“I don’t like emotions… For some reason I’m more comfortable in imaginary circumstances.” Actor William H. Macy
One of the primary tools we have for creative expression is imagination.
In his book “Stumbling on Happiness” Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert declares that “To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine—ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be.
“The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.”
And isn’t that one of the prime functions of creative thought?
But Gilbert also proposes that imagination may directly impact our sense of happiness in limiting or distorting ways.
In a column of hers, Meghan Daum writes that the book suggests “happiness is largely an anticipatory experience… we spend much of our time not so much experiencing pleasure as thinking about future pleasure and taking steps to ensure its attainment.”
She thinks “the 21st century cultural preoccupation with happiness [is] peer pressure of the most toxic variety… For those whose happiness standards exceed the reach of besotted emoticons, a prescription for a serotonin reuptake inhibitor has become the thinking man’s smiley face… But considering the intangible nature of happiness, the inherent ephemeralness of it, the difficulty, even, of defining it, it bears asking why we’re so focused on it.” [From “Goodbye to you, Mr. Smiley,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2006]
Certainly many creative people do suffer from depression, anxiety and other mood disorders that can disable creative expression [see my related site Depression and Creativity] — but happiness – or even contentment – may not be such a worthwhile goal for a creative person, at least by itself, and reliance on imagination for defining life value can be distorting.
In his review of “Stumbling on Happiness” Malcolm Gladwell [author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking] notes that “We’re far too accepting of the conclusions of our imaginations.
“Our imaginations aren’t particularly imaginative. Our imaginations are really bad at telling us how we will think when the future finally comes. And our personal experiences aren’t nearly as good at correcting these errors as we might think.”
At least some of those critiques can apply to creative imagination as well.
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Last reviewed: 11 Aug 2010