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Creativity and Health

After you’ve been a doctor as long as I have, you feel entitled to make sweeping generalizations, broad observations, and the like about the patients you’ve been attempting to keep out of harm’s way as efficiently as possible.

Here’s one: I am thoroughly convinced that people whose primary occupations involve creativity are physically and psychologically healthier than those whose lives are painfully lacking in it. I’d been thinking about this for some time and was pleased to discover that I wasn’t alone. In fact, there’s a journal studying how creativity affects our lives, the Creativity Research Journal.

Despite the clichéd psychodrama associated with artists, they’re usually both emotionally happy and physically healthy. When defining “artists,” by the way, I use a (pardon the pun) broad brush: theatre and all visual arts people, writers, musicians, clothing and jewelry designers, chefs, interior designers, graphic artists, and so forth (if I’ve failed to list you, you know who you are).

A creative person regards her life as immensely fortunate if she can actually make a living with her skills. “I really have a wonderful life,” a patient recently told me, “I teach art eight months a year and am paid to do what I love. The other four months, I’m in my studio. Now that I’m 60, I think I’m turning out some of my best work.” Her annual income? About $45,000, including what she makes selling a few paintings. She’s long accepted she’ll never drive a Beamer unless she marries one, but she’d sooner open a vein than give up her art for a pricey car.

Most creative people don’t make much money, but they’re very philosophical about it and amazingly non-materialistic (most rent cheap digs and don’t own cars, generally living life outside acquisition mode). They regard their day jobs as necessary to continue their creative evenings and weekends. Their desire to climb a corporate ladder is nonexistent and they seem to observe with detached irony the various turf wars and backbiting that defines corporate life.

On the other hand, their entire body language changes as they describe a play they’re auditioning for, or the story they got published in some tiny literary journal, or the connection they feel with fellow musicians during rehearsal.

Creativity takes many forms. For example, you might think surgeons are happy because they make a lot of money. Not so. I’ve known many surgeons over the years and they’re truly happiest in the operating room, where every case is a challenge to their creative skills. Entrepreneurs are another fulfilled group. We may think of the man who created FedEx as just another US billionaire, but in his heart-of-hearts he likely views himself as the creator he is.

Elementary and high school teachers once were a fairly happy group, but a lot of creativity has been beaten out of them in the form of forced curricula and standardized tests. I take care of a lot of teachers and the phrase “exit strategy,” looms large in our conversations. On the other hand, college teachers (really all closet actors anyway) seem happy until the specter of tenure review enters their lives.

People in non-creative occupations hope to get some pleasure from the income advantage they have over artists, but in my experience this generally disappoints. For the past several decades, both sociologists and poets have been writing about the lives of quiet desperation of the herds commuting to suburbs, spending evenings and weekends calming children and watching TV. Their usually stressful and time-devouring jobs combined with a general lack of physical activity ultimately take significant tolls on health and well-being.

To me, an especially depressing group of patients are those artists who have abandoned their creative skills to slip into a life of acquisition. When I hear a patient say something like this, I want to shake some sense into her: “I was always happiest when I was composing a song, something would go just right, and life was perfect…but these days I spend so much time being a legal assistant that my piano’s covered with dust, though I make a good living.”

On the other hand, I have nothing but kudos for an attorney I know who followed his heart and after work is a busy actor in small theatre groups around the city.

So what I’m saying to all you creative people is this: Regard anything that’s not involved with your art as economic “filler” to get enough food on your plate to make more art. And for the rest of you (myself included) who regard yourselves as uncreative, you’re probably wrong. There was likely some moment in your life when you loved painting or writing poetry, dancing or arranging flowers. Go back there, take some classes, sharpen your skills and I guarantee you’ll…

Leave a Comment

  1. Pam Hamilton says:

    This article describes me: an artist who gave up her art for awhile (years), got really sick with chronic fatigue and fibro, then in my late 40s decided to get back to what I love. Art. It of course is not a good time to do it (economics and all) plus I’m married with 2 teenagers (busy). But I’ve never been happier, healthier or freer (is that a word?)

    I’d like to recommend the book that helped me get back on track. “The Artist’s Way Workbook” by Julia Cameron. It’s not just for artists. Check it out.


  2. John Cox says:

    Northrop Frye remarks that Shakespeare wasn’t depressed when he wrote King Lear. On the contrary, he was the happiest man in London, because he knew he’d just finished one of the best tragedies ever written.

  3. This blog post definitely expresses the truth of the matter. After simplifying my life due to meeting with WHC, I have become much more satisfied and joyful regarding life. Sure – I gave up my high-profile corporate position (on the rise), but that career cannot compare with the satisfaction of unleashed creativity. I finally have the time and motivation to write, compose music, cook, and meditate. THIS is true freedom.

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