but the increase in happiness on a daily basis was negligible. They simply had the means to buy more.

However, location was not considered in the survey. In states where the average cost of living was lower than the national average, it is possible that the magic threshold, $75,000, would fall a little lower. In other cities, such as New York City, $75,000 is not a huge salary, and happiness levels may not begin to plateau until $85,000 or more. However, on average, people in the U.S. typically reach their maximum day-to-day happiness level when earning an annual salary of $75,000.

Tying It All Together: Money, Art Careers, and Happiness

If artistic individuals achieve a higher standard of happiness, and those who make $75,000 a year are even more content, then it follows that people in artistic, creative jobs who earn $75,000 a year are the happiest. Unfortunately, the term “starving artist” exists for a reason—many people in artistic careers have chosen creativity and the freedom afforded from skipping traditional 9 to 5 employment over high salaries and job stability. Their annual wages may not even meet half the magic number, and many may struggle for years, skimping and saving to simply meet their daily expenses.

However, some careers offer the ability to remain creative and the freedom to set your own schedule and receive adequate pay. Here are the top 10 artistic careers that meet the key $75,000 salary threshold. If you work in one of these areas, you have most likely achieved a certain amount of happiness in your life, at least in terms of employment and the amount of money you earn.

Art Directors

Art directors may work in a wide variety of fields, such as advertising, publishing, fashion, theater, and film. Additionally, the video game industry hires art directors. Typically, an art director works under the supervision of a creative director who is responsible for the entire project. Sometimes considered an upper-level management position, art directors must work in their chosen industry for a number of years to achieve a higher salary. In 2016, the annual wages of an art director averaged $89,820, and those in the top 10 percent brought in more than $166,400. Those in the motion picture and video industries earned the highest median annual wages, at $112,140 per year, which means they rose comfortably above the desired $75,000 salary range.

Producers and directors find employment in television, film, and theater, and they also work on video games and websites. Several categories of producers exist, including executive producers and line producers. Their duties range from managing the day-to-day running of production to raising money to supervising the editing of music. Online producers oversee the creation of web and social media content, while theater producers run the production of a play. Directors are in charge of directing the actors through each scene. They have more hands-on control of the scene, while the producer manages the overall project. Most producers and directors who work in film and television live in L.A. or New York, but professionals can find work almost anywhere in this field.

In 2016, producers and directors earned a mean annual salary of $70,950. Those in the highest 10 percent earned more than $189,870 per year. Producers and directors in the advertising and public relations industries earned a median annual salary of $93,450, more than enough to ensure contentment and well above the $75,000 optimal happiness figure.

Broadcast News Analysts

Since they write news stories, broadcast news analysts also hold creative positions. News stations often contact freelance writers or those who work in other fields to write articles. For example, when a television or radio station needs a major story regarding a medical breakthrough or disease, the producers may bring in an analyst in the medical field to analyze the data and complete a report for their viewers with no medical knowledge. Tasked with the challenge of reducing complicated information to simple, easy-to-understand stories, broadcast news analysts must think creatively.

In 2016, full-time analysts could expect to earn a mean annual wage of approximately $78,200, which means this position ranks within the ideal salary range for maximum happiness. Experienced, skilled analysts in the top 10 percent may earn as much as $163,490 annually.

While making art or performing in theater may not guarantee a steady paycheck or benefits, teaching at the university level provides both salary and perks. If you love working with others, this type of position offers great rewards. Art, drama, and music teachers have the opportunity to help those just beginning their careers in the arts. However, a trade-off exists: While you will have both a stable position and a reasonable salary, you also must attend faculty meetings and assign grades.

While the salary for these teaching positions can vary greatly, depending on the university and its location, in 2016, the mean annual wage for teachers working in the college, university and professional schools industries was $82,380. Teachers in the top 10 percent of their field earned more than 140,070.

If you love clothes, you may find a rewarding career working as a fashion designer. Clothing labels need designers, and, with savvy business sense or a business-oriented partner, you can even start your own line of clothing. Fashion designers sketch out their ideas and then either work closely with a sewing professional to create a prototype garment or sew it themselves. Most designers live and work in areas that sustain a large fashion industry, such as New York, France or Italy. However, by emailing their designs and shipping completed prototype garments, they can live anywhere they like.

In 2016, the mean annual wage for a fashion designer was reported as $76,320. Individuals who ranked in the top 10 percent earned more than $130,050. Of course, salaries in this profession vary widely depending on the employer, experience and the reputation cultivated by the designer. Most successful fashion designers working in a self-employed role report earnings that are many times higher than the top designers in salaried positions with employers.

Art majors may wish to pursue a career in multimedia art or animation, positions that often involve working for television or movie studios. Animators may secure a job with Disney or another high-profile animation studio. Animators and multimedia artists work outside of film and television, as well: Both video game software companies and online marketing firm shire animators. Multimedia artists combine photos, videos, animation, and other types of media to create unique visual displays, while animators either hand-draw their illustrations or create animations on a computer using specialized software.

Those working in this industry in 2016 made around $65,300 annually, but the top 10 percent of multimedia artists and animators commanded a salary of $115,960.

Media and Communication Equipment Workers

Creatives may also find employment in media and communication equipment. People who work under this umbrella term usually find positions in the film and television industry, finding employment as camera operators, cinematographers, website operators, and soundboard operators. Some work in theaters, while others serve as social media managers. Job duties, obviously, vary, but include a range of functions, such as setting up and operating sound equipment or creating websites.

The mean annual wage for those working as media and communication equipment workers was $76,500 in 2016; however, the top 10 percent in this industry brought in $118,840.

While not all writers and authors have the opportunity or means to write on a full-time basis, some people give up their day jobs to make their living solely as writers. Writers’ chosen media range from novels to magazines, websites, newspapers, or other publications. Some write copy for marketing materials, grants, and other documents. Others work as freelancers, taking on work from a variety of different arenas. Authors may write several books a year in different genres, and their income might include a mix of advances and royalties earned from previously published books. Some authors have contracts in place, while others write books or stories without upfront payment and submit their work to publishers, seeking publication, or they self-publish.

In 2016 the mean annual wage of writers and authors was $64,360. Top earners in the highest 10 percent earned $118,640 on average. Of course, popular authors like Stephen King make much more.

Landscape architects design and create yards, landscaping for buildings, and parks. They must have more than just a sense of which colors and plants complement each other—they also must understand how plants, flowers, and trees thrive in different climates and how the plants interact. Landscape architects may work for or own a landscaping company, or they might find employment with an architectural firm. Some work only in office settings, designing landscaping, while others take a hands-on approach by installing the landscaping.

These jobs paid a mean annual wage of $68,030 in 2012. While that’s not near the $75,000 mark, those who had experience and had put in several years in the industry could earn $83,370, the average salary for those in the top 25 percent.

Technical Writers

Technical writers, like broadcast news analysts, often have the task of taking a complex, technical process or project and translating it into terms that the average layperson can understand. In this position, they create user manuals or detailed guidebooks. They must thoroughly understand the project on which they are working, which is why some technical writers also study computer science, electronics, or manufacturing. A career in technical writing is ideal for someone who wants to work in an industry such as software engineering, yet also desires a creative job. Technical writers, who work closely with engineers and programmers, often comprise the first to try new electronics and other products before they appear on the market.

At the bottom of the 10 highest-paid creative jobs, technical writers still manage to do fairly well. The mean annual wage of a technical writer was $63,480 in 2016, and those who broke into the top 10 percent of the industry earned a median annual wage of $106,770.

Be Happy, Be Creative

These jobs comprise the top 10 creative positions that earned the most money in the year 2012, but a number of other creative jobs offer the opportunity to achieve maximum happiness by making the key $75,000 salary. As industries develop, average salaries also fluctuate, and this list may look very different in the future. However, if your job provides both the creativity and the freedom you need to express yourself fully, happiness becomes a realistic goal.