Note: The following is the third installment in a series by Dan Workman on creative people and their mental health. This article was originally published in a slightly different form on the professional practice website Houston Therapy. To read more installments of this series, please find Workman’s Glasstire author page here and follow the links.
“So, Why Am I Doing This?!”
This question usually shows up somewhere in the creative process. Cognitive and behavioral theorists generally believe that the answer is, “I do it because I like it,” or “I do it for the reward.” This is an oversimplification, but it proves useful. Creators who operate exclusively in either category are unicorn-rare.
“Because I Like Creating!”
The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described autotelic behavior like that in which the doing of the thing is its own reward. Csikszentmihalyi described the state of ‘flow’ — it occurs when an endeavor is worth giving up food, sleep, and sex for. The act is most often perceived as pleasurable; Csikszentmihalyi calls this state “experiencing enjoyment.” The state of flow is fundamentally different from neurotic compulsions, behaviors which are used as defenses to avoid intolerable feelings.
For most nascent creatives, the first experience of flow is followed by a desire for the next. I can remember seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I KNEW that I wanted to play guitar and be in a band. There was no going back. It spoke to me. I quickly found my dad’s ukulele and started performing in my bedroom mirror. I enlisted friends to pretend they played as well so we could mime songs played on my Beatles vinyl. I was playing to an imagined audience. The drive was personal and very intense. My moment in front of the mirror was the reward.
Similarly, the child that draws, or paints, or makes things and hands their work to an admiring parent may be gratified to see it displayed on the refrigerator, but the act of creation is the primary reward.
“Because I Like the Reward!”
Csikszentmihalyi also mentions exotelic behaviors. These behaviors are a means to an end. Returning to a musical example, some bands are specifically created to turn a profit. Contrived pop bands such as NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys are 1990s examples. Band members were recruited to perform, and top songwriters were enlisted to pen hit singles. Publishing contracts were carefully crafted, and licensing deals were struck.
The genius in this effort was the careful crafting by a team of managers, agents, and publicists to produce money-making machines targeting young audiences. The business creatives used artistic piecework to make money, and lots of it. The band members were in the public eye and enjoyed the spoils of this effort, but everyone on the team primarily plied their craft to create financial gain for the business owners.
Most creative endeavors fall somewhere along the continuum between these two examples. If there is a “sweet spot,” I think we would find Warhol, Oprah, and Benjamin Franklin in that range. Each used wealth produced by their creative talent to fuel successful business ventures. They followed their muse to create, and then channeled rewards of their efforts to facilitate new opportunities to flow in their further output. They and others like them reap the highest personal and public rewards because their endeavors caught waves of attention. They achieved a self-sustaining level of high personal and commercial flow.
Other artists may labor in relative obscurity but still enjoy their work as a vocation or avocation. For them, the highest validation they may seek may be that work on the refrigerator!
Creativity Is a Powerful Component of Mental Health
James D. Masterson. M.D. was an early psychiatric theorist. Masterson believed that therapy should bring forth what he called “the Real Self.” Masterson considered creativity to be one of the hallmarks of the Real Self, a necessary component of satisfying and high-functioning self.
One of the reasons I love doing therapy with creatives is that we have a head start working towards the real — or most functional and enjoyable — self. A client’s creativity can be harnessed to work through issues, provide psychic relief, find discipline and, perhaps most importantly, find a balance between intrinsic creative reward and extrinsic validation. Every client brings their unique gifts to therapy. I’m grateful that I get to work with people who already have creative tools to craft a more enjoyable life.