Happiness and creativity: Why you shouldn’t write a sad song until you’re feeling better

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” ― Anne Frank


Happy lightbulb man from Scientific American

Image Source: Scientific American

Do you need to be happy to be inspired? Or do you need to be a tortured artist in order to be inspired? It’s an age-old question, and there’s a growing body of science providing answers to it.


I’ve been studying a psychology unit through edX Berkeley online called GG101 ‘The Science of Happiness’, and the experimental studies that have been performed in this area of creativity-and-happiness have been fascinating.

For example, studies show that happy people, when given simple tests to test “flexible thinking” or problem-solving, think faster, clearer, and more broadly. In other words, they are more “creative” in terms of finding novel solutions and new associations, than people who are unhappy or even depressed. Because they can think more open-mindedly and more broadly, seeing more options, seeing the bigger picture. They don’t fixate on any one piece of information. In contrast, when we’re unhappy, we focus very narrowly in our attentional selection (Rowe, Hirsh, and Anderson, 2007).


Eye scanning from Nerdoholic

Image Source: Nerdoholic

The eye experiment was one where they trained a camera on subjects’ irises to see exactly what the subject looked at when presented with a new problem (Wadlinger and Isaacowitz, 2006). Happy people looked around at every part of the picture, looking to all the edges, and looking back and forth between different objects in the picture. Unhappy people looked mostly in just one place – straight in the centre, at the largest object, in a closed-view way.


Bag of candy from CDN Pix

Image Source: CDN Pix

Alice Isen’s studies through Cornell in the 1980s to 90s (repeated by Barbara Fredrickson in the 2000s) show that people do much better on creative tasks and also academic tests of intelligence if they are happy because they have just received a small gift (a wrapped-up bag of candy) immediately before performing the task or test. The cause that showed up through testing was that happy people somehow had more energy to be involved in their play and more rigorous in their work.


'Self-Portrait with bandaged ear' Image Source: Van Gogh Gallery

‘Self-Portrait with bandaged ear’
Image Source: Van Gogh Gallery

But since the days of Aristotle, philosophers have viewed creativity as being linked to various types of melancholia (Shelley Carson, 2008). There are many historical examples of the tortured artist, like Sylvia Plath and Vincent van Gogh, who were inspired during their unhappiest periods, when they were living in an unhealthy environment or struggling with a mental illness. Poets, for example, have a much higher than usual incidence of depression and bipolar disorder. Studies show that creative people in general tend to be more vulnerable to mental health issues, because creativity can involve self-reflection, and self-reflection if done for too long results in ruminating over and over on unproductive issues like mistakes or flaws, which leads to depression (Nancy Andreasen, MD, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2008).


In Biblical times, the writers of the Psalms, including David and his fellow artisans, frequently seemed bipolar in their swinging between begging God for freedom from their enemies or oppressive feelings, to worshipping and praising God for his goodness and faithfulness. Many Psalms express a deep hunger for more of God, both in order to end a spiritual drought or a depressive episode, and to find more happiness or meaning in the Psalmist’s life.

Psalm 63:

Image of King David from Feanne Perez Blog

Image Source: Feanne Perez Blog

“1   God – you’re my God!

I can’t get enough of you!

2   I’ve worked up such hunger and thirst for God,

travelling across dry and wearing deserts.”


What do we do with that? Well, looking at the studies of the data points more recently and comparing them to these historical examples, we have to say that depressed people are not generally more creative than happy people.


Virginia Woolf at age 20 (Creative Commons photograph)

Virginia Woolf at age 20 (Creative Commons photograph)

In fact, tortured artists, poets, and inventors, don’t write or create when they are depressed. When Virginia Woolf was unable to write because of one of her many depressive episodes, it made her even more depressed, to the point where she walked into the River Ouse and never came out. Depression makes it harder to be creative because it creates a lack of motivation and a lack of optimism about achieving goals, black-and-white closed-off thinking, and over-generalising thoughts about the future based on past results (Centre for Clinical Interventions, 2007).


It’s only when these creative people are able to get out of that depression, that they were able to write or create, inspired by their experiences. And these memories of experiences of mental illness or of dark times can create powerful subject matter for their creativity, e.g. Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, which has been turned into everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts to episodes of The Simpsons, and Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’.


So perhaps the answer to being more creative, inspiring yourself more, is not trying to get down in the dumps, but trying to get yourself out of the dumps, and then using any experiences from that dark period to inspire your characters. This is another example of my favourite topic, incubationthat the ideas that evolve during that depressed time are only able to be expressed after letting them sit for a while and then coming back to address them after you’ve recovered.


On a global scale, happy people are more likely to act creatively for the better good. They have more energy to be goal-oriented, going out and doing things; and they’re more others-focussed, so they can solve the world’s problems because they’re not wrapped up in their own problems (Lyubomirsky, 2013).


And psychologists like Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi will tell you that “flow”, getting into that creative state and working on something you find inspiring, makes us happy. On the other hand, many studies report that people don’t feel happy while creating, but are more likely to feel happy upon stopping to reflect on the fact that they’ve just been creating something.


So, if you’re stuck with writer’s block, could you perhaps try the “small, unexpected gift” theory? You might arrange for someone to give you a block of chocolate at the start of NaNoWriMo this November, and every night or morning before you begin your writing, you allow yourself one piece from the block. (Guess what I’ll be doing this November!)


Image Source: Our Happy Cat

Image Source: Our Happy Cat

You could put yourself in a good mood by watching a funny cat video or a heart-warming video before you begin your creative work, like the Association for Psychological Science did in a study (Nadler, Rabi, and Minda, 2010).


And how would you go about turning your happiness into art? You might try these 5 tips from the Huffington Post:

  1. Keep a grateful diary – write down one event or occurrence every day (or three things, if you’re following the Three Good Things experiment) that you were grateful for. Research shows this should increase your optimism (and therefore your creativity) in about six months!
  2. Become a meaning-based thinker, not a task-based thinker. Replace your “to do” list for the day with a “to be” list. Ask, “Who do I want my characters to be? What values should they pursue in their lives overall?” rather than “How can I get my character from plot point A to point B?”
  3. Exercise for thirty minutes. Get those neurons firing on all cylinders by priming them with endorphines!
  4. Meditate for two minutes. Clear those negative thoughts out and silence your inner editor!
  5. Send an encouragement note to someone else for something they’ve done. It makes both of you feel good, and as we now know, feeling good means creating more. 🙂


When do you find that you are most creative? Is it when you’re happy or unhappy?


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

6 thoughts on “Happiness and creativity: Why you shouldn’t write a sad song until you’re feeling better

  1. hi Tirzah,

    loved this blog! Great research application to creativity in writing. Can I share this on Facebook? love, Dad


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