An Experiment in Happiness

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Does creativity make us happy?

A month ago, renowned positive psychologist Chris Petersen said in an interview with Ben Dean of Mentor Coach that in the early days of his interest in researching happiness, he had kept a daily catalog of his activities on happy and unhappy days, to see what actually contributed to his own happiness.  Since I am always excited about a new list, I decided to keep my own spreadsheet for a month on my happy and less happy days, and what, by the end of a day, in my mind made it a happy one.  Chris Petersen said, to his surprise, that his own happiness depended on the completion of a task—that even finishing a big load of laundry was enough to make him happy.  Ben asked if working on his book didn’t make him happier than doing the laundry. Chris replied, “Not really.  I just like finishing things.”

Well, here I am, thirty days later, and it was certainly an interesting way of looking at your life. Usually, I am focused on my writing, my job, my family and friends, what I’m making for dinner, what’s on TV, what I have to read, etc.  Sitting down at the end of the day, assessing how you feel, and just listing what you’ve done, turns out to be a fascinating personal exercise.   

But just finishing things didn’t do it for me.  I had one highly virtuous day of housekeeping, finishing everything from the laundry to washing the kitchen floor, which left me completely cranky at the end. 

What did do it for me was working on something I consider creative. Which might be this blog, or a short story, or song lyrics, or working on my novel.  Every day I did something creative, I ended the day happy, even if it was a difficult day in other ways, and even if I couldn’t get too far with what I was doing. 

The other thing that worked for me was doing absolutely nothing–throwing the To Do list and all my projects out the window for the day and just ordering Chinese for dinner and reading or watching TV—or playing my favorite new video word game, Word Mole.

Despite my love of solitude, days when I spoke to people I care about tended to be happier, a lesson for the creative introverts and hermits of the world.

Of course, understanding what makes you happy and acting on it are two different things, which is one reason why the field of positive psychology is so popular right now.  But I now know that if I spend even fifteen minutes sitting down and writing a few words, my whole day is happier—it’s like a free painkiller with no bad side effects.  

Whether your key to happiness turns out to be finishing the laundry or polishing your prose, it might be fun to take a few minutes at the end of the day for the next month (or even week) and find out.  I’m guessing that for you, like me, it might be taking a photograph, or painting a landscape, or finding just the right chord to end a song.  Of course, it’s important not to confuse personal happiness with external approval or success—but that is a blog for another day.


10 Responses to An Experiment in Happiness

  1. Eric Ember says:

    The Dormouse was right! Feed your head. Feed your head.(and the occasional chinese carry out, word mole of course) By the way, do you play WWF?

    • deborahatherton says:

      I don’t even know what WWF is, so I am guessing I don’t play it. But I am good with the occasional Chinese take out!

  2. Great post, Deborah. I enjoy the feeling of getting tasks done, probably because it seems like such an amazing accomplishment for this unstructured person. So, cleaning out closets and drawers, donating the good stuff or throwing out the junk, etc. all feels good to me. However, making progress in my novel or writing a blog post takes it to a much higher level. That’s when I really get a buzz.

    As much as I enjoy relaxing and kicking back, if I haven’t accomplished something for the day first, I end up with a bit of guilt mixed in with my fun. I need to work on that.

    • deborahatherton says:

      Somehow writers and other artists always feel like they don’t really deserve a day off – and we do, really do! I think we ALL need to work on it!

      • Richard says:

        Not a problem I suffer with, I confess. I totally deserve days off and will freely embrace the idea. I can feel guilty sometimes if I had planned to get something done and then slack off, but if I plan to do nothing I see it through with utter dedication and enjoy.

        Interesting post, Deborah.

      • deborahatherton says:

        Richard – you are a model for us all! Plus I’m really loving your new posts over at – I’m going to take an afternooon off and rent Hugo this weekend!

  3. Love the post, Deborah. I’m diligently working through a second read of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. My memory may be playing tricks on me (if this doesn’t check out, I’ll try to remember to get back with a correction) but I seem to recall that research suggests a correlation between creativity and happiness but causation is thought to be the reverse: happiness prompts creativity. [Can’t paragraph on an IPad; maddening!] As the the dormouse, I always thought he said ‘Be a head.’ Which most of my generation believed could make one very happy.

    • deborahatherton says:

      The happiness and creativity thing is tricky – Chris Petersen cited that research, too, that the happier people are, the more creative they are able to be. And yet – we all know that it’s a complicated issue. People totally and happily absorbed in their creative work can be oblivious to the rest of the world, which is not necessarily conducive to the happiness of those around them. And contrarily, some of the greatest works of literature have been written by sad or depressed people. But were they happy while writing? Lots of questions!

  4. Leslie Zeigler says:

    Hi Deborah,

    I love this post and will have to try keeping a list to see what makes me happy.. I am sure it will not be about doing the dishes, the laundry and any other housekeeping task. Leslie

    • deborahatherton says:

      You’re right,somehow I don’t see you as a “happy the laundry is finished” person. You will have to share what does make you happy!

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