The life of a poet, painter, or performer is seldom an easy one. Aside from the few who make it big, earnings tend to be low, while unemployment rates tend to be high. So why do so many people pursue a career in the arts?
In two words: Job satisfaction.
That’s the implication of recently published research featuring data from 49 European countries. In what researchers describe as a “robust phenomenon,” it reports artists are more satisfied with their work than non-artists—in large part due to the autonomy they enjoy.
A research team led by Bruno Frey, distinguished professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick, looked at two sets of data from the European Values Study: the “waves” collected in 1999 and 2008. It supplemented those findings with data from the British Household Panel and the Swiss Household Panel.
The researchers looked at responses to the direct question: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your job?,” comparing the responses of artists and non-artists. Their definition of “artist” was reasonably broad: It included not only composers, musicians, dancers, and actors, but also journalists, clowns, magicians, and nightclub performers.
Their key finding, reported in the journal Economics Letters: On a scale of one (very unhappy with their work) to 10 (totally happy), European artists average out at 7.7. That’s significantly above the 7.3 average for non-artists. This gap remains even when controlling for differences in such factors as income and hours worked.
Oddly, that significant gap narrowed to near-nothingness for Brits, who were unhappier with their jobs overall. British artists scored 5.49 on job satisfaction, compared to 5.45 for non-artists.
The Swiss, on the other hand, are happier at work than most: Artists there averaged 8.23 out of a possible 10, while non-artists averaged 8.08.
So why are artists (aside from those in the U.K.) happier in their work? The researchers note that they were significantly more likely to describe their job as interesting; to say it allowed them to learn new skills and use their own initiative; and to report they were largely free to make their own decisions.
In addition, “Being self-employed raises job satisfaction,” the researchers write, “and artists are self-employed more often than other individuals.” Self-employment also tends to mean flexible working hours—another factor linked to high job satisfaction.
But even after factoring in all of those advantages, artists remain more satisfied with their job than non-artists. This “can be attributed to the satisfaction artists get from creating artworks,” the researchers write.
Frey and his colleagues conclude that these results should be taken into account by any government or non-profit looking to help the arts. “While supporting artists financially is important, it should not be the major, let alone only, consideration,” they write. “A greater effort should be made in safeguarding their self-determination and autonomy.”