Once you are struck by the question of whether what you are doing matters, and unless the answer is an immediate and unequivocal yes, you will be stuck with and haunted by that question.
So many of the clients I work with, despite the optimistic face they put on the matter, don’t really believe that the short story, watercolor, or song that is giving them so much trouble is really worth the trouble, seeing that it “doesn’t really matter.” Does the world really need another short story, watercolor, or song? Why bother?
Over the years I’ve provided many sorts of answers to this question. One is that there is no meaning unless we make it, that we make our meaning by seizing meaning opportunities, and that for a creative person creating is one of those meaning opportunities. But this does beg the question at least a little. How can creating be held as a genuine meaning opportunity if we have already “seen through it”? Creative and performing artists wrestle with this question daily and on more days than not come down on the side of the meaninglessness of creating.
Another sort of answer that I’ve provided is the notion that we make ourselves proud when we turn to the creative projects we say that we want to tackle and that making ourselves proud is what we are actually after in life. Whether or not we believe in the project, doing it (and maybe especially doing it well) matches our values, among them that we will do what we say we will do. Here the justification for creating and the motivation for creating is not the felt meaningfulness of the work but the felt pride at honoring our commitments and living our values.
Of course there are other sorts of answers that swirl in the mix: that we might actually prove successful; that creating is a “spiritual activity”; that nothing else interests us more; that creating and performing, as hard as they are, also provide joy and happiness; etc. But, given how hard so many people are finding it to stick with their creating or performing, I think that a new sort of answer is needed. It is an odd one and controversial because it can’t really be proven. It is the following: if we see creating as one of our life purposes, then it is physically good for us to create because our genes love it if we are living our life purposes.
Take this fascinating recent study:
The headline: "The researchers assessed and took blood samples from 80 healthy adults who were classified as having either hedonic or eudaimonic well-being. Hedonic well-being is defined as happiness gained from seeking pleasure; eudaimonic well-being is that gained by having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life. The study showed that people who had high levels of eudaimonic well-being showed favorable profiles with low levels of inflammatory gene expression and exhibited a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. For the pleasure seekers, the opposite was true; those with high levels of hedonic well-being showed an adverse gene-expression profile, giving high inflammation and low antiviral/antibody expression."
We might call this “genetic happiness.” We struggle with our novel and as far as we can tell it is making us sad and ill, so poorly is it going and so much work does it require. Yet our genes may well be singing and dancing, profoundly happy knowing that we are living one of our life purposes. Maybe this is true; maybe this isn’t. But it seems intuitively true to me and provides a new, profound reason for doing the things we say we value. This new reason is that, while the work may not matter from some universal perspective, the doing of it may nevertheless keep us healthy.
When you doubt that writing your novel matters, say to yourself, “It matters on the genetic level and I want to make my genes happy!” Who knows if this is literally true? But, you know, it may be.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than 40 books including Making Your Creative Mark (New World Library, 2013) and Why Smart People Hurt (Conari Press, 2013). Widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach, Dr. Maisel founded natural psychology and leads workshops nationally and internationally. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://www.ericmaisel.com. You can learn more about natural psychology at http://www.naturalpsychology.net. Dr. Maisel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.