Decades of research on the personality traits of highly creative people show that introversion, emotional sensitivity, and vulnerability to negativity—seeing the glass as half-empty—are common. These are all symptoms of the low-level depression that I’ve struggled with since childhood, and seen as roadblocks to my success. Certainly, they didn’t help me to be a team player in an office setting. As a freelance writer working at home, I developed an arsenal of ways to counteract the heavy lethargy and hopelessness that can so easily get in my way. But about eight years ago, I began to consider that my depression may be a kind of gift that I wasn't utilizing. That’s when I began writing fiction. (If it was good enough for Parker, Hemingway…)
I've always wanted to write a novel, but was instead encouraged by my parents, teachers and school guidance counselors to use my writing skills in more practical ways: advertising, marketing, and then journalism. It's not that I didn't enjoy much of the work, but I longed for something more. So, I began writing fiction, just a half-hour each morning, as an experiment: What would happen if I devoted time to something creative and fun, just for me, first thing every morning?
The Link Between Creativity and Depression
Artists and writers are eight to ten times more likely than the general population to suffer from mood disorders. Many studies speculate that this is because artists tend to examine their lives more carefully than the average person, and use unpleasant experiences to feed their work.
“Creative people might be more likely to experience negative emotions,” says Wendy Berry Mendes, who conducted a study at Harvard to look at how change of mood can affect creativity. Levels of DHEAS, a hormone that when at low levels is associated with depression, were measured before people received harsh negative criticism or positive feedback in a mock job interview, and then they were given a creative task. “As expected,” Mendes reports, “receiving negative compared to positive feedback was associated with enhanced creativity. This was especially the case for individuals who had lower levels of DHEAS.”
Artistic Endeavors Enhance Your Mood
I found that delving into a fantasy world of my own making was satisfying and even joyful. Working on my novel actually settled the restlessness I'd labeled as anxiety and helped to fill the emptiness in my soul. Suddenly, I wanted more of myself, instead of less. A friend of mine suggested, half-joking, that I was addicted to writing my novel. But it turns out that natural opiates are actually released as a result of the creative process.
“Creative endeavors are intrinsically rewarding, and you get these little shots of dopamine in the rewards center of the brain,” says Shelley Carson, PhD, a professor at Harvard University and author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life. Dopamine is a mood-elevating neurotransmitter that can trigger natural opiates in the body. It’s released with pleasurable experiences such as food, sex, and drugs—and creativity.
Kay Redfield Jamison, co-director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University has conducted ground-breaking research over the past two decades linking increased creative productivity with mood improvements, but it’s difficult to tell which actually comes first. “As your mood increases, activation of the brain automatically shifts from avoidance to approach,” explains Carson. “When you’re more engaged with your environment—internal as well as external—there’s an increased flow of dopamine. And that, obviously, keeps your spirits up and keeps you writing or painting or whatever is giving you pleasure. Positive emotions and creativity reinforce each other.”
Accepting the Creative Gift of Depression
"All of your emotions color the way you see your environment, the way you recall memories, and, indeed, all aspects of your cognition,” says Carson. “They can either get in the way of your creative efforts, or you can use them to enhance your creativity."
Mendes’ study found that people who produced better quality creative products had improved their mood considerably by the end of the study, showing that creativity may actually enable mood repair and the reduction of negative emotions.
As for me, while I still have days when depression dictates that I’m gentle with my expectations of myself, it's no longer debilitating. I know what to do to soothe my soul: pick up a pen and write.
Jennifer Haupt contributes to a wide variety of publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Reader's Digest, Parents, and Health & Spirituality. She's the co-author of "I'll Stand by You: One Woman's Mission to Heal the Children of the world," the memoir of Elissa Montanti, founder of Global Medical Relief Fund for Children. She's also working on her debut novel.You can read more of Jennifer's work at www.jenniferhaupt.com and check her out on Facebook.