Theatre makes you happy! By how much? ask Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

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.

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