Happy people are more selfish and pay less attention to details than do those of us who know that life is an unrelenting slog of boredom, horror, and melancholy, says Science. This obverse of this assertion is looked at in much longer detail in a Times Magazine article on depression this weekend. It examines the idea that depression is an evolutionary strategy aimed at helping us better focus on things. And there is this, on the link between depression and creativity.
Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”
It’s funny, I consider myself a fairly unhappy person. The self-loathing? Oh boy do I have it! The endless rumination? That’s the street where I live. The dark despondency that leads to crippling bouts of despair and terrible thoughts of self-destruction? Why do you think I drink so much? It ain’t for the taste! And yet: “a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style”? Really? Have you seen the crap I churn out? Some of it is barely comprehensible even to me. But self-centered and unable to pay attention to the small details? Why, yes, that does describe my personality fairly well. Who would have thought it? Turns out I’ve been happy all along!