Does Happiness Kill Creativity?

The 5 Stages Of The Creative Mindset

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Photo by Candice Picard on Unsplash

A former mentor of mine used to quote this phrase.

I don’t want much. I just want MORE.

He used that phrase to reference his endless desire to make more sales, generate more income and acquire more stuff. The quote also resonates with my creative side — rephrased to my liking.

It doesn’t matter what I did yesterday. I want to do something better tomorrow.

We never seem to reach the pinnacle of satisfaction in our creative endeavors.

The optimist would say that the lack of satisfaction drives us to experiment, create and risk. A lack of satisfaction with our current state has propelled humanity forward and is responsible for everything from paper clips to iPhones.

Creativity ebbs and flows. Mine peaks in the throws of discontent. It suffers in times of high anxiety or contentment. My goal is to keep my state of mind in the Goldilocks zone of the creative mindset continuum. There are five major points: actualize, content, discontent, angst, disgust.

Actualize

You’ve reached the point on your creative journey where all you satisfied all your dreams and desires. Actualization can be a dead end because we think we’ve accomplished everything we’ve set out to achieve. It’s the perfect state of having all our desires fulfilled.

What do you do next?

If you do nothing, you lose your creative urge. You need to find new challenges. If you’re a writer, it could mean venturing into a new genre. A designer might need to experiment in new mediums. Picasso changed his painting styles often. He also experimented in different mediums, avoiding the trap of feeling satisfied for too long. Most of us will never reach this state of being — and that’s not a bad thing.

Content

This stage is transitory. I was content when I finished yesterday’s story. I thought it was an excellent piece. That feeling fades within a day or two. It’s the fleeting burst of happiness you feel when you hit a milestone, finish a chapter or publish a blog post.

You can stop and celebrate the taste of victory. Take time to enjoy what you’ve done, but know that you’ll be back to work the next day.

Discontent

A small success brings content, but within a few days, the discomfort builds. You feel restless like you need to do more or like you cannot do anything else until you create something.

I like to call it a feeling of unfinished business. Use whatever metaphor or adjective works for you. That feeling drives creativity. Discontent is uncomfortable. It motivates you to act and excise the unpleasant sensation.

This stage gives us enough stress to spark our creative juices without the crushing anxiety of the next phase.

Angst and anxiety

Discontent is not a static feeling. If you ignore it, the feeling escalates into anxiety. You might recognize it as that fidgety feeling you get when you spend a few days away from your craft.

This feeling comes from an extended break. Vacations tend to trigger this feeling upon our return home. It also occurs when you ignore that little flutter in your stomach, the sense of discontent. Acting in this stage is essential. If you ignore the angst, you adapt by descending into the last phase.

Disgust

Some folks call it a funk. Some will tell themselves they lost it. Self-confidence wanes. You feel stuck or incapable. You may question yourself and your ability. There’s a sense of gloom. Feverish action can push you out of this state of mind, but it’s imperative to act fast.

You can’t stay in this state forever, so you find a way to rationalize and make peace with it. You might tell yourself you had a good run or that it wasn’t for you. At some point, you tell yourself it’s okay to quit.

This scenario happened to me in my twenties. I had a good run with my writing and lost my spirit. I rationalized and gave up. It was almost twenty years before I tried again.

The Goldilocks zone of creativity

Where do we do our best work? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my best work comes from the state of discontent. I need that pit in my stomach, the feeling of unfinished business to motivate me. Discontent breeds unrest which drives me to act.

Dissatisfaction allows our creative side to emerge. We need motivation, a sense of unfinished business to produce our best work — or any work.

The creative process brings me to contentment. I feel at peace for a few hours or a few days. Then I fall back into discontent, and the process starts again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt satisfied like I’ve accomplished everything I desired. Maybe it’s good that we never reach that point. On paper, it sounds miserable. You’re always chasing something. Worse, you’re often unable to articulate what exactly you are pursuing.

We like to think of happiness or contentment as a goal, an end state we attain through effort and achievement. There are countless stories of artists in several mediums who did their best work their first five years and then plateaued. Maybe they lost that feeling of unfinished business in the pit of their stomachs?

We do our best work when we feel a small amount of distress. The cortisol states of angst can be helpful to certain people in some situations. Few people can escape the dungeon of disgust. The satiated feeling of satisfaction beguiles us into stagnation.

Dissatisfaction allows our creative side to emerge. We need motivation, a sense of unfinished business to produce our best work — or any work.

Can we create this state if we don’t feel it?

Sometimes I feel lazy, unmotivated to work. I feel content with my current state. In these situations, you can artificially create that feeling of minor distress. You need to remind yourself of your loose ends. Try the first two questions.

What have I yet to accomplish?
Write down three to five goals or dreams you haven’t yet crossed off your list.

What do I need to do to achieve these goals and by when?
Write down a list of up to ten items. A longer list generates more unease. A deadline is essential to create urgency.

And if I’m really struggling, I ask myself this next question. Comparing yourself to others is mostly a bad idea, but in the right situation, it can motivate you.

What has [insert rival, peer, competitor] accomplished that I haven’t?
This question can send you down a rabbit hole of envy, regret, and anger. Focus on it enough to induce action, but don’t dwell on it.

Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

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