Why are so many creative types plagued with depression?
It’s not creatives alone who suffer from overwhelming bouts of sadness or uncontrollable episodes of doubt and lack of motivation to do much of anything. As of 2008, 1 in 10 Americans have claimed to suffer from some form of depression, according to the CDC.
Every year that equates to more than 7% of us having to suffer from agonizing loneliness, mental and emotional darkness, and numerous other symptoms of varying degrees all attributed to this singular, albeit broad by definition, disorder: depression.
But creatives – the writers, musicians, inventors, dancers, scientists, architects, students and teachers, and any other creative type you can think of – are singled out more often than not when it comes to depression. Van Gogh being a primary example of the tortured creative. Why? Is there really a link between the two?
To find out, we turn to the science of the mind and the theory of human evolution.
Of course, throughout history many world-leading thinkers have suffered from depression, including historical Naturalist and evolutionary expert Charles Darwin.
Darwin’s depression not only impacted his theoretical and scientific work, but it also became a primary topic of his very work.
Because of depression’s wide reach on the global population (as one, if not the one, of the most common mental illnesses, set apart from other, less common, disorders including personality and eating disorders), Darwin had to explore it in order to make sense of his evolutionary theories.
Because Darwin’s theory of evolution claimed that “only the strong survive,” depression seems to be a gigantic mistake.
From a macro perspective, depression typically leads to a lack of motivation (often motivation to eat, exercise, or do much of anything) and can lead to thoughts of suicide. How could such a health and population-hindering disorder find it’s way through hundreds of years of evolution if evolution’s end-game is survival? And what does this all have to do with creativity exactly?
The answers may surprise you. So let’s look at the facts.
There is a link between creativity and depression, but it’s not what most people think it is.
To start: if depression affects so many diverse groups of people, why are creative types singled out? What’s the link between the two?
While the possible solutions are many (the mind is a very complicated subject, after all), countless psychologists and psychiatrists tend to agree that major depression is amplified in those who tend to ruminate on their thoughts.
Think about this.
Rumination, if you’ve been paying attention, is one of the major keys of thinking like a creative genius. To be creative is to make sense of and connect the small details of everything we experience, the good and the bad.
Creatives naturally tend to think more, and think about their very thoughts too.
When we ruminate, however, our brains are naturally drawn to things that are vital to our health. Pain and suffering are such immense experiences, even if they’re short-lived, that those who ruminate tend to loop through those painful experiences more often than those who don’t (are you starting to see the evolutionary link yet?).
For example: someone who doesn’t take the time to think about their thoughts regularly may have a stressful day at work or school, but when they come home from it all it’s easier to forget than not.
On the other hand, there are certain types of thinkers who naturally are drawn to play the stressful events over and over again, thinking about what happened, what they could have (or should have) done differently, how the details of what occurred will affect the rest of their lives, and so on. Creative thinkers tend to fall into the latter group, re-playing events over and over again to better understand them.
A result of focusing on these thoughts then, according to Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, is immense depression or a feeling of hopelessness.
Aha! Now we’re onto something.
This rumination to depression process is evident not only in creatives, of course, but everyone. If the average (not powerfully creative) person finds themselves in a moment of deep reflection – particularly about a stressful event – they too are likely to encounter a state of depression, though it may not last as long as someone who continues to ruminate on the event(s).
For creatives, that depressive state happens to be longer-lasting and more intense, due to their innate desire to simply keep thinking on it.
Creativity is all about thinking, so it only makes sense that all of that thinking would lead to manic episodes of feeling hopeless, alone, or like a failure. Maybe you’ve felt those emotions a lot yourself.
Our first answer is then clear.
It turns out that depression doesn’t make you creative, per se. In-fact, the opposite is more often the case: the creative person, who spends his or her time ruminating on thoughts is likely to suffer from major depression.
The link is an effect of the creative’s ability to think with more intent than other types of personalities.
We’re not quite done yet though. We still haven’t answered why bouts of depression have made their way through evolution and into so many people’s lives.
From an evolutionary standpoint we could now say that depression is a psychological desire to be better, to be stronger, to reflect on where we’ve made mistakes, and to find ways to improve ourselves overall. Research from Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews confirms this approach, stating that depression is an evolutionary way for us to tightly focus our attention on what needs changing in our lives.
Depression, while seemingly a hinderance to a healthy and happy life, is really a balancing act that helps us focus on the areas where we need to improve most.
For creatives, this depression is what amplifies motivation to do their work better. It’s not enough to keep doing what you’ve been doing as a creative, you have to do more, and do it well. That’s empowering, if you can make it through the initial dip in energy.
It’s not just an evolutionary way to sort through what’s broken though.
While depression serves as a reflection of thought and those who ruminate tend to suffer the most, it also has a secondary upside that helps explain why creatives experience more depression than any other individual type.
Once whatever initially caused the depressed feelings to rise up have been sorted through in the mind, the shift into more positive thoughts (e.g. “That wasn’t so bad,” or “I know what I have to do now”) helps to drive even more motivation to do more creative work (or really more of anything at all).
The upswing of coming out of a creative slump, according to Shelley Carson, an instructor on creativity and psychology at Harvard University, is enough motivation to produce immense amounts of work. And it’s a very real boost, identical to one you would get if you received a random gift or really great news.
It’s not just creatives who experience the productive, post-depression boost either.
Say you’re an avid tennis player who suddenly falls into a temporary state of depression. Once the thoughts you experienced through those few days or that week of depression are counseled internally, you may find yourself more motivated than ever before to get out and practice your backhand stroke. To the point where you go above and beyond where you were before the depressed state.
Of course, the motivational boost is often an inverse of the level of depression. So if you’re in a truly deep funk and start coming out of it, you can expect your motivation to be equally as high as the low.
For creatives this is excellent news.
After much rumination, creative types tend to fall into the deeper states of depression, but that also means they’re more likely to experience the higher rises. Because of this effect, their work is more prominent and their behavior more recognized.
You can see how this shift (from overwhelmingly depressed and being unable to do much of anything, to a dynamic state of productivity and livelihood) can mislead people into believing that depression fuels creativity, but that’s not really the case.
Creativity is what can drive depression, a signal that there’s a lot of thinking going on. Which, in return, is great for creativity once the initial slump has been combatted and the motivation returns.
If you find yourself depressed, don’t expect to be more creative. However, if you’re often suffering from depression, you may just be doing so because you’re just that much more creative.
Important! I am not a psychologist or doctor and do not give this information as medical or professional advice. If you are seriously depressed and need someone to simply listen to you, call 1-800-273-8255 today.
I also highly recommend seeking professional help in the form of a psychologist or other experienced professional. You are great, the world needs your ideas, please get help if you feel out of control in any way.
Thanks for reading and sharing.