“I don’t like emotions… For some reason I’m more comfortable in imaginary circumstances.”
– Actor William H. Macy
One of our primary tools as a creative person is imagination.
But in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert proposes that imagination may directly impact our sense of happiness in limiting or distorting ways.
[Macy quote from article: And yet ... it's hard not to watch 'Actors' by Shawn Hubler, Los Angeles Times, October 08, 2004.]
Meghan Daum writes in her article “Goodbye to you, Mr. Smiley” 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.” [Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2006]
Certainly many creative people do suffer from depression, anxiety and other mood disorders that compromise happiness and impact creative expression, but happiness alone – or even contentment – may not be such a worthwhile goal in itself for a creative person.
I am certainly not suggesting we should not pursue happiness to some extent – and engaging in creative work can be deeply pleasurable and satisfying. But it can be limiting to think happiness is the primary goal.
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.”
Too much positive feeling?
A study by June Gruber of Yale University and others (“A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good”), notes “Emotional states exert significant effects on memory, judgment, decision-making, and creativity,” and reports that “moderate levels of positive emotions engender more creativity, but high levels of positive emotions do not.”
The study adds, “Furthermore, when experiencing very high degrees of positive emotion, some individuals are inclined to engage in riskier behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, binge eating, and drug use.”
The research is summarized in a press release: Happiness Has a Dark Side.
From the “Imagination, creativity, happiness” section – Read more About the book.