What Science Can Teach Us About Being A Truly Happy Creative

There are things that happen within our lives that truly shake us to the core. Those moments that we can remember decades later with vivid clarity. For many of us, September 11, 2001 was one of those moments. We can remember exactly where we were the moment we first learned what was happening.

These moments that shake us also shape us. They remain not just vivid memories but also powerful inflection points that change our path moving forward.

For me, one of those defining moments happened on April 9, 2015 at roughly 5 a.m. It was the moment my sister called to inform me that my mother had committed suicide. I can still feel the texture of the chair I sat in as my sister said, “She did it.”

I’ve written in detail about my experience of my mother, who had bipolar. You can read about that here, but that’s not the intention of this story.

This story is about what happened to me after that moment in the chair and what I’ve learned since then.

Look, it’s pretty safe to say that we all want to be happy. Yet most of us struggle with finding happiness in a consistent way. I’ve personally struggled with this for much of my existence.

Here’s the fascinating thing–it’s not that we don’t know what makes humans happy, it’s that we’re simply not listening.

When my mother committed suicide I had a deep sense that I had failed. Sure, guilt is normal, but I was her protector. I was supposed to save her and I wasn’t there. Not only did I get consumed with guilt, but I also continued to live within the story that I was the protector.

And so I told my sister that I was strong because she had a young child and didn’t need more to worry about. And I told my partner I was strong because we currently live in separate countries and I didn’t want to be a burden to her. And I told my team and the world I was strong, and I proved it by launching big massive things and then pointing at them and saying, “Look, I must be strong if I can do that.”

I was continuing to be the protector. But the truth is, I was pretending.

I wasn’t strong. I felt so completely alone. I felt like nothing in the world made sense anymore.

My mother died because she lost any sense of purpose—she felt like she had nothing left to contribute. And no matter what she tried, she simply couldn’t find an ounce of happiness.

Witnessing her experience and then going through my own depression, I spent a great deal of time thinking about happiness. Was there anything she could have done to find happiness? How could I regain my own? Why does it always feel so elusive?

After months of thinking, pondering, and exploring these questions, I finally have something of substance to say.

So let’s explore what science tells us about how to be a truly happy creative

First, we need to get this out of the way: it’s all a lie.

What mainstream culture tells us about being happy, that is. The big house, the fancy cars, a big fat bank account–that’s not happiness.

In my undergraduate years in psychology I did my thesis project on materialism and its connection to happiness. That research has always stayed with me.

Above the poverty line, materialism has nearly no correlation to happiness. In other words, once your basic needs are met, the amount of stuff you have is not related to your happiness.

In 1979, researchers took a look at lottery winners and compared their levels of happiness to that of folks who had recently suffered a terrible accident and become paraplegic or quadriplegic. While the lottery winners had a spike in happiness when they won, and those who suffered the accidents had a great loss in happiness, both groups returned close to their normal level of happiness within a period of months.

So for myself, and most of you reading this, as we are comfortably above the poverty line, accumulating more cash, fancy toys, or any other stuff really won’t make any significant difference to our overall happiness. What’s more, simply believing that money is a path to happiness has been related to lower well-being (how scary is that?!). Just believing the lie can be detrimental to your health.

Hopefully that wasn’t a large bubble that just burst for you. Many of us, deep down, have always felt that there was something empty in chasing the accumulation of stuff no matter how many ads we’re bombarded with that claim the contrary.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend so much time in my younger years studying happiness. It’s meant that for much of my professional career I haven’t chased the illusion of more stuff.

But sharing what happiness is not doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot in telling us what it truly is.

Happiness, like story, starts with people

Another study looked at those who were extremely happy and wanted to see what they all had in common. More than anything else, they found one thing that stood out among all of those who reported a really high level of happiness: Those who are very happy have a good number of close, deep relationships.

It’s important to realize that this isn’t about having a great number of relationships. I often feel like I have an incredible network of people I don’t really know all that well. I write often, I email many of you several times a month, but only a few of you truly engage with me in a deep and meaningful way. And we all have that in our lives–people who really know us, who we feel we can share anything with, and those where the relationship is more professional or very surface.

It’s those real and deep connections that determine so much of our happiness.

A couple weeks ago I was interviewing Paul Zak, one of the leading neuroscientists in story. He’s done incredible research on oxytocin, a hormone often called the social molecule. This hormone is related to so much of our interpersonal connection.

I’ve long thought that to be human is to tell stories. It’s the telling of stories that made us human. But in my conversation with Paul he made a critical distinction. He said…

“We have evolved as gregariously social creatures…we’re acutely aware of humans around us, their emotions, their behaviors, their intentions… As social creatures we’re designed to help others, to connect to others.”

— Paul Zak, Leading the Neuroscientist in Story

Story, therefore, is one of the most powerful ways we have to connect.

Again, this is probably not a huge surprise. If I asked most of you what you appreciated most in your life, your family and friends are quite likely the first thing you’d mention. And if I ask our team here at Muse what they love most about what they do, they’ll nearly all answer in two short words, “the people.”

Okay, so happiness starts with moving away from materialism and the stuff and moving towards having a few really deep relationships.

But beyond that, there is more we can do to feel and be fully alive.

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s certainly a common structure that every psych student comes across. In short, it’s a widely cited study published in 1943 by Abraham Maslow who was looking at human motivation.

Maslow studied exemplary people, folks like Einstein, and looked and what made them so. From that research he developed a hierarchy of needs in the forum of a pyramid. At the bottom are our most basic needs, things like food and safety. As those are satisfied we can move up the pyramid towards higher level needs and higher states of being.

In the middle of the pyramid we find love and belonging, that connection with others. As creatives, that often means feeling a strong connection to our team and the larger mission or vision we’re a part of.

After that comes esteem, which is both having other people value you as well as being proud of yourself. As creatives this one is tough, as we often do work for clients who don’t fully value us, and we can get stuck creating work that we’re no proud of. The point I want to make here—and something so critical to see—is that cycle of being disconnected from the people and work you do is very unhealthy.

Now at the top of the pyramid we find self-actualization. In Maslow’s original conception of the framework this was the highest state of being, and it referred to a deep immersion in what you’re doing, along with a fulfillment of our potential.

“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”

— Abraham Maslow

So this idea of self-actualization, according to Maslow, lies at the top of the pyramid–it is the highest need of a human. And while there are differing opinions on Maslow’s model, many others have come to similar conclusions about the incredible value of this deep immersion in what we’re doing while also challenging ourselves.

This experience of really pushing yourself and being fully immersed in what you’re doing is called a state of flow.

And we all should strive to cultivate more flow in our lives.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called, flow.

Born in Hungary in 1934, during the Second World War Mihaly spent time in an Italian prison. While there, in such a terrible situation, he found chess as a path to happiness.

“I discovered chess was a miraculous way of entering into a different world where all those things didn’t matter.”

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

According to Mihaly, happiness doesn’t simply happen but rather it needs to be cultivated. It’s something we can prepare for by setting challenges for ourselves that are neither too easy nor impossible.

What’s really fascinating is that he found that our nervous system is only capable of processing about 110 bits of information per second. If we were to sit down and have a conversation in person, you’d need roughly 60 bits per second. And that’s why you can’t hear and process more than two people talking to you.

Flow is therefore this state where you are deeply involved in creating something new in such a way that all of your processing is directed towards it, with no attention spent on how your body feels, other problems in your life, or things like be hungry and tired.

Right after my mother’s suicide I spent a great deal of time focusing on Muse. This was before we had officially launched and so there was so much to prepare. Similar to Mihaly’s escape from the Italian prison, I found my escape through finding flow in the work that I was doing—the only problem was that I wasn’t actually dealing with anything else outside of those flow periods.

Today, I find that I experience states of flow when I’m telling stories, when I’m making films, and when I’m writing.

Here’s another thing that is so critical. Notice that flow only happens when you’re fully immersed in something that utilizes your skills and challenges you. So if you’re doing work you don’t connect with and isn’t pushing you creatively, it’s very unlikely that you’ll experience any flow states.

Another huge distinction is that to be in a flow state we must be incredibly present. We aren’t worried about all of the other challenges and complications in our life–we’re immersed in creating something new that is pushing the limits of what we’re capable of.

The power of being present in your creative pursuits

Practices like mindfulness and meditation focus on cultivating a greater state of being present–being fully aware of and in the moment.

Sitting here, right now, in a cafe in Melbourne I can feel the smooth lustre of the keyboard as I press each letter. I can feel the almost insignificant etching of each letter in the keys kiss my finger every time I press down. I can hear an incredible mosaic of life happening all around me–the radio in the cafe, conversations about life from nearby tables, and cars lazily driving by.

And as I return to writing, I am fully present and deeply immersed in the creation of this story.

“Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is life itself, it is an insane way to live.”

— Eckhart Tolle

Matt Killingsworth, a Harvard Researcher, developed an app that sought to answer, what makes us happy? He had over 15,000 participants across 80 countries with varying marital status, education level, age, and occupation.

After hundreds of thousands of responses, the data revealed we’re happiest when we are mindful of the moment, and we’re least happy when the mind is wandering.

Apparently we spend 46.9% of our waking hours thinking about stuff other than what we’re actually doing. Pretty wild! Animals don’t do this. Part of the trouble with envisioning our future and reminiscing on the past is our unfortunate default.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind…the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

— Killingsworth

Killingsworth has a point here. The truth is, now is all we have. We can live so much of our lives focused on a future that never comes. For many of us, we focus on an illusion of what can be rather than truly enjoying what is.

We spend so much time trying to look good, trying to be who they want us to be, trying to become something else, that we don’t spend nearly enough time loving and appreciating what is.

When you lose somebody really close to you, like I did with my mother, you have this experience like the rest of the world should stop. You wake up the next day and wonder how everybody can go about their lives–don’t they know what just happened? It feels like a gross injustice that the sun rises and the world continues on like it did the day before.

But the world does keep on moving. It doesn’t stop, or even slow down, just because we’re in incredible pain. We often live with this false belief that we truly are the center of the universe. We don’t actively think or cultivate that perspective, but we act as if it were true. And yet if any one of us were gone tomorrow, the world would keep on spinning. Sure there would be those who miss us, there would be an impact on those around us, but things would keep moving.

Want to see a really sobering reality? This is what your life looks like in weeks.

Our time here is incredibly short.

In 2016 the average life expectancy in the United States is 79 years old. That means we have, on average, 4108 weeks of life to live.

At the time of this writing, I’ve already spent 1672 of mine.

For my own personal pursuit, I want to spend my time not just being happy, but also doing something with meaning.

There is a critical distinction between the two. Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaker notes the difference between happiness and meaningfulness–happiness is about the present, and meaning is about linking the past, present and future.

We can create work we feel is meaningful but be totally unhappy while we’re doing it. For many of us, this is a reality we’re all too familiar with. The unhappy but meaningful life can be characterized by stress, struggle and challenges. However, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people–connected to a larger sense of purpose and value–make positive contributions to society.

On the other hand, we can focus on being happy and do that without meaning. We can craft things we love, do whatever we desire, and not really worry about anybody or anything else (at least for a short period until our resources run out). Happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficulty or struggle is often avoided.

But there is a possibility achieve both happiness and meaningfulness. When we truly enjoy those around us, and enjoy the work we’re doing—and we’re crafting something that contributes to the world around us–we certainly can have both. This is a challenge, as we often focus on one over the other, and it takes a ton of intention to create a space where you can have both.

“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”

— Viktor Frankl

Find your purpose–one of the largest things you can do to be a fulfilled creative.

In the later years of his life Maslow criticized his own model, the Hierarchy of Needs, and felt that there was another higher level of being, that of self-transcendence. In this highest level we are living of ourselves in the service of others, a goal that is larger than ourselves.

We recently did a story for The Remarkable Ones with Chris Darwin, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin (the evolution guy). Chris had a long struggle with depression and as a fancy advertising executive, had planned an elaborate scheme to take his own life. He even attempted the suicide but a tree caught his fall and he awoke the next day in a hospital bed with a broken back.

What he found that ultimately pulled him out of his depression and saved his life was his purpose. He dedicated himself to trying to prevent the mass-extinction of species. On doing all he could to finish Darwin’s unfinished business and do more to protect our fellow creatures.

Purpose saved his life and it was a lack of purpose that took my mother’s. As the bipolar continued to take its emotional and financial toll, she felt like she had nothing left to contribute to this world. More than being at the darkest point of depression, this lack of purpose is what killed her.

My mother’s struggle with bipolar was really bad, but there are others who have had it much worse. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent 3 years in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Some of that time he spent as a slave laborer and, near the end, he was transferred and became a physician within the camp.

After being liberated he spent a great deal of time focusing on psychological healing and wrote the incredibly important book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). After enduring such incredible suffering in these camps, Frankl stated (perhaps his largest idea) that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning so therefore even suffering is meaningful.

As evidenced by the story of Chris Darwin, and what I experienced with my mother, Frankl said that when we have our why we can endure almost any how.

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. ”

— Viktor Frankl

While happiness may be elusive, it’s hiding in plain sight if we just choose to listen.

  • Don’t chase the illusion of accumulating stuff as a way of being happier. It’s all lie and won’t make you any happier than you are now.

  • As in stories, people matter most. Focus on developing a few really strong relationships. This is one of the largest predictors of happiness.

  • One of our highest states of being comes when we enter a state of flow, where we’re fully immersed in creating something that uses our abilities and challenges us.

  • The power of being present is critical to deeply experiencing life and enjoying what is.

  • Find your purpose. It can buffer you against the biggest hurdles you’ll face and offer a deep fulfillment that nothing else can replace.

Above all, these practices need to be cultivated. We need to make it a priority to be present, to find our purpose, to value and invest in those relationships, and to stay focused on what really matters to us.

The reality for most of us is that we’re focused so much on the future, of what we’re trying to build, that we don’t experience the present. We accept clients and work we don’t love because it might lead to something better down the road. We create work we’re not in love with or proud of because we have to deliver and we need to pay the mortgage. We take so little time for ourselves and our own development because we need to focus on this thing we’re building, on this illusion of the future.

But we also have an opportunity to take it all back. To realize that this is all we have. To choose to work with people, and do projects, that make us come alive. Projects that let us experience flow. Projects that make us feel valued and pride.

We can choose to follow our purpose and craft things that we believe the world needs. And if we choose to follow these things–real connections, flow, and purpose–well then we can also be fully present and enjoy the journey. We can love most of the minutes of what we do. Of course it won’t be perfect, there are always challenges, but challenges aren’t bad–they’re a critical part of growth and necessary for flow. The key is to cultivate a space where we love the challenges we have and where we, more often than not, can fully come alive.

There is no practice life. This is the real thing and most of us have only got 4108 weeks to make the most of it.

Our life is far too precious not to make it the greatest story we’ve ever told. And the world needs the stories we’re capable of telling.

“The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short. ”

— Abraham Maslow
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