Theatre makes you happy! By how much? ask Peter Crawley
Last week, we discovered that the theatre makes you happier. Actually, a news piece in The Stage put the matter in much more specific terms: going to see at least two plays a year brings the equivalent amount of wellbeing as an annual pay rise of £1,000.
As someone who sees maybe two or three plays a week, this was news to me: in terms of happiness, I ought to be raking it in. But my own internal audit of wellbeing didn’t tally. Instead, the news put me in a sullen funk. Is this really a useful evaluation of the worth of theatre?
The study, elegantly entitled Quantifying and Valuing the Wellbeing Impacts of Culture and Sport, was undertaken by researchers at the London School of Economics, clearly keen to blow away all cliches of the “dismal science”. It turns out you can put a price on happiness: £83 per month if you go to the theatre, which admittedly sounds like a good return on your ticket price. As Steve Martin used to say in his funnier stand-up days, for a $4 admittance, he sometimes did a $6 show: “You could make some bread tonight.” But for all the study’s scrupulous analysis and careful formulae, it was based on “self-reported life satisfaction”, which just sounds fishy. Similar transactions of joy, for instance, have previously priced the net gain of happiness that marriage brings at £17,000 for a man (just half that for a woman) and totted up personal bereavement as a £350,000 loss.
Everyone knows Wilde’s definition of a cynic; someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. To apply a cold metric of culture’s worth seems just as dispiritingly reductive. So why do we keep doing it? Commissioned by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the study is essentially a cost- benefit analysis – you could see this newly minted currency of wellbeing used to defend public subsidy.
Like our own Arts Council’s economic impact studies, which routinely calculate the benefit of the arts as an employer and contributor to the public purse, it’s a firmer, more scientific justification for culture than the old sword of ‘art for art’s sake’. But it can be dangerous to watch your figures.
Other Irish studies, from Arts Audiences, reported that more than a million people went to the theatre in 2013, but half said they went less than once a year and, unsurprisingly, regular attenders were predominantly affluent. Looking again at the “self-reported life satisfaction” of a privileged few, the report looks like an enquiry into smugness.
A keener, more sceptical view – in John Carey’s book What Good Are the Arts? – looked for empirical research to back up other claims for the benefits of culture: social cohesion, developing intelligence, moral and spiritual enrichment, empathy, therapy – and came up empty-handed. Art doesn’t necessarily make you a better person.
All of which could have been enough to lead to a demotion in my wellbeing; a 20 per cent pay cut in happy euro, perhaps, until I caught Dylan Coburn Gray’s show Boys and Girls in Project Arts Centre. Watching it, admiring it, teasing it out for hours afterwards with friends, I couldn’t put a figure on the experience. But life felt richer.