Last month, while considering the connection between creativity and depression, I discovered some research about the evolutionary cause of depression. The more I thought about it, the easier it was to file this research under the “Interesting but Irrelevant” section of my brain. However, it provided a springboard for a discussion that I’d like to continue, because depression is a fact of life for many writers.
So often our initial response to depression is how can we make it go away? Common remedies run from pharmaceuticals to yoga to macrobiotics. We medicate, we meditate, we vegetate. And at the end of the day, the depression still lingers. We have become experts in misery, as Edward Hallowell has said.
What if, instead of focusing on making depression go away, we sidestep it, and consider what will bring us happiness? I’d like to spend some time looking at some different research — research that connects creativity and HAPPINESS rather than depression.
In his book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Edward Hallowell presents a five-step cyclical program that he believes leads to a joyful life. Though originally developed with the child in mind, these thoughts seem particularly relevant for writers.
In Hallowell’s cycle, the first step is to connect. Hallowell says that connection is at the root of every joy, and too often, its importance is trivialized. Connection is why writer’s groups, MFA programs, writing retreats, conferences, and critique partners are so important. In these environments, we are not alone. We are part of something big, something worthwhile. We join in the discourse. We create the discourse. This also explains why we spend so much time with social media. We crave connection.
Connection gives a person the security that leads to the second step: play. Hallowell defines play as “any activity in which you become imaginatively involved.” Sound like writing? Play allows us to enter a state of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which our minds light up, and we lose track of time and space. This is the very definition of a good writing day to me.
Play leads to step 3: practice. When you enjoy play, you want to do it over and over. Practice may not make perfect, but it does lead to mastery, step 4. Mastery is meant to imply growth and the feeling of making progress, rather than being the absolute best at something. Mastery, Hallowell says, is vital to confidence, motivation, and self-esteem.
Recognition, step 5, follows mastery. Recognition is the stage in which you gain validation for the work you’re doing. Recognition connects you to the people who see and value you, and the cycle begins anew.
For a writer, any one of these steps can be a stumbling block. Spend too much time at the computer? You lose connection. Working under deadline? Play becomes work, and work = stress. Not sure when your revisions are enough? You get stuck in a never-ending cycle of practice, practice, practice. Get a rejection? Or two? Or seventy-five? Mastery seems out of reach, and publication light-years away.
It’s no wonder writers are depressed.
Are you stuck on one of the steps of this cycle? If so, do you see a change you could make that might help shift your state of mind from depressed to positive? What do you think?