The Happiness Dilemma

Last Sunday, I plopped onto the couch, curled up into the lap of a man I love, and did absolutely nothing but watch documentaries from morning to night while eating ice cream, laughing hysterically, and pausing for extremely necessary sex breaks. It was glorious. I felt happy and dizzy and blissed out. My joy bubbled up from brain stem to crown and left me smiling and slightly lobotomized in its wake. But somewhere, in the pit of my stomach, a familiar twinge of worry began to blossom. A faint notion of guilt for spending a day doing nothing other than resting and being happy crept across my toes and made me shiver.

Was I losing my edge?

It’s a fear that likes to creep in and wreck my most euphoric dreams. As a lifelong artist, I’ve always found it easier to create when I’ve got an arrow in my side, a bone to pick, or a fresh wound to show the world. For me, happiness has always been the most difficult state from which to compose, a locked room filled with glitter and flowers and pink pillows with nothing of interest to write about.

Why is it that romantic relationships are so quick to pull us out of our egoic little nests of pain? And why is it so difficult to make good art from that place of contentment?

I find that most art, my own included, comes out of a desire to transform deep human longing into something of use and substance. Something that can hold a stranger’s hand through the dark void and make them (and perhaps the writer in turn) feel a little less alone. This innate human longing is, itself, dulled and obstructed when we enter into the rush of buzzy relationship energy that comes whenever we find a new match.

I think the guilt comes out of the fear that perhaps this new love will ruin us, and we are no longer worthy of the art we were making only moments ago. We begin to miss the familiar loop of pain, creation, and mutual understanding that artists can often fall into. Perhaps, whether we admit it or not, we are ashamed of the happy version of ourselves and afraid that she will not be able to produce anything of substance without a parade of shadows drawing it out of her.

In an odd way, the self-harm cycle feels good. It wraps us in a familiar cloak of adrenaline, woven out of the false notion that we’ll never be good enough. This can drive us to mania, pressing the metaphorical blade against our skin again and again in hopes that words might flow out. It’s exhausting and invigorating, digging ourselves into dark pits so that we might climb back out towards the light and emerge redeemed. It’s a tornado running on the fumes of our own self-loathing.

It needs to stop.

Finding the balance between pleasure, good art, and self-flagellation is a necessary step on the path of any artist with longevity. It’s a path that I am only now learning how to walk, and most days, I crawl.

Rainer Maria Rilke said, “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.”

I feel in my heart that Rilke is right. We are forever individuals, even at our most tethered. I believe that it is possible to have it all – the creative whirlwind and the steady home – if careful boundary setting and a deep commitment to listening and conscious action can coexist.

When we create space and adhere to the notion that infinite distances will always exist between us and our partners, we allow room for discovery and innovation. We neglect to smother ourselves in a façade of comfort and begin to align with some of the necessary tools for creativity that came more easily when we were single. Self-flagellation aside, we learn to conjure room for our mad genius to flex.

Innovation experts will say that the mind needs space to do its best work. I think this is true both in and out of relationships. Only, when we’re nestled in the warm cocoon of a lover’s embrace, it can be difficult to remember or even desire to take a step back from time to time. Our art needs us to stand on our own two feet with frequency to survive.

Perhaps this is a good moment to mention that even taking a Sunday to do “nothing” with my partner allowed my mind to wander in ways it ordinarily wouldn’t when faced with work, deadlines, and social media. It proved creatively invaluable. In the middle of my lazy afternoon, I stumbled right into a deep conversation about career goals, the creative process, and how best to present myself in professional settings. It was the kind of brainstorming that would never come to fruition if I hadn’t pressed pause for many hours.

I’m not calling for a utopian end to suffering or a moratorium on art derived from sadness and loss. Rather, I think that when we set boundaries and dedicate time to our most precious pursuits, we create the space necessary to individuate and hold fast to our own deeply important work. We can embrace the seed of a new love while carving out the room required to bash our head against a wall until something of use comes out.

Learning to trust time has become invaluable to me as I’ve gotten older. In my 20s, my anxiety at not completing enough pages or not being able to see my lover for a full two weeks might have left me aching and uncomfortable on the bedroom floor.

These days, I do my best to zoom out, examine my past, and recognize that novels are not written in a mere month and that allowing for large windows of time apart can often be the healthiest thing for people who wish to create a multi-decade relationship.

The human mind is terrible at large numbers and big-picture ideology. I challenge myself to smash that reality.

In the end, creation needs forward motion and new ideas to fuel its flame. Relationships need care and loving contentment to blossom into their fullest potential for joy. Somehow, the two must coexist without ending in a gruesome duel.

Life is both long and unconscionably short at the same time. We need to learn to lean in, to trust its length, and to take breaks when we need them. Not doing so will stifle our ability to think, and nothing glimmers when we smother our creative spark.

I believe that when we accept the need for space in every artist’s life, we can find joy in addition to rather than instead of making good art. I’ve seen it first hand.

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