art & ethics

explorations in art

art & ethics

The Price of Happiness

December 13th, 2015 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Can you imagine how empty museums would be, how uninspired poetry would be, or how vapid and empty lyrics would be without the Van Gogh’s, Nina Simone’s, and Edgar Allen Poe’s of the world? If depression didn’t exist, we’d have a taste of such an artless world.

Aristotle once said, “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics and some of them to such an extent that as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile?” This was the earliest inquiry of the phenomenon that is the correlation between depression and artistic creativity. Today with modern psychology and neuroscience, we know that these two things go hand in hand. This correlation makes depression a double edged sword- on one end, superb creativity and enhanced empathy that allows for beautiful expressions of art, and on the other end, a sometimes crippling mental state that can both inhibit and enhance emotions to extremes and push people to the edge. So what happens today with treatment for depression? Just as Aristotle thought, depression and creativity often go hand in hand, but what Aristotle referred to as “melancholic temperament”, we know now as depression or affective disorder. “Affective disorder can be regarded as the price of exceptional greatness. Thus, creative and eminent individuals, by virtue of their being exceptional, occupy a somewhat unstable terrain between temperament and affective disease.” (Akiskal, Hagop S, 2007) This “unstable terrain” is a problem for people who seemingly have to choose between two mental states with trade-offs for either one. The treatment available isn’t the fix-all pill that people think it is. You gain your happiness at the cost of your creativity.

With depression enhancing creativity, an ethical dilemma for many sufferers of depression is: should I treat my depression and lose my creativity but be happy or not take antidepressants and be depressed but creative? This is a legitimate issue people face due to the fine line between suffering and brilliance.  For example, the poet, Robert Lowell’s, experience on lithium was described. At first he felt as if he were cured and his life was improved but his artistic ability suffered. “There’s always a debate, though, about whether their work suffers after their “cure”, after they’ve lost access to that part of the psyche most of us never get to glimpse.”, and “Most artists report feeling flatlined or tranquilized on lithium.” raised an interesting and perplexing point that treating “madness” inhibits creativity. (Kean, 2011) Even treatments less intense than Lithium like the more commonly used selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can be questioned because what are they doing to the person’s artistic ability and their personality? I speak from experience on this dilemma. I have depression and I, along with approximately one in ten American adults, take antidepressants regularly. Except sometimes I find myself holding the tiny almond shaped, light orange pill in between my two fingers and wonder if I should even take it. This pill that stabilizes me makes me lose my artistic spark and while I benefit from being happy, I lose so much of myself in the process. My brothers are classical musicians and I’ll never forget when one told me that he’s stopping his pills for a week because he said “I have to compose so I have to feel”.

All pills come with side effects and warnings. Even people without depression have seen the commercials for anti-depressant drugs with a bright, smiling, paid actress talking about detailed facts of the drug that nobody but a doctor would know and how she can “live again”. The facade is followed by a voice over of a monotonous man quickly listing the awful side-effects so quickly that it almost seems like he doesn’t want anyone to know how many and how bad they can be. “You should check with your doctor immediately if any of these side effects occur when taking celexa: agitation, blurred vision, confusion, fever, suicidal thoughts” he begins and we start to wonder why anyone would even take it. It almost seems counterproductive. But the side effect that doesn’t get a commercial slot or fine print on the prescription bottle is loss of creativity. Sometimes however, a side effect that is listed is “lack of emotion”. This lack of emotion could be the key to loss of creativity.

Researchers have hypothesized self-reflective rumination may explain the connection between depression and creativity. This hypothesis was examined in a sample of 99 undergraduate college students, using path analysis. The authors found that self-reported past depressive symptomatology was linked to increased self-reflective rumination. Rumination, in turn, was related to current symptomatology and to self-rated creative interests and objectively measured creative fluency, originality, and elaboration. These results suggest that the association between depression and creativity is the result of rumination. (Verhaeghen, 2005) Expression of emotions and self-rumination are closely related, therefore the suppression of emotions due to antidepressants makes one lose the level of heightened self-rumination that is a consequence of depression so creativity is lost along with the depression.

While I’m not rushing to throw my antidepressants out of the window or urge others to stop treating their depression, I see that when treating depression feelings are lost. This will continue to be a dilemma until treatment options expand but for now it seems that artists will have to choose between being happy and being artistic. This is a choice to be left to the people with depression, but with antidepressants being prescribed every day in America alone and there being an upward trend in depression diagnoses (Lépine, 2011), we just might see a world without the Van Gogh’s, Nina Simone’s, and Edgar Allen Poe’s sometime soon.

Works Cited

Verhaeghen, Paul, Jutta Joorman, and Rodney Khan. “Why we sing the blues: the relation between self-reflective rumination, mood, and creativity.” Emotion 5.2 (2005): 226.

Akiskal, Hagop S., and Kareen K. Akiskal. “In search of Aristotle: temperament, human nature, melancholia, creativity and eminence.” Journal of affective disorders 100.1 (2007): 1-6.

Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Random House, 2011.

Lépine, Jean-Pierre, and Mike Briley. “The increasing burden of depression.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment 7.Suppl 1 (2011): 3.



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