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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Can We Hope for Happy…or Pine for Passion? (Creativity as Spouse and Lover)


“We don’t really want what we think we desire”

The other day I stumbled upon this piece from “theorist and provacateur” (read: best job title ever) Slavoj Žižek. I was particularly drawn to the title, as I spend a lot of time investigating the nature of creativity:

“What Fulfils You Creatively Isn’t What Makes You Happy”


Happiness is a strange thing. Personally, I think we are a tad obsessed with it. I’ve always struggled with the fact that “happiness” seems to vaguely hover between “contentedness” and “euphoria”. Say those three words aloud a few’s funny how they sound like they seem – “contented” being rather matter-of-fact and no frills…”happy” with a sort of childlike perkiness…”euphoria” just sounds dramatic and sensual as it drips – not trips – off the tongue.


To illustrate his point about happiness being wrapped up in fantasy, Žižek shares the story of a husband with a mistress on the side. She’s intriguing as long as she is different from the routine – barely but not quite untouchable. If he were free to leave his wife and move in with the mistress she would lose her desirability. She is wanted because, to quote some Lana Del Rey lyrics, she is the “lonesome queen”:

“The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room There are never toys that’s scattered everywhere

And when her old man comes to call He finds her waiting like a lonesome queen ‘Cause to be by her side it’s such a change from old routine

But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep The other woman will never have his love to keep And as the years go by the other woman will spend her life alone, alone”


This brought to mind Andy Warhol’s quip:

“As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it.”

Of course, that can be flipped to read “As soon as you get it you stop wanting it”.


But is this accurate? I recently read a piece about longing, and the frustration of love. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserts that love ultimately stems from frustration, and that

“Falling in love, finding your passion, are attempts to locate, to picture, to represent what you unconsciously feel frustrated about, and by”

That brings up the term “passion”, which has an intriguing etymology that seems to dance between pain and sex. Originally, passion meant “to suffer” and was derived from a root meaning “to hurt”. Of course for ages it had religious connotations as it was associated with the sufferings of Jesus. Why, even the “passion flower” pointed to a crown-of-thorn like appearance. The term was broadened to indicate “strong emotion” and then somewhere around the late Middle English period (Elizabethan times), it morphed into a full blown reference to sexual lust.


We use “passion” presently (and perhaps even over use it) in our efforts to affix language to an intense feeling or drive for you-name-it – career, hobby, food, music, entertainment, men and women.

True “self actualization”, Žižek claims,

“means being ‘ready to suffer’ for the creative realization of a goal: ‘Happiness doesn’t enter into it.’


So being creative, while it is undoubtedly therapeutic and can produce joy, does not really “make us happy”…in fact, Žižek reminds us that many creators (he uses scientists as an example) are in fact steeped in risk-taking and are willing to forgo pleasure, comfort, safety, or convenience in order to achieve their creative objective…their pursuit..their desire.

They might even be…(enter a new, profound emotion)..melancholy whilst doing so.  A few posts back I wrote about the notion of


That is, the thought that creativity can “spring from” (as in the German word eine Quelle, a “spring or source”) this insatiable sense of yearning that, as Van Gogh described, “hopes and aspires and searches”… Indeed. Victor Hugo reframed the term by stating that

“melancholy is the happiness of being sad”


And that brings us back to happiness. Is suffering for our work the greatest we can hope for, or might we find some delight- for delight’s sake- in the process?

In The Dark Side of Creativity, scientists explore the links between creative genius and mental illness. What’s most intriguing to me is a condition called schizotypy, which is in the schizophrenia family but much less severe . People with this condition have brains that do not filter as efficiently as other people’s brains…but that ends up being a great asset for creative thought. Just like doing something mundane or a participating in routine exercise (like a walk) can enhance potential for divergent thinking, so can schizotypy break down mental barriers and compartmentalization so that dots may be connected.


We know that many of the world’s creative geniuses were indeed suffering from a variety of mental disorders and often succumbed to the behaviours used to cope with them (such as alcohol and drug addiction). Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran shares also that there is a great portion of artists, writers, poets, and musicians who have “cross-wirings” in their brains that cause the mingling of senses, or synesthesia. This allows them to do what is at the crux of creativity

to think metaphorically and make unusual connections between disparate concepts.

When we studied synesthesia in our Theory of Knowledge course, many of the synesthetes expressed that the gift was a mixed blessing. Their brain forced links that were not always welcome. (on a side note, my favourite TED talk about this is from a true cyborg, Neil Harbisson, who can hear sounds when he looks at people and produces “sound portraits”).


Given my personal experiences with creativity, I have to say I’m on the fence. Producing creative work (in an admitted frenzy) during my cancer treatments certainly kept me from “The Dark Side”. I can identify with Van Gogh’s “active melancholy” in that heartbreak, loneliness, or general ennui really can poke my muse, as it were. But most often, these experiences lacked any sort of goal…they were about

making as a drug…

…as a panacea for everything going wrong in my life at the time. Perhaps, yes, as a sense of control over the things I seemed helpless towards. In that way, I went

from “tortured” to “tinkering”…from “plagued” to “playful…from “woeful” to “whimsical”


So maybe we acknowledge two types of creativity –

one of purpose, which requires passion and “suffering”,

and a more wandering, ephemeral type, which brings a certain degree of bliss.

I believe it’s important to have a balance of the two…the spouse and the lover, perhaps (to extend Žižek’s metaphor)? The former is more work and often unpleasant, but the purpose – the WHY – makes it worth it (think of an athlete in intense training, for example). The latter is like a fantasy one is permitted to visit in once in a while to soothe the soul. Neither really results in “happiness” per se, but each fills certain cavities in our being.


Understanding “happiness” I shall leave to the philosophers…understanding “love” to the poets. But I do think it is possible to understand – and then leverage – how creativity works….as long as, like any passion,  we don’t expect too much from it.


Note: While I don’t think one should rely on others to “make you happy”, I do think having lovely relationships – particularly with “creative soul mates” as I’ve been known to call them, can be as fulfilling as you can get

#mentalillness #synesthesia #happiness #creativity #etymology #neuroscience #psychology #metaphoricalthinking #passion #melancholy

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