David Foster Wallace is an exception: Artists aren't so tortured after all

Data suggest students who major in an artistic discipline or take part in creative pursuits report being happier

By Tom Jacobs

Published February 20, 2014 12:50PM (EST)

David Foster Wallace (Hachette Book Group)
David Foster Wallace (Hachette Book Group)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific StandardWhat makes you happy? As we noted recently, giving away money seems to do the trick. But for the cash-strapped or cost-conscious, newly published research suggests an enjoyable alternative: Engaging in a creative activity.

In a study of college students, “people who reported feeling happy and active were more likely to be doing something creative at the time,” a research team led by Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro writes in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

What’s more, the researchers add, you don’t have to be a master poet or painter to reap the emotional rewards. Even if the results of one’s creative activity are “frivolous, amateurish or weird,” this research suggests “the creative process that yielded them appears important to positive psychological development.”

The week-long study featured 79 students at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, 26 of whom were pursuing an arts-related major. All began by taking a detailed survey designed to identify their basic personality traits, and reporting “how often they engage in everyday creativity” such as “writing a poem, drawing a picture, making a recipe.”

Participants were then called on their cell phones eight times a day for the next seven days. They replied to each call by answering the question “Are you doing something creative?” and describing their emotional state at that moment. Specifically, they reported the extent to which they were currently experiencing a variety of feelings, including happy, sad, anxious, angry, and restless.

“We found that the frequency of doing something creative was quite high—around 22 percent,” Silvia and his colleagues report. What’s more, when participants were caught in the act of being creative, “they reported feeling significantly happier and more active” than at other reports.

Interestingly, the researchers found no evidence that negative states such as sadness, anger, or anxiety had any effect on the likelihood of engaging in creative behavior. The stereotype of a neurotic person “seeking solace in creativity was clearly not supported in this study,” they write.

Overall, the study provides evidence supporting Dr. Ruth Richards’ theory of the psychological value of “everyday creativity.” Richards, the researchers note, wrote that day-to-day creativity “is both a cause and consequence of positive development.

“Engaging in creative pursuits allows people to explore their identities, form new relationships, cultivate competence, and reflect critically on the world,” they write. “In turn, the new knowledge, self-insight, and relationships serve as sources of strength and resilience.”

So if you’re stopping yourself from writing that song or short story for fear you’ll fall short of brilliance—well, relax. No matter your level of talent, doing something creative contributes to your psychological growth, and increases your happiness.

And who knows? You might be better than you suspect.

Tom Jacobs

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Artists College Creativity Pacific Standard Positive Thinking Students