Last week, ArtsHub published a feature which generated a huge response from the artistically-inclined internet community. It addressed a question which is both blindingly obvious and spoken about very little: why are creative people more prone to depression? The answer, inevitably, is that nobody really knows. The problem is that we have always taken for granted that depression and excessive emotion are somehow the ‘price’ of creativity. Being confronted with the real data is more confronting.
“Science has proved the mad genius is not a myth…Artists and writers are up to 20 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression…Most disturbingly, artists are 18 times more likely to suicide than the general population.”
The list of those whose emotions overwhelmed their creativity is long and painful. Van Gogh died locked inside an asylum. Sylvia Plath battled a lifetime of depression before succumbing to the open oven. Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head. Diane Arbus used a razor to slash her wrists. Virginia Woolf walked into a river. And Yukio Mishima committed suicide by ritual disembowelment.
David Foster Wallace is a more recent example. In 2005 he delivered a speech which has come to be known as the ‘This Is Water’ speech, where he reflected on “making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” The advice he gives in the speech is so precise and affecting because Wallace struggled so long against succumbing to the swamp of melancholia. Eventually it was too much, and he committed suicide in 2008.
Depression is in many ways a free-wheeling ephemeral thing. Treatment is generally handled by prescribing a course of SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and cognitive behavioural therapy. But in the same way that a deficiency in paracetamol doesn’t cause a headache, a deficiency of serotonin does not necessarily cause depression. Darian Leader’s book The New Black suggests that depression needs to be redefined “as a set of symptoms that derive from complex and always different human stories.”
If depression is more complex than we can currently handle, the question of happiness becomes increasingly paramount. An article published in The Atlantic draws upon soon-to-be-released research in the Journal of Positive Psychology, which has found that, “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.” It is a meaningful life which is likely to be more fulfilling. Happiness is fleeting, but meaning is enduring. And while creativity can make you unhappy, creative work can bestow the artist with a unique sense of meaning.
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, will be speaking at the Opera House on February 17th. Click here for more information.