Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The "Happy vs. Interesting" Dichotomy of Genius

Penelope Trunk's "Is Your Life Happy or Interesting?" test is, I would say, equal parts bullshit and pop psychology.  (For those of you who think "bullshit" and "pop psychology" are synonymous, allow me to say that there are aspects of pop psychology that may be useful to people with absolutely no people skills.)  What I find interesting about it, however, is the not-so-subtle implication that a person may be either happy or interesting but by no means both.  While I don't really know what "$20 eyebrows and $70 eyebrows" has to do with this, I think it naturally leads to the question of whether a person who is happy is at all capable of creating something interesting.

I've discussed the idea of "genius" before, mostly because I'm fascinated by the assumptions we have about it.  In the 1800s it involved tuberculosis, in the 1900s it involved drug use.  Since its cultural inception, it has generally been preceded by the word "tortured."  I've read of artists who were deemed somehow less "artistic" when they went on anti-depressants, despite the fact that the quality of their art (from their point of view) changed very little. 

There are also theories that happiness dampens progress, that the lack of depression slows creativity by way of indolence and complacency.   Books such as "The Happiness Project" teach readers how to find what the author calls "ordinary happiness," simultaneously implying that reaching for anything other than the ordinary will lead to disappointment.  Yet despite these assumptions, isn't it possible that creativity (or "interestingness," I guess Trunk would call it) can be borne out of happiness?  That happiness can, in fact, inspire creativity or genius?  Why do we always assume that it is the drunks and the addicts and the manic depressives who are most creative?

On the other hand, of course, I don't know many people who I would classify as "genii" (is that the plural of genius?), so it's hard to tell one way or the other how their emotional states play into their creative drives.

Further Reading:
Defining Genius
The Death of Genius

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