Why do creative people suffer from depression?

Writing and Depression

Like many creative types, I struggle with clinical depression. The trick here is that “clinical depression” often means “depression that we’ve tried to medicate.” Many writers, artists, and “non-creative” people struggle with undiagnosed depression, or at least depression that’s manageable enough that they haven’t yet taken a psychiatric route. In talking extensively on this topic with two of my close friends (both of whom are also writers and both of whom suffer from depression), it became apparent to me that this association is painfully common and that there may well be some practical explanations.

What Is Creativity, Anyway?

The word should really mean any act of creation, but we tend to mean something else when we talk about creativity. For most common uses of the term, creativity typically means an ability to come up with non-obvious ideas and  see new connections. Imagination and creativity are intertwined in our conception; they are both ways of thinking between ideas rather than about them. In fact, a functional definition is that creativity is the ability to think expansively.

Our minds can approach concepts with various levels of “zoom.” We can zoom in the finer details or zoom out to see the big picture. Creative types tend to have a wider picture of the world, which allows us to twine together seemingly disparate concepts and come up with less obvious ideas. We often see the world for its possibilities rather than its realities. I think this is the starting point for understanding why creativity and depression are linked.

Focus as Creativity’s Opposite

If creativity is about thinking expansively, then the appropriate opposite is “focus.” This term is our go-to for the ability to narrow the scope of our vision and adopt a closer level of cognitive zoom. It’s not that people can’t be focused and creative. In fact, effective execution of any idea requires that we work at multiple levels of zoom. This doesn’t mean, however, that people don’t have their various strengths and weaknesses. For people who have strong creative tendencies, it’s unsurprising that focus is often lacking.

But what exactly does this have to do with depression? Several things, unfortunately. First, the ability to focus directly helps happiness directly. As recent studies1 have discovered, the ability to focus on the present moment is one of the major keys for happiness. But focus also contributes in several indirect ways. The ability to focus in our distraction-saturated environments is a major advantage. Thanks to modern technology, we’re always connected and faced with an essentially limitless array of things to do. For someone with an ability to focus in on one of these things, the options are generally advantageous. For people who don’t have a strong ability to focus, however, this can be crippling.

Maybe I’m going down the wrong path. You tell me. If you’re creative and depressed, does this sound familiar?: You come up with great ideas but abandon them long before completion. When thinking of your various projects and tasks, you feel paralyzed by anxiety or a complete lack of motivation. You often leave work to the last minute when you get a psychological “kick” that gets you through your project. Outside of that, you often rely on coffee.2 If this sounds like you, then focus may be one of the key factors.

But it’s not just that we lack a beneficial asset. After all, while it may not come as naturally to us, we can train our focus—and that won’t always solve depression outright. There’s more to the picture.

Counterfacts and Points of Reference

Thinking expansively allows us to see the world as it can be rather than as it actually is. This is part of why creative people are so necessary. We’re able to change the world because we see these possibilities when others don’t. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” We creative types tend to be incurably unreasonable.

That’s good, honestly. But it’s also terrible. In seeing the way the world could be, we dream of a place we can’t reach and base our sense of satisfaction on a comparison to that idealized world (with the “idea” of “idealized” being significant here). As discussed at length by Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage3our reference points and the thought habits we develop can make or break our happiness. Perhaps most relevant is the discussion of “counterfacts”: What we accept as given and what we envision as the alternative scenario. Achor tells the following story:

Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.

Then Achor poses an interesting question: Is this fortunate or unfortunate? About 70% say it’s unfortunate (for what are, to me, the obvious reasons). Those who say it’s fortunate, however, have persuasive explanations. “I could have been shot somewhere far worse than the arm.” “There were 50 people there, and only one of us was hurt.” And so on. By being able to see an alternative scenario where things are better than the experienced reality, we feel worse. By being able to envision scenarios where things were worse, we feel better.

Creativity can, in theory, help with either of these outcomes. In practice, however, we—universally—tend to envision a better world. We tend to daydream. And creative people are better at it: The alternative world we envision is more rich, detailed, and vivid. It’s not difficult to believe that the impact of those fantasies is thus also magnified.

Creative people, looking at the world expansively, also tend to look at parts of their life experience that cannot be controlled. They—we—wish things were better, and we often work to those ends, but our eyes tend to be bigger than our stomachs. We can’t manage it all, and we get overwhelmed when we try. Rather than making substantial changes within our sphere of control, we think of all the scenarios that would make life better. We’re not necessarily wrong—but it certainly doesn’t make us happy.

The Broken Narratives

This applies to all creative types, but I think writers suffer more than most. Let me begin by positing this: Stories are the material of our lives. When we think of a life, we think of it in terms of the stories that the life included. Our identity within that narrative, how our personal narrative relates to broader cultural mythologies, and so on, are all the stuff of stories—and are a vital part of happiness.

Problematically for writers, we often learn how to break down, dissect, criticize, and problematize stories. As a result, we more often challenge our cultural mythologies. It’s easy to enter a bleak world where we believe nothing has meaning. And the fact that we are creative means that we can see all the other ways the story could have been told; we see the contradictions, are immersed in the moral grays, and nothing we approach can withstand the deconstruction for very long.

Again, it’s not a bad thing, but it is dangerous to our happiness. Seeing one’s place in the broader story of one’s community and culture is a major part of having a satisfying life. And once we see the flaws in the narrative, we can’t go back. It’s easy to start feeling lost.

The Insomniac Isolationists

Here, again, I’m speaking mostly about writers. Our work tends to be done alone. We spend long hours in front of a computer screen trying to make our words make sense. We edit relentlessly. We socialize, yes, but infrequently and on a different frequency than most. Our creativity sets us apart, and it often makes it difficult to connect with people who don’t share that background and outlook.

We don’t tend to sleep as well. We have less consistent hours. We often go sleep deprived or collapse for long nights after going without for too long. We feel driven by ideas that won’t let us sleep. We are often night owls.

But consistent sleep and waking early help improve stability and happiness.4 The number one predictor of happiness is the number and strength of one’s social connections.5 And this doesn’t even touch on being sedentary, having the high stress of deadlines, how constantly we face rejection. The traditional lifestyle of the writer is in many ways the perfect storm of depression risk factors.

Or Maybe We Have It Backwards

For all these explanations, I also sometimes think that the association between creativity and depression is reversed. Yes, some studies have shown that creativity and depression are linked,6 but correlation doesn’t equal causation. We know depression and creativity co-exist, but … well … it’s like this: If you have severe depression, you have to get pretty damn creative to survive it.

Maybe we become creative because we’re deeply unhappy and we need to see a better world than the one we’re forced to live in. Maybe our narratives break down and we have to become creative enough to forge new ones. Maybe we can’t stand the possibility of following the prescribed path that we’d be shuffled down if we focused in like we were told to.

I h0nestly don’t know. It’s worth wondering at. But it’s also something that can only take us so far. Depression isn’t something I struggle with; it’s something I live with. It’s not an adversary so much as a roommate these days. Sometimes I can’t seem to get around it. Other times I forget it’s even there. And depression and creativity, expansive thinking and self-destruction, it all seems to be part of the same ball of thread. However the pieces are frayed, woven together, tangled, and wrapped around each other, it doesn’t seem to be possible to move one end without moving the other.

Hopefully this entry has given you some useful insights into where this depression may be coming from. Hopefully it helps you develop strategies for handling it. I wish there were some kind of magic solution I could offer that would make things better. But answer me honestly: If you could take a pill that made your depression vanish but killed your creativity in the process … would you do it?

[Here’s another post I did on how writing helped me survive depression.]

1. Matt Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert conducted an experiment that actively tracked people’s happiness during various activities. One of the key findings was that, nearly regardless of the activity, the most important factor in feeling happy was how much the person was mentally present—focused on the task at hand. This video from Killingsworth discusses the study, this Harvard piece gives some further details. My own exposure to the study was thanks to extensive discussion during Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness (well worth a read).

2. Both coffee and procrastination serve a similar purpose for focus. As stimulants, they cause your mind to hone in on the vital next steps. In other words, they aid focus. My series on the neuroscience of writer’s block will (but hasn’t yet) covered this.

3. Two of the seven positive psychology principles Achor highlights are relevant here: “The Tetris Effect” (how our thought habits impact our perceptual filters) and “The Zorro Circle” (how reference points and working within our locus of control impact our happiness). Also, if you’re not already familiar with it, I strongly recommend checking out his TED Talk.

4. It’s just one of many studies on the topic of sleep and happiness, but this 2007 study on consistent sleep patterns and “night owls” is a good place to start.

5. One of the more interesting studies—or, rather, set of studies—that demonstrates the importance of social connections is J.T. Cacioppo’s 2008 Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. In that work, it was demonstrated that having too few or too weak of social connections was actually as dangerous as a disease.

6.See, for example, this BBC article or this well-cited paper by Dr. Amy Scholten.