Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, recently wrote about maintaining personal well-being while enduring a plague, a subject not usually broached in his political commentary but apropos of a course he teaches on the History of Happiness, a subject society is seriously contemplating during the current health crisis. Professor Cole begins by pointing out that being grateful is highly correlated with feelings of well-being, and suggesting that while practicing social distancing, one could also contact those whose help or friendship has been meaningful to express gratitude for what they have done.
He goes on to say that hope is an essential component of happiness, calling hope “a personal rainbow of the mind.” He suggests that, since even slight changes in the history of the earth or in the parameters of the laws governing the universe would have made human life impossible, that we therefore live in the best of all possible worlds, providing a basis for optimism in spite of surrounding gloom. By distracting ourselves from being preoccupied with the negative, we can create distance from and dispute pessimistic thoughts, which are, after all, only a part of the big picture. He says, “Hope is not unrealistic, it is recognition that what obstacles exist can be overcome.”
And then, he cites a recent study which indicates that engaging in a creative activity just once a day can lead to a more positive state of mind; researchers found that individuals who engage in daily creative pastimes experience an upward spiral of well-being. Creative activity can be knitting and cooking, or carpentry and making home improvements, but it also obviously includes involvement in the arts. Professor Cole suggests writing poetry or a short story, drawing or painting, or simply listening to music which somehow is magically not a passive activity, but a creative one.
Sheltering in place isolates us from one another, but even when we are apart from friends and family, art has the power to bring us joy and a sense of community. My inbox has been filled with emails offering connections to the arts which I happily share with others. Entertaining snippets from Broadway performances, singers sharing songs of inspiration and more brighten my day and lift my spirits. Have you seen members of the Dayton Philharmonic earnestly following Conductor Neal Gittleman’s direction to enthusiastically send out over the Internet their version of Ohio’s official rock song and Ohio State marching band anthem, “Hang On Sloopy”? In just a few minutes, gratitude and hope are introduced into your body and soul, and all of a sudden, things aren’t as gloomy as they were before.
Although performance venues and art museums are closed down, inspiration from the arts is available to us. Art museums offer virtual tours which can provide fascinating details about iconic works that stir emotions. The Art Institute of Chicago recently featured an article musing on painter Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, a work which I always viewed as depicting loneliness, its subjects alienated from one another as they sit in a brightly lighted diner in the middle of the night. What I did not know, though, is that the artist enjoyed walking in New York City where the bright lights of the city were literally and figuratively darkened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941; the painting was Hopper’s response to that attack. Perhaps this diner was a beacon of light and hope against the darkness, when everything outside seemed grim and unbearable. Maybe his composition spoke to the need for social connection in a time of fear and isolation rather than just illustrating society’s estrangements.
Of course, the enduring power of Nighthawks is that we cannot know, but can only interpret what we see. But the art speaks to us, creating connection through a shared language. Art of all kinds has the power to speak across time, across cultures, and to bring us together, offering a shining beacon of light and hope that we all need in times like these.