|"Ground Swell" Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1939|
Summertime engages our senses. The world is vibrant with color: the green of grass, the rainbow of fruits and vegetables at a farm stand, the blue of the ocean meeting the sky at the horizon. The days are filled with the scent of humidity, tomatoes on the vine, the scent of ozone before a flash of lighting. Birds sing, waves break, the beat of radios and murmur of neighbors talking on the porch comes in the open windows. We wear less clothing to allow our skin to soak up the sun. We open ourselves to summer.
This symphony of the senses makes summertime the ideal time to restock the source of our creative juices. In this season of long light and slow heat, it is a perfect time to play, to explore and to inspire your creativity.
This is the fourth summer of weekly Creativity Challenges on The Paper Compass. For the next six weeks this summer, there will again be a theme to meditate on, a small task to fulfill, or a memory to be explored. Some challenges will take you to new places, others to past experiences, and all hopefully to a wealth of ideas to compile in your sketchbook or notebook. Consider it your season of creative harvest, abundant with ideas to delight your mind or spark an even greater artistic endeavor.
This summer we begin, inspired by one of the core values celebrated on Independence Day: The Pursuit of Happiness. Creativity and happiness are an interesting pair. As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in the Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, “… [C]reative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.”
Creatives, as agents of change, big and small, are driven. With this drive comes what author Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way calls The Critic. This negative (and untrue) voice can be a huge hurdle for creatives pursuing their happiness. The Critic is loud and eagerly points a finger at anything less than perfect, often keeping ideas from even arriving at their first destination: the blank page or the blank canvas.
But summertime, by any definition of perfection, is far from perfect. Summer is wild. It is extremes. It is a profusion of heat, bugs, sun, vegetation, and sand. It is the boisterous person at the party who sets off fireworks, turns up the radio, and pushes people in the pool. And this makes it the perfect time to give yourself some space away from The Critic in order to explore more of your creative happiness.
The interesting thing about happiness is that it is both a present state and a memory. Our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently as documented by Nobel Laureate and founder of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman. We don’t always experience happiness in the moment, but we often look back on an experience and our brain has categorized it as “happy.” If something ends on a happy note, we often remember the whole experience through rose colored glasses—even if we were bored silly, disgruntled or exhausted for the majority of the time. A five day vacation where it rained for four days and ended on one sunny day? Excellent! The 90 minute wait in an endlessly snaking line for a joyous ten minute ride at Disney World? Forgotten!
While science has proven the two kinds of happiness true, I need only to look to my own experience of being at the gym to see it in action. I have many happy memories of time spent on the elliptical watching the Food Network (oh, the irony!) or traveling to exotic locations vicariously through the Discovery Channel. Yet, when I am actually at the gym, in the heat of physical exertion, I promise you that happiness is the last emotion on my mind.
Exploring the two kinds of happiness in this summer creativity challenge allows us to identify things that make us happy in the moment (like petting a cat or reading on the back porch) and most importantly for creativity, the things that make us feel happy in retrospect (like having written this blog post). Both are important as one grounds us in time and the other helps us “do the work”; the work that makes our creativity and ideas a reality. The promise of happiness in the future is a huge motivator, but most importantly it is important to explore our pursuit of happiness. Being in pursuit of something means you are on a journey. If you watch carefully and observe the process of working on a creative endeavor, you may suddenly see more moments of happiness than you believed existed. And suddenly that blank page looks a lot more inviting.
This week, for Summer Creativity Challenge No.1, spend some time contemplating your own pursuit of happiness. Make a list of things that make you happy in the moment. Or observe very carefully the things that bring you happiness. Also, make a list of the things that you remember as being happy. Revisit them. What made you remember it as being a happy experience? Often you will discover themes rather than things or places or people are at the heart of happiness. What themes (such as travel, exploring, being outdoors, having long, intimate conversations) do you see in your memories of happiness? Are any a source for an Artist Date or Adventure? As always, document your thoughts in your sketchbook/notebook and share any thoughts or questions here on The Paper Compass.