"That terrible mood of depression of whether it's any good or not is what is known as The Artist's Reward."
- Ernest Hemingway
Many writers says they wouldn't be to write if they weren't depressed. But how true is such a notion?
The story of several great American authors perhaps suggests the true connection between depression and creativity. For as long as people have written, they have suggested there is some purpose behind depression. It's their anxieties and fierce lows that cause certain epiphanies or lead them towards an alternate line of thinking, which is then churned into a great story. However, despite her perpetual manic personality, I think Sylvia Plath said it best:
"When you are insane, you are busy being insane—all the time."
Both Plath and Hemingway have hinted at a disconnect between depression and creativity. While they might have often suggested loneliness and sadness lead to some of their best writing, there were definite moments when they couldn't write due to feeling too low. What's more interesting is that Hemingway was at the peak of his career when he decided on a 6-year hiatus - or rather, when the same depression that led to his unfortunate demise perhaps took him away from the pen.
A counter-argument stems from an observation on David Foster Wallace. He was well-known for his severe depression, yet he produced volumes of work. How did that happen? Yet again, once he decided to take himself off of his anti-depressants, the worst happened. While it's difficult to figure out whether depression influences writing or whether writing influences depression, there are some who argue there must be a benefit to the ailment. Some sort of natural selection allows for depression to continue existing, which hints that it must have a purpose.
Is There An Upside to Depression?
Numerous articles express the research on depression and it's benefits, such as this NY Times feature or this Psychology Today article.
What I found particularly interesting about the Psychology Today article, is that it reviews research by Andy Thomson (University of Virginia) and Paul Andrews (Virginia Commonwealth), who claim that there's a reason for depression - the "depression paradox".
Their studies center around evolutionary psychology. That is, they believe as evolution continues, certain psychological ailments come and go. For instance, some studies suggest there are benefits to Alzheimer's. Likewise, if depression is allowed to exist during the course of evolution, then it must have a benefit. Here's their conclusion through the words of Jonah Lehrer:
"Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. ... If depression didn't exist — if we didn't react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments."
There are plenty of arguments for and against Andrews' and Thomson's research, but nevertheless there's a high connection between affective disorders and creativity. This isn't saying there's anything wrong with the mental state of creativity types, but there's definitely a trend. I certainly can't say anything more than I found this information quite interesting. If I had any answers, I would be famous and rich and way too busy and happy to write. You know, not because of the money but because I made a significant contribution to human psychology as a telecommunications graduate.
How Do You Think Depression Affects Creativity?
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