Saturday, June 18, 2005

Happiness, Truth and the Writing Life

The poverty-stricken, tubercular artist is a popular motif. Add a drafty Parisian garret and you have the career ambitions of countless creative writing students throughout North America. I say it's time we threw that stereotype out the window like a pail of medieval slop.

Personally, I've been hampered too long by the notion that the best writing comes through those who suffer and that meaningful work must hit you like a Depression-era photo by Dorothea Lange.

I love Dorothea Lange. I also love wit and whimsy.

I want it all. I want life with its horror and its brilliance laid out before me in a crisp, clear font. I want to take my love of language and use it not to escape from the world but to feel more alive, more attuned to this wild, precious life.

I have often struggled to express the joy that writing brings, not just the pride or satisfaction but the visceral pleasure, the keen emotion.

I have often questioned what makes a writer a writer. Is it an act of self-declaration? A vocation? A calling? Why do we do it?

I was recently steered towards the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, whose pioneering research in the field of positive psychology may provide some answers.

I'm especially interested in his studies on authentic happiness, which demonstrate that our present happiness relies on a mix of pleasures, engagement and meaning.

These include bodily pleasures and so-called higher pleasures like rapture, comfort or glee.

Engagement or gratification occurs when we do the things we enjoy, when our inhibitions slip away and we find ourselves in the flow, when the pen slides effortlessly across the page and the six-foot crater in the middle of our plot becomes a verdant forest.

Finally, it turns out our day-to-day happiness grows when there is meaning to our lives, when we draw on our signature strengths and apply them to something larger than ourselves like parenting, work or purpose.

Interested? You can find out what your signature strengths are--and how to make the most of them--at