Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser BoudreauxBeing relatively free of disabling moods like high levels of depression and anxiety can enhance and release creative thinking, but a number of writers and psychologists think too much focus on the pursuit of happiness may be limiting how we develop creativity.

“I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.”

Ouiser Boudreaux (Shirley MacLaine), in Steel Magnolias (1989).

As Shirley MacLaine has also noted, “Art is about energy, positive and negative. All art has the power to heal because it helps us see who we are, and what we resist.”

From the book Positive Energy by Judith Orloff M.D.

The Dalai Lama claims “the very purpose of our life, the very motion of our life, is towards happiness.”

But many of us aren’t so sure about that notion. Of course, the idea of “happiness” is variable; it is not just a simple state of mind or experience that everyone shares or agrees about.

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.”

Edith Wharton

What about this “trying to be happy”?

In his review of the book Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon, Gordon Marino notes, “As Americans, we have a religious devotion to the idea of our own happiness. We believe that we have a sacred right to pursue that strange bird into the forest of our lives and are even prepared to medicate any condition that gets in the way of the hunt.” [LA Times Jan 1 2006]

That may be the main thing about our personal and cultural obsession: we think it is our right, and can’t let anything limit or obscure the condition, and we may pressure ourselves to take immediate steps if we aren’t happy “enough.”

In his post Is Happiness Overrated?, Professor of Psychology William Todd Schultz, PhD comments, “On one hand, what could anyone want more than happiness? Isn’t happiness what we’re after?”

But, he continues, “Maybe not. I started mulling this over after reading a New Yorker review of a biography of Koestler [author Arthur Koestler], who was no happiness fan. Nor was Freud, of course, who said the two aims of life were love and work (or, more precisely, sex and ambition).”

Schultz concludes, “I guess my instinct is to say happiness is overrated. I also believe intelligence is overrated, but that’s another story. Happiness even gets in the way of success. As poet Philip Larkin once said, ‘Happiness writes white.’ It takes the lift and the wound out of creative work. One needs the wound. No wound, no high art. Anyway, I couldn’t complain about being happy. But I think I’d like to be other things more.”

Most of the above is from the “Happiness – Mood” section of my book Developing Multiple Talents.

As to the idea that being creative needs a “wound”: The tortured artist mythology is an ancient and enduring notion that art depends on suffering, and artists are likely to be fraught with suffering and dark emotions, and even need their pain to create. But a number of artists and psychologists say that is a wrong and distorting myth.

Read more in my post Pain and suffering and developing creativity.