International Day of Happiness: Art Sparks Joy at Home and in the Workplace

It is not uncommon to look at a piece of art, be it a classic oil painting or modern sculpture, and feel moved. Artwork can bring out many different emotions in people ranging from intrigue and pleasure right through to anger and even in certain cases, disgust.


There have been a number of studies looking at the effect of art on human emotions, whether making your own or observing someone else’s, most of which have come to the conclusion that having art in the home or workplace makes for happier humans. So, in celebration of the International Day of Happiness (coming up on March 20th), it only seems right to delve into the inner working of why this is...


Neurobiologist and University College London professor Semir Zeki scanned the brains of around 30 test subjects whilst they looked at a careful selection of works. The subjects were shown art ranging from ‘The Birth of Venus’, Botticelli’s classically beautiful piece, to the more thought-provoking works of Hieronymus Bosch.

What is International Day of Happiness?

In 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which recognised happiness as a “fundamental human goal” and called for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples”.

In 2012 the first ever UN conference on Happiness took place and the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which decreed that the International Day of Happiness would be observed every year on 20 March. It was celebrated for the first time in 2013.

International Day of Happiness

Zeki’s results clearly showed that when looking at something the subjects found to be ‘favourable’ they experienced increased activity in the brain’s frontal cortex and heightened levels of dopamine, ‘a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres’. Put basically, the subject’s brains reacted to the favourable art in the same way they would to being in love.


Interestingly Zeki also found that observing art which may be considered ‘ugly’ did not have such a startling increase in dopamine, yet it still stimulated the test subjects’ enough to show an increase in brain activity. Zeki stated that “the reaction was immediate. What we found was the increase in blood flow was in proportion to how much the painting was liked.”


Art in your living room appears to be a positive, getting your synapses firing even when you find the piece unappealing, and boosting the happy hormone to the dizzying heights of being in love when it’s a subject you find aesthetically pleasing. So purchasing a wonderful new artwork for your home in honour of International Day of Happiness is a great idea! But what about at work? Can the distraction of stunning art in the work place actually be a positive thing? Or is it simply an interior stylists’ way of filling an empty wall?

Dr Craig Knight, who heads a research group called Identity Realisation at the University of Exeter, has studied the psychology of working environments for 12 years. “There is a real tendency to opt for sanitised, lean work spaces, designed to encourage staff to just get on with their work and avoid distraction,” he is quoted. However, he is sure that he nor any study worldwide find this to be better for the mental health of the employees or their work place productivity. “If you enrich a space people feel much happier and work better; a very good way of doing this is by using art.”


A company who fully backs the idea that art in the work place equals increased productivity is Deutsche Bank, which is the proud owner of the biggest collection of corporate art in the world. It has 60,000 pieces shared between 900 offices in 40 countries - and perhaps some of the happiest employees in the office this coming International Day of Happiness as an interactive app to tell them detailed information about each piece and also an ‘Arthothek’, a dedicated place which is home to an expert for advice on choosing work place art. The German investment bank even hosts talks by artists.

International Day of Happiness

Dr. Knight and his team at Exeter have created an experiment to try and prove the effect of employee surrounds. They asked test subjects to work in four types of office space:

  • Lean: containing only the things necessary to do the tasks.
  • Enriched: featuring art and plants which were already arranged.
  • Empowered: the same art and plants but participants could choose where to put them.
  • Disempowered: participants could arrange the art and plants themselves – but the experimenter then undid these personal touches and reverted to the enriched layout.

International Day of Happiness

Knight found that people in the enriched office space, who are exposed to prearranged art work and plants had much fewer health complaints and worked 15% quicker. When they were given the opportunity to arrange the art and plants themselves these figures doubled giving Knight and his team the happiest and most productive workers. Moreover, those working in the disempowered space, who’s art and plants were moved back to a prearranged place were only as productive as those in the lean work place.

So, it seems that art in the workplace should be seen as more than decorative and not only something for large companies with deep pockets to consider, particularly on International Day of Happiness! Zeki’s and Knight’s results clearly show that office design should have a dedicated place for art as it does in fact make employees better off all round.