In the recently published Against Happiness, popular writer Eric Wilson disparages our current love affair with putting on a happy face. With our “feel good” culture and the widespread use of happy drugs, everybody’s trying to be cheerful and there are no decent dollops of melancholy and sadness, he says. When this happens art becomes bland, unchallenging and redundant. Dr. Thomas Svolos of the department of Psychiatry at Creighton University School of Medicine thinks Wilson is right. “When you’re melancholy, you tend to step back and examine your life,” he says, “That kind of questioning is essential for creativity.”
What these guys are talking about is a redefinition of happiness, and I think they’re onto something. Life’s not about getting free of pain, but rather finding happiness through service to some process with links to a higher ideal. A state of thoughtful melancholy and sensitivity breeds an elevated creativity and a more profound happiness. Here are a few of my own keys:
Work alone and be your own motivator.
Take time for private wandering and nature’s gifts.
Dig around and explore purposefully.
Serve others as well as your own passions.
Look for potential in all things and all beings.
Face life’s deeper meanings squarely and truthfully.
Move through thoughtful understanding to pervasive action.
Know you are partner in a great brotherhood and sisterhood.
Accept sadness as part of the human condition.
Know that in the big picture you are not important, but what you make and do is.
Currently, 11 percent of American women and 5 percent of American men take antidepressants, the magazine Scientific American reported in February. A high percentage are prescribed ad hoc by family doctors without benefit of thorough analysis. Does anyone prescribe a host of golden daffodils, a mountain stream, or a robin’s nest on which to contemplate? Perhaps it’s too “do it yourself” and non-profit to be considered. But it seems to me that’s where happiness lies and dreams are made. Just try painting that nest. It’s a spiritual act, loaded with joy. “The world,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “is so full of a number of things, that I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
PS: “The overemphasis of drugs is a knee-jerk reaction that’s thrown our whole concept of happiness out of whack. Happiness is now seen as a lack of suffering as opposed to accomplishing important societal goals, like creating art.” (Thomas Svolos)
Esoterica: Much has been made of the connection between full blown clinical depression and creativity. We have Beethoven, van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sylvia Plath, and so many others. These are the extremes and have not much to do with the normal healthy understanding of the mystery of our existence and the daily trials of life. Garden variety melancholics also carry the torch of happiness.
This letter was originally published as “Art and happiness” on May 27, 2008.
“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.” (Elizabeth Gilbert)
Learn to make water look wet, reflective and splashy! Painting water that looks wet requires some basic knowledge of the dynamics of how water moves and how objects are reflected in its mirror surface. Techniques will be demonstrated to address the various puzzles with which the artist is faced when painting this stunning, fascinating and challenging subject!
This workshop takes place at Port Townsend School of the Arts, 2 hours’ drive from Seattle. For more information, and to register, visit our website: ptarts.org
Julie Gilbert Pollard’s workshop is limited to 12 participants. Save your place today!
Registration deadline: June 5.